Jamaican Foods

Jamaican Food Glossary

Here is a popular Jamaican and Caribbean Food Glossary.

ackee pods

Ackee pods

A handful of islands grow ackee as an ornamental tree, but only Jamaica looks at it as a tree that bears edible fruit. The ackee fruit is bright red. When ripe, it bursts open to reveal three large black seeds and bright yellow flesh. The flesh of the ackee is popular as a breakfast food throughout Jamaica. Ackee’s scientific name, blighia sapida, comes from Captain Bligh, who introduced the plant to Jamaica from West Africa. Ackee is poisonous if eaten before it is fully mature and because of its toxicity, it is subject to import restrictions and may be hard to obtain in some countries. Never open an ackee pod; it will open itself when it ceases to be deadly. Ackee is sold canned in West Indian markets.

Allspice, Pimienta:
Dark-brown berry, similar in size to juniper, which combines the flavors of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.

This slightly musky-flavored reddish yellow spice, ground from the seeds of a flowering tree, is native to the West Indies and the Latin tropics. Islanders store their annatto seeds in oil–giving the oil a beautiful color. Saffron or turmeric can be substituted.

Neutral tasting starch extracted from the root of tropical tubers, used as a last-minute thickening agent for sauces.

Bay Rum:
The bay rum tree is related to the evergreen that produces allspice. Used to flavor soups, stews and, particularly, blaff, the small dark bay rum berry is called “maleguetta pepper” in the French West Indies.

Beans, Peas:
Interchangeable terms for red kidney beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, pigeon peas (gandules), and yellow and green lentils. Often combined with rice, used in soups and stews or pulped and made into fritters.

Blue Marlin:
Jamaicans have little need for imported smoked salmon, as they enjoy their own classy variation from the nearby waters of the Gulf Stream. There’s even a world-famous marlin tournament held in Port Antonio each year. The marlin that isn’t immediately devoured as steaks is carried off to the smoker, where it takes on a milder salmon like flavor and texture that holds up well when thinly sliced.



Breadfruit was also introduced to Jamaica from its native Tahiti in 1793 by the infamous Captain Bligh. The breadfruit is a large green fruit, usually about 10 inches in diameter, with a pebbly green skin and potato-like flesh. Breadfruits are not edible until they are cooked and they can be used in place of any starchy vegetable, rice or pasta. Breadfruit is picked and eaten before it ripens and is typically served like squash–baked, grilled, fried, boiled or roasted after being stuffed with meat. It’s even been known to turn up in preserves or in a beverage.


Spelled half a dozen different ways, this colorful word turns up in Jamaican records as early as 1696. This leafy, spinach-like vegetable is typically prepared as one would prepare turnip or collard greens. This variety of callaloo Amaranthus viridis, better known as Chinese spinach or Indian kale, should not be confused with the callaloo found in the eastern Caribbean, which refers to the leaves of the dasheen plant.

Star Fruit:
Tart or acidy-sweet star-shaped fruit used in desserts, as a garnish for drinks, tossed into salads or cooked together with seafood.

Calabaza, West Indian Pumpkin:
Terms for a number of large squashes or pumpkins used in island stews and vegetable dishes. Hubbard and butternut squash are similar in flavor and make the best substitutes.

This tuber is also known as manioc and yucca. A rather large root vegetable with a 6- to 12-inch length and 2- to 3-inch diameter, cassava has a tough brown skin with a very firm white flesh. Both kinds of cassava can appear as meal, tapioca and farina and can be bought ready made as cassava or manioc meal, which is used to make bammy. Sweet cassava is boiled and eaten as a starch vegetable. Bitter cassava contains a poisonous acid that can be deadly and must be processed before it can be eaten. (This is done by boiling the root in water for at least 45 minutes and discarding the water). Alternatively, grate the cassava and place it in a muslin cloth, then squeeze out as much of the acid as possible before cooking. Bitter cassava is used commercially but is not sold unprocessed in some countries.

This member of the palm family, which is native to Malaysia, yields fruit all year long. Coconut is edible in both its green and mature forms. Both the water and the “jelly” of the green coconut find their way into island drinks, and meat from the mature coconut gives desserts a Caribbean identity.

These gastropods are a beloved part of the cuisine as far north as the Bahamas and Florida. When preparing conch soup, conch salad or, best of all, spicy conch fritters, you must beat the tough conch flesh into tender submission with a mallet, the flat of a cleaver or a wooden pestle before cooking. The job can sometimes (depending on the recipe) be made easier by using a food processor.

Hindu name for legumes; in the Caribbean, it refers only to split peas or lentils.

