Jamaica has many unique food dishes, and many who try traditional Jamaica food will likely add several of these dishes to their favorites. Tasty, spicy, and flavorful, the exotic mix of influences found in Jamaican staple foods makes for an intriguing foodie experience.
However, there are some dishes that may seem unusual or strange to a first time visitor. But even the most unique dish has its own place in Jamaica’s proud culinary history, and deserve to be recognized as an important part of authentic Jamaican culture.
Many European, African and Asian threads flow through the taste sensations found in Jamaica food, due to its long colonial history. Add to that the tropical climate and the local crop foods indigenous to the island, and the traditional Jamaican food list becomes a culinary adventure like no other.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this vibrant, yet idyllic island, here’s all the traditional food you should add to your plate.
What do Jamaicans Eat and Drink?
To understand traditional food in Jamaica, it’s useful to look at the common ingredients.
Probably the most popular item on many Jamaica menus – that may seem uncommon elsewhere – is goat meat. In other parts of the world beef or pork is the common meat, but in Jamaica, goat meat is regularly found in many traditional dishes.
Fish is also popular, and so is chicken.
Vegetables form a large part of the Jamaican menu. This is, in part, because of the Rastafarian vegetarian cultural influence. But it’s also because Jamaica’s tropical climate encourages tasty fruits and vegetable crops like yams, beans, and sweet potatoes. You’ll also find okra, breadfruit, bananas, avocado and ackee in abundance.
Curry and spices like ginger are a must in Jamaica, scotch bonnet peppers, and of course coconuts and green bananas. This accounts for the strong presence of spicy and aromatic brought about by the Asian influence on the island.
When it comes to drinks, rum and various teas are favorites, not surprisingly. Dark beers or stouts like Guinness or Dragon Stout also do well in the warm climate, as do refreshing coconut water-based beverages.
Sweets and desserts all take on tropical fruit characters, with coconut, pineapple and other regional fruit playing roles. Nutmeg, rum, molasses, and sugar are used to add sweetness to the mix.
Jamaican Food Names
Adding an extra ‘flavor’ to things are some intriguing names for the many staple Jamaican dishes. This list of favorite Jamaican foods might help to explain why a festival isn’t a festival, or why the jerk chicken isn’t so named because it was unsociable. Sound confusing? Keep reading to learn more.
Traditional Jamaican Dishes You Have to Try
There are numerous dishes that could be said to be classic Jamaica food. Most are denoted by their spicy flavors, use of tropical ingredients like coconut or green banana, or most importantly, their curious names. Here are a few snacks, meals and sides that are distinctively Jamaican, and that should be tasted.
Ackee and Saltfish
Saltfish is cod, and ackee is a fruit that was first brought to Jamaica from Ghana. Together they make the Jamaican national dish.
This colorful feast can be eaten at either breakfast or dinner – or both. It’s probably not a good idea to try to make this yourself from raw ingredients, as parts of ackee are poisonous. This Jamaican main dish is usually eaten with traditional Jamaican rice and peas. Breadfruit or plantain are also common accompaniments.
Fun fact: Captain William Bligh – he of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – is credited with bringing the ackee fruit to England. Its scientific reference, Blighia sapida, is named after him.
As previously stated, the chickens on Jamaica are not especially repulsive. Jerk is actually a cooking method involving a particular spice known as jerk spice. Dry-rubbing or marinating the meat in the spicy mix, and then cooking it over a wood-fire or in a wood-burning stove produces the distinctive smoky taste. Jerk Chicken is a typical Jamaica food you will find everywhere.
Think of it as a spicy barbecue, only with the particular flavor of scotch bonnet peppers and allspice. Jerk chicken or pork is some of the tastiest food to eat in Jamaica and is frequently accompanied by bammy or festival (see below).
There are many versions of this vegetarian side dish. This is probably because depending on where you are in the Caribbean, “callaloo” might well be a different leaf being referred to.
But the most common Jamaican version involves steaming the indigenous callaloo leaves (usually amaranth) with peppers, green onions, tomatoes, and salt. Elsewhere you may find different ingredients being used instead of the callaloo leaf, such as okra or water spinach.
But Jamaican callaloo is the way to go, as it’s the most distinctive of all the versions from around the Caribbean.
Yet another interesting way to name a dish, this ‘tea’ is, in fact, more of a soup.
This light but spicy appetizer fish soup contains regular soup ingredients like carrots and onions, peppers and water. And then a unique twist is added with bananas. You are free to add more veg and soup-related spices like thyme and pepper as you wish.
The fish in question is usually snapper or herring, or a similar small fish with few bones. In Jamaica, this soup is often served in foam cups as a pre-dinner drink.
