It was the name of the festival that seduced me. I wondered who would choose the word ‘nyam’ for such an exclusive event: The NyamJam Jamaican Food & Music Festival at the GoldenEye resort. The entrance fee made it clear that this was not a jam for people who normally use the word ‘nyam’. In fact, if you were the type of person who loves to nyam, you probably wouldn’t fit in.
The opening event on Friday, November 13 was billed as the ‘Fleming Villa Dinner hosted by Chris Blackwell and Mario Batali’. The cost was US$250 per person. This, I suppose, is modest by some people’s standards. If you were a guest at GoldenEye, you wouldn’t think twice about it. And the maestro Ernest Ranglin was performing. I would have loved to hear him.
On Saturday, there was the NyamJam Culinary & Music Bazaar. It offered “20 booths from local and international chefs, speciality purveyors and Jamaican artisans showcasing their handcrafted works and wares”. The entrance fee was US$150 for adults and US$50 for children under 12. Angelique Kidjo, one of my all-time favourite artists, was headlining the jam. So I contacted the festival press office and arranged for a pass to cover the bazaar.
The big event of the festival was a five-course Celebrity Chef dinner on Saturday night, which cost US$350. That ticket allowed you to attend the bazaar. My press pass didn’t include dinner. But I didn’t mind. As a vegetarian, I didn’t expect much. It would take a lot of nyamming to get my money’s worth if I’d bought a ticket.
NOTHING NUH GO SO
I was amused to see on the NyamJam website that “[t]he name is derived from the local Patois for ‘snack’, which is nyam.” Of course, nothing nuh go so. But soon it will become ‘fact’! There’s actually an October 8 Observer story, ‘Setting the Stage for NyamJam’, which uses nyam with this new meaning.
Reporting on the launch of the festival in New York, the Lifestyle writer enthuses: “The group socialised over rum punch cocktails by Bacardi, Red Stripe beer and a selection of nyams … .” So there you have it. A nyam is really and truly a snack. How we love to imitate our imitators!
So what does the word nyam actually mean? And where does it come from? The Dictionary of Jamaican English informs us that “the source is multiple: both verb (eat) and noun (food, or specific foods) existed in a number of W[est] Afr[ican] languages, and many were bought to Ja[maica]”.
Some of these languages are Hausa, Efik, Fula and Twi. The dictionary confirms that the “resulting multiplicity has in the course of time become sorted out so that, in general, NYAM is the verb, NINYAM a noun (food), and NYAAMS a specific food (YAM).
For me, the best of the chefs were the Rousseau sisters, Suzanne and Michelle. Their food was ninyam fi true: rundown, turned cornmeal, pick-up salt fish, baked dumplings, pickled herring, fried breadfruit, roasted eggplant, coconut chips and crispy corned pork with green bananas. I got a vegetarian version of that dish which originated with the Maroons.
Suzanne proudly told me that they wanted to highlight local dishes that do not usually appear in fancy restaurants: the delicious staples in Jamaica and across the Caribbean. The Rousseau sisters lived in Trinidad so their mix of foods reflects their sophisticated cross-cultural palate. Another big hit at the bazaar was Stush in the Bush, owned by Lisa and Christopher Binns. Their condiments are superb.
Some of the patrons who paid the US$150 entrance fee were not all that happy. They had expected to do more nyamming. The small Styrofoam plates used by all the chefs ensured that nobody could nyam dem out. And lots of little bits of this and that don’t usually add up to a satisfying meal. You just run the risk of getting colic. And talking about Styrofoam, I was surprised that GoldenEye resorted to this ecologically unfriendly material.
Even for the patrons who were disappointed with the ‘nyams’, the musical jam was definitely filling. As one man said, Angelique Kidjo’s performance was worth 80 of his 150 dollars. Much better than the Jazz and Blues Festival, he added. NyamJam does have the potential to be a big tourist attraction. And it was widely promoted in the US media: Vanity Fair, Departures, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, The Miami Herald, Caribbean Journal. And even in India – The Economic Times.
All the same, there weren’t that many bodies on the ground. I would guess well under a thousand. One of the sponsors of NyamJam was the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). I wondered how the level of support for this new festival compares to that for long-established brands like Rebel Salute, which attracts a massive local and international audience.
NyamJam is a very good concept: eating Jamaican. And especially in these times of austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund, we must nyam what we produce. Unfortunately, the word nyam has negative connotations.
The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that it means “To eat, esp[ecially] roughly or voraciously. (The word has never been an elegant one; its natural use today marks the most conservative speakers).” Nyamming has gone upmarket at GoldenEye. What a thing!