Food is a fun and insightful way to experience a new culture. Destinations that are a melting pot of cultures often have the strongest culinary game—Jamaica is no exception. I was blown away by the diversity of Jamaican cuisine. The island’s food tradition is influenced by African, Chinese, Indian, French, Spanish, Jewish and British flavours and cooking techniques. Here are some signature dishes you should try while travelling in Jamaica, to get taste of its rich culture and heritage.
Things to note
- Ingredient availability in Jamaica is highly seasonal, so don’t expect everything to be available all the time.
- Jamaicans love their spice! Those scotch bonnet peppers are powerful, they rate between 100,000-350,000 on the Scoville heat scale. For comparison, jalapeños sit in between 2,500 and 8,000. Proceed with caution.
- Food prices in Jamaica are similar to what you would find in the U.S. Don’t expect meals to be super cheap and budget accordingly.
- Tap water is generally safe to drink in urban regions of Jamaica but not so much in rural areas. If unsure, ask at your hotel.
A multicultural culinary history
Pre-Columbian Jamaica was inhabited by the Arawak Indians who grew callaloo, pawpaws, guava, maize, potatoes, peanuts, peppers and beans.
With the arrival of the Spanish colonists in 1509 came sugarcane, lemons, limes and coconuts (sounds like the basis of a good cocktail), along with pigs, cattle and goats. Among the Spanish settlers were those of Jewish faith who brought another influence to the table.
The Spanish also brought African slaves who added to the increasing diversity. The African’s were accompanied by ackee, okra, peas and beans of various types. When the Spanish were defeated by the English in 1655, yet another culture put their stamp on Jamaican cuisine.
After the slave trade was abolished Chinese and East Indian immigrants moved in and introduced their cooking traditions to the mix. Escaped slaves known as Maroons, developed “jerk” from their African heritage.
Finally, the Rastafarians concocted I-Tal, a vegan cuisine with no salt. All of this adds up to the rich and diverse Jamaican cuisine.
What to eat in Jamaica
Curry Goat, as referred to by local’s instead of “curried goat,” exhibits some of that Spanish imported livestock with spicy Indian influence. You get can just about anything curried in Jamaica but goat seems to be the most prevalent. As you travel around the island you will notice the bountiful main ingredient grazing on roadsides, sleeping on gravestones, devouring rubbish piles and fighting in the street. So eating goat is representative in more way than one.
Ackee and saltfish
My disclaimer on this dish is that I didn’t actually try it myself. The one time I ordered ackee and saltfish I was told it was out of season. I recommend this meal on the basis that it’s Jamaica’s national dish – do you need more than that? Saltfish (dried and salted cod) is combined with ackee (Jamaica’s national fruit) along with tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices. Ackee and saltfish is generally served as a breakfast dish and may be accompanied by breadfruit, boiled green bananas, fried plantains or hard dough bread.
Jerk chicken or pork
Jerked meat is said to have arrived in Jamaica via the West African Coromantee, brought to the island as slaves. Some of these slaves escaped and formed a community in hard to reach areas of the Blue Mountains, where they became known as the Maroons.
Using the locally available ingredients of Pimento (allspice), scallions, nutmeg, garlic, thyme and Jamaica’s signature scotch bonnet peppers the Maroons created the dish we know today. They used the herbs, spices and peppers to make a dry rub or paste that is applied to chicken or pork. The meat was cooked underground in pits long and slow, where smoke would not give away their position.
After the Maroons were granted their own land in 1720, tire pits were traded for an open flame, retaining the slow cooking time to achieve the same tenderness. Pimento wood fueled fires are favoured for the extra flavor they impart.
Where to try: Kool Vybes, Negril, and Pepperwood, Kingston
Ital or I-tal is vital without the “v.” It is the vegan cuisine of Rastafarians that follows a strict code including no salt. Common Ital ingredients include pumpkins, cassava, breadfruit, carrots, turnips, sweet potato, yams, onions, coconut milk, herbs and spices. A good Ital stew will satisfy even the most devoted carnivore. Ital food may work with a handful of ingredients but it is not short on flavour.
Where to try: Ras Rody’s, Negril
Patties are the Jamaican’s answer to a British meat pie. They are flaky pastry stuffed with stewed meat or vegetables and packed with the usual amount of flavour through the generous use of herbs and spices.
Where to try: Devon House Bakery, Kingston or any Juici Patties store
Common side dishes
Callaloo is a dark green leafy vegetable from the Amaranth family, which is commonly offered as a side dish in Jamaican cuisine. It is usually prepared by lightly steaming the leaves, then sautéed with salt, onions, scallions and spices. Basically, it’s your island equivalent of collard greens or spinach.
Rice and peas
This regularly served side is actually rice and red kidney beans but always referred to as rice and peas in Jamaica. I was surprised how tasty it was. The Jamaican secret is cooking it with coconut milk and seasoning.
Bammy is a flatbread made from cassava, a starchy root vegetable found in the tropics. The bread is best-eaten piping hot after it has been soaked in soaked in coconut milk and fried. Bammy is the legacy of the Arawak people, native to Jamaica.
Festival is comparable to a hush puppy or johnnycakes though sweeter. It’s a lightly fried dough made of cornmeal with an oval shape.
What to drink (or not) in Jamaica
You may know that some of the best coffee in the world is grown in the Blue Mountain area of Jamaica. What you probably don’t know is most of it is exported, and Jamaicans themselves tend to be more tea drinkers. Therefore, it’s harder than you think to get a good cup of barista-made coffee on the island.
Where to try: Café Blue, several locations, and Patsy’s, Negril for barista made coffee. Take a tour at Craighton Estate, Blue Mountains for a drop of the real deal straight from the plantation.
While Appleton may be the most internationally known Jamaican rum, J.Wray and Nephew is what is really drunk by the locals. W&N has a heritage dating back to 1825 and is what’s in that potent rum punch offered across the island.
Red Stripe was my husband’s beer of choice for Jamaica (I don’t drink beer). Red Stripe was first brewed in 1928 from a recipe developed by Paul H. Geddes, and Bill Martindale.
Jamaican cuisine is more flavourful and diverse than I ever imagined. The variety of cultural influences that have contributed to the melting pot, make it an outstanding culinary experience. Enjoy eating your way through the culture and history of Jamaica.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,