The Pure, Earthy Richness of a Beloved Jamaican Fish Stew

Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth.

How did a dish so humble earn so many names? First among them is “rundown,” which describes how it’s cooked: an earthy Jamaican stew of fish and vegetables in coconut milk, simmered until much of the liquid steams off and what’s left is pure richness. The same word as an adjective would suggest something gone to seed and near ruin. Is it a sly wink, then, that here we find the opposite, abundance on the table, with every ingredient coaxed into a better version of itself?

And this is just the dish’s most common name. Rundown “has more aliases than any other food I’ve encountered,” the British writer Riaz Phillips notes in his cookbook “West Winds: Recipes, History and Tales from Jamaica.” These include, as listed in Frederic G. Cassidy and Robert Brock Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English, “dip-dip,” “dip-and-come-back” and “duck-and-shake-back,” since traditionally diners scoop up the stew with various sides (boiled dumplings, green bananas); “long road,” “round-the-road” and “elbow-grease,” for how much stirring it demands; and the delightful “swimmer-down,” perhaps in homage to the fish, wallowing in the pan.

What is this profusion of names but a way to make art of the everyday, revealing how fine the line is between poet and cook?

If rundown’s identities are multiple, its origins, too, cannot quite be pinned down. In researching the 2022 cookbook “Motherland,” the British writer Melissa Thompson, whose grandparents emigrated from Jamaica to England in 1956, studied accounts from the 18th century of the island’s enslaved population eating rations of salt fish in “pepper pots,” a term for spiced stews. (Salt fish, ubiquitous in the Caribbean, became known as West India cure.) Meat, considered more desirable, was largely reserved for plantation owners.

“So much of Jamaican food is resistance food,” Thompson told me. “It’s like, ‘We’ll take what you’re offering because we have to. But we’re going to make it amazing.’”

In this, the dish has kinship with American barbecue and French classics like coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, all testaments to the power of seasoning and steady, patient simmering to soothe and lull tough meats until they give up their knots and enter glory.

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