For an island that’s only slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, Jamaica has a surprisingly wide range of native foods. The country sits in a microclimate that promotes the bountiful growth of coffee, sugarcane, cocoa, and plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, helping Jamaica form a cuisine full of bold spices, fresh ingredients, and delicious flavor combinations.
Adding to this natural abundance, a long history of outside influence has resulted in many of the country’s most unique dishes, including cassava cakes from the Taíno Indians, pickled fish from the Spanish, curried flavors from East India, and a dash of sweet-and-sour spice from the Chinese. The mingling of cultures continues to this very day, where you can find fusion restaurants willing to put twists on old classics to make dishes like yam croquettes and gungo pea gnocchi.
We’ve compiled a list of dishes unique to the island, ones that you’ll probably find on every menu. Let the following be your guide to the diversity of Jamaican foods; you’ll find exactly what you’ve been craving amidst the pineapple fields, coconut trees, winding dirt roads, and mountain breezes.
Meats You Can’t Eat Anywhere Else
“Jerk” chicken likely comes to mind before anything else when people think of food from the sunshine island. Jerk is a method of slow-cooking thick pieces of meat and grilling them over pimento wood to give them a nice smoky flavor. Then, they’re rubbed and marinated in some of the world’s hottest spices, mainly the island’s signature Scotch Bonnet pepper. The dish originated from Jamaica’s Maroon population – descendants of runaway slaves from the colonial days – and can be found everywhere from roadside shacks to more luxurious and high-scale restaurants like the ones in the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall Resort.
Ackee and Saltfish
This is Jamaica’s national dish, a one-pot mixture of fish and fruit (think more like tomatoes and avocados than apples and oranges). The ackee reached Jamaica from Ghana in the late 1700s when it was discovered how delicious it was when paired with saltfish (the Jamaican name for cod). By cooking the two in a pot with tomatoes, onions, and spices, the salty tang of the fish was found to perfectly balance the buttery texture and mild taste of the fruit.
Like a meat pie from the Britain of Dickens novels, but with much more flavor and a bit of a kick, this pastry is made up of a flaky outer crust that surrounds a juicy inner stuffing of meat, vegetables, or fish. There are many different flavors, so it’s easy to find one that’s your favorite and chances are you’ll find a version of the patty on any menu. You’ll find locals are split down the middle as to which is the greatest patty restaurant in Montego Bay; it’s either Tastee’s, or it’s Juici’s, depending on who you ask.
Technically, it’s “curried goat,” but this is how you’ll hear the locals saying it. It’s as simple as the name implies, but there is a “bone-in” aspect to this dish — it keeps the meat tender and succulent. Keeping bones in may not be customary in European and American curries, but it can be quite common in other countries. It’s not a bad thing, but you should be careful you don’t bite into one of the bones by accident.
There is a special mixture of spices Jamaicans use to flavor certain meats that results in dishes described as “escovitch-style.” A combination of the Scotch Bonnet and cane vinegar, this style is paired best and most often with the flavor profile of the red snapper. The result is a sort of spicy ceviche — delicious!
This popular one-pot dish is full of fish and vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, and yam, all cooked in coconut milk until the whole thing breaks down into tender pieces — hence the “run down.”
A pickled fish pâté served commonly as an appetizer, Solomon Grundy is served in bites along with crackers. It can be very addictive so be careful not to spoil your dinner!
Veggies, Breads, and Side Dishes
Named for its resemblance to the tam-o’-shanter hats worn traditionally by Scottish men, this pepper is the key to nearly every Jamaican dish. The pepper is used in all jerk and escovitch dishes, along with almost any other Jamaican meal. A close relative to the habanero, this pepper is one of the world’s hottest; for example, using the Scoville scale — a method designed to measure the heat of food — a jalapeno has about 8,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), while the Scotch Bonnet can register anywhere from 350,000 to 800,000 SHUs. You might want to try to build your heat tolerance before the trip. You wouldn’t want to miss all the delicious flavors of Jamaica on behalf of the spice.
The festival is one of the most popular side dishes in Jamaica, a delicious cornbread dumpling that, according to legend, was created by a fisherman near Kingston and named after the happy festivals that brought joy to his community. It’s the perfect complement to the spiciness of the jerk, and a welcome balance for the many meat and veggie dishes you’ll have during your stay.
This simple flatbread is another heavenly pairing with any spicy dish. Made from the cassava root, also known as yuca, it originates from the culture of the Taíno Indians that lived in the Caribbean before European contact. The root is flattened into a patty, soaked in coconut milk, and fried to perfection.
Callaloo is a leaf-vegetable dish similar to steamed spinach, but with a much more complex profile and way more flavor. Traditional, historic, and found all over the Caribbean, the veggies used here are typically amaranth, taro, and xanthosoma — exotic, yet delicious.
Rice and Peas
Another perfect pairing with jerk to cool down your mouth, this dish is so close to being exactly what it sounds like. While the rice is what you’d expect, “peas” are actually what Jamaicans call a type of bean, similar to a kidney bean. Cooked with coconut milk (as most things are in Jamaica), imagine the red beans and rice you’d find in New Orleans, but with a tropical twist.
While the plantain is not exclusive to Jamaica, it’s as prevalent a snack there as anywhere else in the Caribbean. Whether fried, boiled, or as chips, these go great with a Red Stripe, and are a welcome addition to any Jamaican plate.
An interesting looking fruit that resembles a large spiky pear, this fruit has a thin skin surrounding large, inedible seeds, but the soft and sweet flavor of the juice makes the effort worthwhile. Similar to a lychee, but less fragrant.
Wash it Down with a Drink
No Jamaican excursion is complete without a bit of rum. The two varieties to look out for are the J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum, and the Appleton VX, both owned by the same people. The J. Wray is the original Jamaican rum, but be careful — there’s a high 63% alcohol content, so you’ll be feeling like Jack Sparrow before long if you’re not careful. The Appleton VX is for those who want a little less burn in their throat, and tastes like the perfect blend of spice, sugar, and kick.
Blue Mountain Coffee
Coffee is Jamaica’s most abundant crop, and you’ll need a caffeine boost if you’re going to take in everything Jamaica has to offer. The Blue Mountains of the island yield some of the world’s best-tasting coffee, which gets its delicious creaminess from the air quality of the higher altitudes.
The Budweiser of Jamaica. One of the country’s most famous exports, you’ll find it’s readily available in the States, but don’t pass up your chance to get the juice straight from the vine.
Don’t Let Your Taste Buds Miss This
If you’d like to take a delicious food tour like the one Jamaica has to offer, be sure to push your hard work through the end of the year so you can qualify for the Dream Destination Conference in Montego Bay from April 19th through the 23rd in 2020. Don’t miss your chance to taste Jamaica, escovitch-style.