Also known a coco, taro and tannia, dasheen is a starchy tuber that is usually served boiled or cut up and used as a thickener in hearty soups. While considered by some to have a texture and flavor superior to that of a Jerusalem artichoke or potato. Potatoes can often be used as a substitute for dasheen in recipes. Dasheen is often called coco, but coco is actually a slightly smaller relative of dasheen.

The Spanish word for “pickled.” It usually refers to fresh fish (and sometimes poultry) that is fried and then pickled in vinegar, spices, hot peppers and oil.

Goat meat is eaten with enthusiasm in only a few places in the world, and Jamaica is assuredly one of those places. Some credit immigrants from India who searched in vain for lamb to prepare their beloved curry. Finding no lambs, they latched onto the next best thing–and curried goat became a Caribbean classic. Most first-timers find goat milder in flavor than lamb and an excellent substitute for lamb in most recipes. Of course, if you can’t find goat, you can substitute lamb.

Tropical fruit that has over a hundred species. It is pear-shaped, round and oval; yellow to green skinned, with creamy yellow, pink or red granular flesh; and has rows of small hard seeds. The smell and taste are intense and perfumy. Guava is used green or ripe in punches, syrups, jams, chutneys, ice creams and an all-island paste know as guava cheese.

Hibiscus, Flor de Jamaica, Sorrel:
A tropical flower–not to be confused with the garden-variety hibiscus–grown for it crimson sepal, which is used to flavor dinks, jams and sauces. It is available dried and fresh during the Christmas season.

A fish family of over two hundred species, these colorful saltwater fish go by a host of varietal names such as yellowtail, greenback, burnfin, black and amber jack. These delicately flavored fish tend to be large, weighing a much as 150 pounds, and readily available in waters around the world. Tuna and swordfish make good substitutes.

Caribbean limes have light yellow skins when ripe, though they are often picked green because they go bad rapidly when ripe. When overripe, they turn yellow and are an excellent source of vitamin C. For this reason, the popularity of these citrus fruits grew with the realization by the British Navy that they cured scurvy. Now limes are one of the most important ingredients in Jamaican sauces and marinades, and are used to perk up dishes from savory to sweet. Chicken and fish turn glorious with a mere squeeze of lime. And beverages, cakes and preserves wouldn’t taste the same without it.

In Jamaica, it’s the spiny or Caribbean lobster that is found–the same delicious crustacean as the langouste in France, and aragosta in Italy, and the langoasta in Spain. Although the texture of this cooked meat is considered in some to be inferior to that of the Maine lobster, the flavor of the spiny lobster meat more that makes up for the inferior texture.

Mammey Apple:
The large tropical fruit, native to the New World, yields edible pulp that’s tangerine in color. With a flavor similar to that of the peach, mammey turns up most often as jam.

Julie Mango

Julie Mango

Mango: photo
Actually a native of India, this fruit has come to be know as “the fruit of the tropics.” Mangoes are used in a variety of ways in the Caribbean. Green mangoes are used in hot sauces and condiments, while ripe mangoes appear in desserts and candies and in drinks. The best varieties of mango are the Bombay, East Indian, St. Julian and Hayden.

Jamaican cooks are insistent–when cooking their recipes, skip over the pre-ground nutmeg sold in supermarkets and buy the spice whole, grating it only as needed. The inner kernel of the fruit is more flavorful when freshly grated. The spicy sweet flavor of this aromatic spice makes it an excellent addition to cakes, puddings and drinks.

This finger-shaped vegetable, green-ridged and three to five inches in length, is fried as a side dish, used as a thickening agent in callaloo or mixed with cornmeal to make coo-coo.

Otaheiti Apple:
Yet another fruit introduced from the Pacific by Captain Bligh, the pear-shaped otaheiti apple ranges from pink to ruby red in color. This fruit is usually eaten fresh, though it can be packed in red wine or turned into a refreshing cold drink.

Papaya: photo
This native of South America is still called “”pawpaw”” by some Jamaicans. The papaya has an orange color when ripe, and its bland flavor resembles that of a summer squash, making it a nice complement to the sharper flavors of other fruits. Green papaya is often used as an ingredient in chutney or relishes and makes a nice main dish when stuffed. When ripe, it is eaten as a melon, or served in fruit salad. Papaya juice makes a nice drink when sweetened with condensed milk or sugar.

Passion Fruit:
Oval-shaped fruit that has a tough shell and a color range from yellow-purple to eggplant to deep chocolate. The golden-yellow pulp is sweet and tropically exotic, and must be strained to remove the seeds. Used primarily in juices, desserts, drinks and sauces.

