Jamaica residents have come from around the globe, bringing with them the cooking techniques, flavors, spices and recipes of their homelands and blending them with the bountiful harvest of this tropical island. The result is some of the most flavorful cuisine in the Caribbean.
The first Europeans on the island were Spanish. Many Spanish Jews also arrived here during Spanish rule, contributing dishes such as escovitch fish, a vinegary concoction that’s found on many homestyle menus.
In 1655, the Spanish lost Jamaica to England. That century, English influences developed the Jamaican pattie, a turnover filled with spicy meat that’s a favorite lunch snack with locals. It’s the equivalent of an island hamburger.
A century later, Chinese and East Indian influences made their way to Jamaica, when indentured laborers who replaced slaves after emancipation brought their own culinary talents. Today, curried dishes grace nearly every Jamaican menu, using local meats such as goat, chicken and seafood.
Here’s a look at the many dishes that fill Jamaican menus. Some of these are seen in tourist restaurants, while others are primarily home-cooked dishes, sometimes made for special holidays and events. Also see our recipes.
Ackee and saltfish - The national breakfast dish is ackee and saltfish. Ackee is cooked and looks (and tastes) much like scrambled eggs. You won’t find ackee for sale in the United States because it is poisonous until it’s ripe.
Bammy – This fried bread is made from cassava flour and is served with fried fish.
Blue drawers - See Duckanoo, below.
Bulla - A spicy bun.
Bun - A favorite Easter dish, bun is a spicy bread eaten with cheese.
Christmas cake (Black Cake or Fruit cake) - Visit a Jamaican home near the holiday season and, along with a glass of sorrel, you’ll be served Jamaican Christmas cake. This delicious confection includes raisins, cinnamon, cherries and, in some cases, prunes.
Coco bread – Ah, a warm, buttered piece of coco bread and a sandy beach… no one could ask for much more than that. This heavenly bread is best right out of the oven.
Corn pone – Cornmeal gives this pudding its name. It’s made with coconut, sugar and spices.
Cowcod soup – Another one of those infamous Jamaican aphrodisiacs, cowcod soup is usually sold at roadside stands and includes bananas, pepper and white rum.
Curried goat -You just don’t get any more Jamaican than curried goat. Look for it on any traditional island menu. It’s especially popular at festivals and parties.
Cut cake – This sweet cake is made with diced coconut and ginger toffee.
Duckanoo – The recipe for duckanoo was brought from Africa. This delicious dessert is made with cornmeal, coconut, spices and brown sugar, all of which are tied up in a banana leaf (hence its other names, Blue Drawers and Tie-A-Leaf) and slowly cooked in boiling water.
Escovitch - Escovitch is a style of cooking using vinegar, onions and spices brought to Jamaica by the Spanish Jews. In Jamaican grocery stores you can also find bottled escovitch sauce to make the preparation easier.
Escovitch fish - A contribution by the Spanish Jews who lived on the island nearly 500 years ago, this fried fish marinated with vinegar is a spicy way to enjoy the local catch.
Festival – This bread is frequently served with jerk and is similar to hush puppies.
Fish tea – This spicy soup looks and tastes much better than it sounds. Like a fish bouillon, this broth captures the taste of the sea. Watch out for fish bones when you eat this popular favorite.
Fritters – These deep-fried breads usually contain codfish or conch and are served as an appetizer.
Gizzada – A coconut tart.
Grater cake - Another confection made from grated coconut and sugar; usually pink and white.
Hard dough, or hard dough bread - Brought to Jamaica by the Chinese, hard dough bread has become a staple in homes today.
Ital food – Nope, it’s not Italian food but Ital (eye-tal). This is the food of the Rastafarians, a vegetarian cuisine that does not make use of salt. Look for the red, green and gold Rasta colors on dining establishments as a clue to locating Ital eateries, which are often quite small.
