I was first introduced to the notion of “Jamaican Beef Patties” as a ten-year-old, while living in the Virgin Islands. Brightly-colored, impromptu roadside stands made of galvanized roofing and featuring only one or two giant kettles made from the bottoms of 55-gallon drums as the only cooking instruments, where you could buy a beef patty (inexplicably pronounced like “paté,” by the locals) for just two dollars. West Indian-style Beef Patties were deep-fried, like a donut or fritter, flaky, and filled with a saucy, spicy, utterly delicious ground beef or shredded goat filling.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when I moved to Brooklyn in my early twenties, and was confronted with the corner deli version of “Jamaican Beef Patties.” Though they shared a name, these convenience snacks had no resemblance to the beef patties of my memory. These were small, previously frozen hard yellow pucks, chalky on the teeth, and filled with no more than a spit of the gamiest, driest, lowest-quality beef. Often, they were displayed in the cooler, and would be heated to order in a pizza oven, which only seemed to make them worse. The tops would collapse in a pool of orange grease, revealing the depressing insides, that would sometimes be (rather in-authentically) filled with mozzarella cheese, in addition to the ground beef filling. Based on the beef patties I had enjoyed in the islands as a child, I knew that something had been lost in translation. Though I hadn’t been to Jamaica, and though I learned much later that the two styles of beef patty were very different, it still didn’t seem possible that these sad little pastry pucks could rise to the level of national dish. I scratched them off my list of possible lunch items, and moved on with my life.
Until, that is, I made Jamaican beef patties myself, in my own home. Suddenly, I understood what this dish must actually be like, when thoughtfully prepared in a Jamaican kitchen. Instead of little dense wads of crumbly dough, making them yourself reveals their true nature: little flaky turmeric-dyed and curry-flavored empanadas, or turnovers, filled with sweat-inducing spicy meat spiked with habanero peppers. They’re a celebration of colonialism, where Indian spices mingle with Caribbean heat and create a totally new type of cuisine. They’re cheap, filling, and stunningly delicious…and you owe it to yourself to try them, to change your whole mindset about this “Jamaican Beef Pattie” business.
Jamaican Beef Patties
Adapted from a recipe in the New York Times. Makes 12 patties.
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- 1 1/2 cups cold vegetable shortening (about 12 ounces)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 scallions, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 habanero chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 teaspoons thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Mix flour, salt, turmeric and curry powder in a large bowl. Add chilled vegetable shortening rub together with flour using your fingertips. When shortening has been chopped into small, flour-covered balls, add 1/2 cup of ice water and mix with your hands. Keep adding ice water, several tablespoons at a time, until mixture forms a slightly sticky dough. Knead for two minutes, divide in half, wrap in plastic, and chill in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.
- In a deep skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add scallions, onion, garlic, and habanero pepper. Cook, stirring until softened. Add paprika, allspice, and cayenne, tossing to coat vegetables. Add beef and thyme, breaking up and large pieces with a wooden spoon, and brown lightly. Add enough water to just cover meat, and simmer, uncovered, until liquid is reduced to a sauce, about 30 minutes. Remove from meat and set aside to cool.
- Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove one half of dough from refrigerator and divide it in half. Roll out one half on a lightly floured surface until large enough to cut three circles, each about 6 inches across. (Use the rim of a bowl turned upside down as a guide.) Repeat with remaining dough, setting aside the circles.
- Place two tablespoons of filling on lower half of one circle. Dip a finger into water and moisten the edge of the dough. Fold the top half over, pulling dough over filling and pressing edge lightly with your fingers. Crimp edge with a fork and transfer to nonstick baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Bake about 25 minutes, until top crust is firm and golden.