Recipe Spotlight

Jamaican Pepper Steak: Fusion Cooking at Its Best

There’s no clearer snapshot of Jamaican Chinese cooking than pepper steak: the beef-and–bell pepper stir-fry lavished with heady seasonings and brown gravy.

Published Feb. 6, 2023.

Jamaica’s melting pot culture is second nature to me and anyone else who grew up there, but it shows itself off in certain circumstances. Airports around the holidays, for example, are places to see islanders of every ilk, particularly Jamaican Chinese, making their way home and chatting in a familiarly vivacious patois. So are island groceries, many of which are still run by descendants of the laborers brought from China to the Caribbean during the 19th century. And home and restaurant kitchens are not only the nucleus of this cultural fusion but also where it continues to evolve most clearly.

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Take pepper steak. The framework of this beef‑and–bell pepper stir-fry is classically Chinese: strips of meat and colorful vegetables cooked fast and seasoned with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. But those seasonings have also become Jamaican pantry staples. Many of the stir-fry’s other key components, such as allspice (also known as “Jamaica pepper”), thyme, and Scotch bonnet chiles, are unmistakably Jamaican, as is the abundance of brown gravy that gets poured over white rice or the island’s iconic rice and peas. And like any fusion dish, cooks tweak it to taste, often weaving in flavors or techniques from other well-loved preparations. That’s exactly what I’ve done here.

Jamaica Is a Melting Pot Cuisine

When Jamaica Kitchen caters parties, the orders almost always include Chinese roast chicken. The mom-and-pop institution in Miami, run by Jamaican Chinese husband-and-wife team Anson and Cheryl Chin, prepares the bird a bit sweet, with plum sauce, so it’s a crowd-pleaser. It also happens to pair perfectly with Jamaican classics such as curry goat and jerk meats. 

“Jamaicans are used to having all this Chinese food right in the mix,” said Cheryl, who was born and raised on the Caribbean island and joined Anson at his family’s restaurant in the 1980s. 

The menu’s fusion is natural, rooted in the island nation’s complicated racial history—when slavery was abolished in the mid-1800s, laborers from China were brought to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. With them came ingredients such as soy sauce, which is now a Jamaican pantry staple. 

“Literally everything with a brown gravy in Jamaica is going to have soy sauce,” said Cheryl. “It’s become part of the mainstream.”

So, too, has Jamaica’s multiculturalism, and the cuisine reflects that. At Jamaica Kitchen, customers opt for fried rice with their oxtail stew. There are fusion dishes such as gravy-drenched pepper steak, and innovations like the jerk pork fried rice. 

“Our motto is ‘out of many, one people,’” Chin said of the Jamaican proverb. “It’s such a mix.” –Elizabeth Bomze

Stir-Fry Strategy

Pepper steak is part of so many meal routines that many Jamaican markets sell the meat—usually a flavorful cut such as strip or flank steak—presliced. I cut a strip steak into thin pieces and briefly soaked them in a baking soda solution, a handy trick that raises the meat’s pH so it cooks up succulent. Then I marinated the beef in a mix of soy sauce and cornstarch, a low-effort facsimile of traditional Chinese velveting that seasoned the beef and gave it a silky protective coat.

What Puts the Pepper in Pepper Steak?

Jamaican pepper steak really lives up to its name—but not in a particularly spicy or pungent way. In a classic rendering of the dish such as this one, there are four ingredients called “pepper,” but they are four different species that offer a wide range of flavor, texture, and color. 

Scotch Bonnet chile: Fiery and fruity

Squat and bulbous like the tam-o’-shanter hat that it’s named for, this ubiquitous Caribbean crop lashes with capsaicin, the main compound that makes chiles hot, and leaves a lingering hint of fruitiness.

Black Peppercorns: Stinging, pungent burn

Piperine, the chief compound in these wrinkly dried berries, burns with a gentle tingle.

Bell pepper: Mild and crisp

All bell peppers are mellow and crunchy, but using a mix of colors delivers a range of sweet (red, yellow) and sharp, grassy (green) flavors. 

Jamaica Pepper: Warm, woodsy, sharp

Pepper is a misnomer here: Jamaica pepper, which Columbus dubbed “pimenta” but which is commonly called “allspice” in English, is the dried berry of an evergreen tree in the myrtle family that grows abundantly in the Caribbean and Central America. It’s warm, not spicy, and adds roundness to this and other Jamaican classics. 

From there, it was simply a matter of stir-frying strategically and balancing the seasonings in the gravy. I batch-seared the beef in a nonstick skillet (carbon-steel works, too) not only because it’s a more accessible alternative to a deep, curvy Jamaican Dutch pot, but also because its roomier surface area meant that the meat wouldn’t be overcrowded and steam instead of brown. There was some nice fond on the bottom of the pan, which I deglazed with a bit of rum—a classic component in curry goat that I thought would boost the sauce’s complexity—and set that liquid aside with the beef. Then I got the pan smoking hot and blistered the bell pepper strips, scallions, and aromatics: garlic, crushed allspice berries (more fragrant than ground; not as jarring to bite as whole), ginger, fresh thyme, and minced Scotch bonnet chile.

It’s All Gravy

The foundation of pepper steak gravy—of almost any Jamaican gravy—is browning sauce, the burnt brown sugar syrup that cooks buy by the bottle and add by the spoonful to countless dishes for its color and bittersweet base note. It’s not widely sold in the United States, though, so cooks often mimic its effect with oyster sauce. I like that: Quite a few Jamaicans keep oyster sauce on hand, and it adds even more umami depth; I enhanced its effect by adding Worcestershire sauce and by swapping the all-purpose soy sauce in the marinade for the heavier, more caramel-y dark kind.

The Grind Is Worth It

To get the full benefit of allspice’s warm, woodsy profile, be sure to coarsely crush whole berries with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder just before cooking. Doing so releases compounds that deliver a big punch of aroma and flavor—but those compounds are volatile and dissipate over time, which is why freshly ground spices are much more flavorful than commercially preground. 

I whisked the oyster and Worcestershire sauces into a couple cups of beef broth, the liquid base for the gravy; seasoned the mix with sugar, onion and garlic powders, and black pepper; and stirred in more cornstarch for body. It reduced to a medium nappe after just a few minutes of simmering, at which point I added back the meat and vegetables and gave it a stir. 

My tweaks added up to a stir-fry that truly represented Jamaican Chinese synergy: bright, crisp vegetables; tender steak; and a glossy, meaty, aromatic gravy that I ladled generously over rice.

Rich brown gravy, seasoned with soy and oyster sauces, herbs, spices, and chiles, is a hallmark of pepper steak.

Jamaican Pepper Steak

There's no clearer snapshot of Jamaican Chinese cooking than pepper steak: the beef-and–bell pepper stir-fry lavished with heady seasonings and brown gravy.
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