Jerk – The most popular dish in Jamaica is jerk. The main ingredient – pork, chicken or fish – is marinated with a fiery mixture of spices, including Scotch bonnet, a pepper that makes a jalapeño taste like a marshmallow, pimento or allspice, nutmeg and thyme. It’s all served up with even more hot sauce, rice and peas, and the wonderful festival bread (see above). Jerk is one of the ultimate Jamaican dishes, dating back to the island’s earliest days. The practice of cooking the meat over the flame was started by the Arawak Indians and then later seasoned up by the Maroons.
Johnny cake – Sometimes called journey cakes (since you could carry them along on your journey), these cakes are actually fried or baked breads. They’re a favorite accompaniment to saltfish.
Mannish water - This spicy soup is reportedly an aphrodisiac (along with many other Jamaican specialties). Mannish water is sometimes called power water, and is made from goats’ heads (some cooks include tripe and feet as well), garlic, scallions, cho-cho, green bananas, Scotch bonnet peppers and spinners. White rum is an optional ingredient. Often, men enjoy mannish water before drinking rum, but this item is a rarity on restaurant menus – it’s usually sold at roadside stands, along with roasted yam.
Matrimony – This dessert is available only near Christmas time. It’s made from purple star apples, which ripen in the winter.
Patties - The patty is to Jamaicans what the hamburger is to Americans. Ask any Jamaican and he’ll tell you his favorite patty stand. This fried pie is filled with either spicy meat or, occasionally, vegetables.
TIP:One Jamaican told us his favorite was Tastee Patties, sold throughout Jamaica. “They are the standard by which patties are judged,” the devotee swore.
Pepperpot soup - Pepperpot is indeed peppery, although the main ingredient is callaloo, which gives this island favorite its green color. Along with the spinach-like callaloo, the soup includes pig tails or salt pork (sometimes salt beef), coconut milk, okra and plenty of spices.
Pone - A pone is pudding.
Pumpkin soup – Caribbean pumpkins are not large and sweet like their American counterparts, but small and a favorite soup ingredient.
Red peas soup - Another one of Jamaica’s famous soups, this one is made from kidney beans, salted pig tails, beef and vegetables.
Rice and peas – This dish is found on just about every lunch and dinner plate and is sometimes nicknamed the Coat of Arms. It features rice and either peas or beans are cooked in coconut milk and spices (in Jamaica the preferred “pea” is the red kidney bean). “A home without rice and peas and chicken on Sunday is like no home at all,” said Ralph Irvin, an excellent taxi driver who escorted us around the Montego Bay area one memorable trip. “Everyone looks forward to it.”
Rundown – This entrée is pickled fish cooked in a seasoned coconut milk until the fish just falls apart or literally “runs down.”
Solomon gundy - This appetizer, eaten on crackers, is a pâté whose main ingredient is pickled fish.
Spinners – These dumplings are found in soups and stews and take their name from their thin, twisted shape.
Stamp and go - You could call them fast food or appetizers, but “stamp and go” seems much more colorful. Stamp out these little fish fritters in the kitchen, grab some for the road, and go.
Stew peas - Made with either red peas or gungo peas, this soup also includes pork and coconut milk.
Tie-a-Leaf – See Duckanoo (above).
Turned cornmeal – Cook cornmeal in seasoned coconut milk, add some meat, fish or vegetables if you like, and you’ve got this tasty dish.
WHAT’S TO EAT?
What will you eat on your trip to Jamaica? For the unadventurous, there’s all the usual fare straight from home: burgers, fries, pizza, etc. For adventure travelers, however, a taste of Jamaica’s rich cuisine is as much an experience as a scuba excursion or a mountain bike trek. Venture off the beaten path and explore some local eateries for a real taste of the island.
Ackee and saltfish; fried dumpling or fried bammy; boiled banana or boiled yam. Tea (most hot drinks are referred to as “tea”): cerassee tea, cocoa, Milo, Blue Mountain coffee
Patty, coco bread or bun and cheese. Lemonade, coconut water, sky juice, Ting.
Rice and peas; curried goat or chicken; jerk pork, fish or chicken; fried plantains or boiled banana. Juice (pawpaw, carrot, etc.).