Jamaicans refer to nearly all beans as “peas.” Kidney beans are probably the most popular. Gungo (pigeon) peas have also been a hit since their introduction from West Africa by the Spanish, as have cowpeas, black-eyed peas, and butter, lima and broad (also called fava) beans. They are the island’s primary source of protein–even more than meat. Smaller peas are used in Rice and Peas while larger-sized peas often appear in savory stews and side dishes.

Just to keep things interesting, Jamaicans call what the world knows as allspice, “Pimento”–a word that elsewhere refers o bell peppers or chilies. The more global name refers to the allspice berry, which has the taste of nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper and clove. All the same, Jamaicans deserve a big say in this naming, since all but a tiny bit of pimento is grown in Jamaica, the remainder being grown in southern Cuba. Thanks to its embrace by English and Spanish colonist, allspice is used in numerous Jamaican classics, from Escoveitched Fish to Jerk Pork.

Technically a banana-family fruit, but generally regarded as a vegetable. Inedible raw, cooked plantains are served as appetizers or starchy side dishes. The unripe (green), ripe (yellow) and very ripe (dark) plantains are used in Caribbean cooking. They become slightly sweet as they ripen.

Saltfish is any fried, salted fish, but most often cod. With he increasing availability of fresh fish all over Jamaica, some cooks are moving away from this preserved fish dating back to the days before refrigeration. Still, Jamaicans have a soft place in their hearts for the taste of this salted cod (sold around the world in Italian, Spanish or Portuguese markets under some variant on the name bacalao). Ackee and Saltfish is the preferred breakfast of Jamaicans. When imported saltfish has been unavailable, Jamaicans have been known to make their own from fresh fish.

Scotch Bonnet Peppers:
The fiery Scotch bonnet pepper, ranging in colors from yellow to orange to red, is considered the leading hot pepper in Jamaica, though several other varieties have recently been developed. Some peppers are sold whole, others are dried and ground, and still others are processed into sauces, such as Jamaica Hell Fire. If you can’t get your hands (wash them afterward!) on Scotch bonnets, you can substitute habaneras or jalapenos.

Brought from India by way of Malaysia, this unusual plant was introduced to Jamaica by the British soon after 1655. Also known as roselle and appealingly, flor de Jamaica, sorrel always blooms in December, when its deep red flower becomes an unrivaled floral decoration for two to three weeks before it evolves into Jamaica’s traditional holiday beverage. At that time, the flower are dried and then steeped in water to make a bright red drink that has a slightly tart taste and is the color of cranberry juice.

Solomon-a-Gundy is a pickled fish pâté made from smoked red herring.  It is usually served with crackers as an appetizer or as hors d’oeuvre. There is a poem that many Jamaicans would sing based on Solomon-a-Gundy. Poem – Solomon-a-Gundy, born on a Monday, christened on a Tuesday, married on a Wednesday, took ill on a Thursday, worse on a Friday, died on a Saturday, buried on a Sunday, that is the end of Solomon-A-Gundy

Sour sop:
Elongated, spike-covered fruit, slightly tart and delicately flavored. It is used mainly in drinks, punches, sherbets and ice cream.

Stamp and Go:
Spicy-hot fritters popular in Jamaica. Methods, ingredients and names vary from island to island.

Star Apple: photo
An important part of a traditional dessert known as matrimony, the star apple is a succulent round fruit about the size of an orange. Native to Jamaica and the Greater Antilles, the skin of this fruit is either a shiny purple color or a less eye-catching green. No matter what color, the flesh of the star apple is delicious.

Stinking Toe:
Actually a pod that resembles a human toe, this bizarre fruit possesses an evil-smelling and rough exterior. The sugary power inside can be devoured on the spot or turned into a flavorful custard or beverage.

An interesting challenge to eat, the flesh of the sweetsop is actually a collection of black seeds surrounded by sweet white pulp. The sweetsop is native to the tropical Americas.

Tamarind: photo
This decorative tree produces brown pods containing a sweet and tangy pulp that’s used for flavoring everything from beverages to curries and sauces–including Angostura bitters and Pickapeppa sauce. It is also an important ingredient in Jamaican folk medicine.

West Indian Pumpkin:
A member of the gourd, squash and melon family, this squash is also known as calabaza. Possessing a sweet flavor similar to that of butternut squash, this firm-textured vegetable is commonly found in soups, stews, breads and sweetened puddings. Though hardly the same, the best substitutes for calabaza are Hubbard, butternut and acorn squash.

Similar in size and color to the potato, but nuttier in flavor, it is not to be confused with the Southern sweet yam or sweet potato. Caribbean yams are served boiled, mashed or baked.


Some definitions from Unichef. Some pictures provided by exotic fruit seller Tropicilab Inc .

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