On a health note, the protein and low-fat benefits of fish are well-known, but it is said that fish tea is a great appetite booster, hence its role as a pre-dinner offering.
As descriptive as it gets. This slow-cooked goat curry is an adapted import from South-East Asia.
In Jamaica, the dish is supplemented with rice, as opposed to roti or naan. Goat is a popular alternative to beef and pork because of the dietary restrictions of Hindus and Muslims, respectively.
As for taste, the meat resembles beef shank or brisket. It’s the incredible blend of spices and surprising richness of the meat that gives the goat curry its kick. Expect this to be a popular presence at any special occasion in Jamaica.
Another gloriously inventive name for Jamaica food! This time, it refers to a small, oval-shaped sweet cornbread dumpling.
You’ll often find this delicious snack available around Jamaica at street food stalls. It can be eaten as an accompaniment to the main meal, usually, jerk chicken or fish, or on its own.
Crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, but absolutely delicious throughout.
The escovitch – or escabeche – method of cooking is a Spanish legacy. It involves frying a whole fish, then further dousing the fish in vinegar overnight. The complete process offers an interesting pickled-style outcome.
Jamaican Escovitch Fish is usually left to marinate in vinegar, scotch bonnet, onions, and carrots overnight. It’s then eaten cold, usually for breakfast. Snapper is recommended as the fish of choice since it’s less boney.
Cassava-based bammy is a sort of fried flatbread, dipped in coconut milk.
It usually accompanies a main fish or jerk chicken meal. Because the cassava is grated, and the coconut milk so rich, it gives the bread a moist texture despite a golden crispy exterior. Delicious for breakfast, too.
In the US, a patty is basically the meat part of a burger. It’s the round slab of beef. In Jamaica, the patty is a complete meal more akin to a UK pasty. Imagine a foldover pastry filled with spicy beef, lamb or chicken.
The crisp flaky outer pastry gives way to the filling similar to the way a cornish pasty does. The difference here is the exciting Jamaican flavor of the filling. Variations include veg, shrimp, and even lobster, as the main ingredient.
Pattys are so popular, that a canny innovator decided that they could be miniaturized for use at parties. The cocktail patty is now a regular staple at parties and events.
The Coat of Arms
The most common dish you’ll find and a staple in most Jamaicans’ diet is sometimes called the Coat of Arms. And it may be the simplest of Jamaica food recipes to be found on this list.
Technically, the dish arrived from West Africa via the slave trade. It held a special place in the lives of the slaves, usually only eaten on Sundays. That was the one day slaves might have free time, and the best food available to them would be cooked in celebration. This food was mainly rice and peas. To this day, it’s served on Sundays in many traditional homes.
Rice and peas, spiced and cooked in coconut milk, goes with anything. This dish often makes an appearance at any traditional Jamaican meal. Sometimes, the peas are substituted for red kidney beans, for a less sweet result. It remains authentic, Jamaican food, regardless.
Mannish water will seem a little more outlandish for a western palate. But it is a strong tradition in Jamaica, said to be an aphrodisiac, and often seen at big parties and weddings.
Mannish water is a soup made from the goat as a base. That means the meat, hooves, tripe, perhaps the head – whatever is available. The seasoned meat is cooked with potatoes, yams and green bananas, which gives it a very unique aromatic flavor.
Run Down is a fish stew cooked in coconut milk, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and eventually made into a thick consistency.
It’s best to explain upfront that the name ‘run down’ refers to the fish being so tender, that it effectively runs down the bones. Interestingly, the other common name for the meal is Fling Me Far. The connection to that action is less clear.
Either cod or mackerel is the preferred main ingredient, and the dish is often served with dumplings, rice or boiled green bananas.
Popular Traditional Drinks in Jamaica
With all this exotic-sounding food on the menu, you’ll be looking to complete the experience with a somewhat traditional drink. Many sodas, beers, and spirits are wildly popular in Jamaica, but you may want to try one of these traditional home-made options.
Irish moss is a common name for a type of algae, which is red in color. The algae is boiled with milk, then mixed with nutmeg, sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. Sometimes, condensed milk is added for extra sweetness. Serve it cold!
The algae adds a thick consistency, making it look a little like a delicious Horlicks or milkshake. Some options include adding nuts and using it as a mixer for rum or whiskey.
Sea Cat Punch
Take a chance on a glass of sea cat punch. To clue you in, a sea cat is another name Jamaicans use for octopus. Boiled octopus, rum, molasses, nuts, and rum cream lacquer. Blend together to make this very interesting drink, which is especially popular amongst young men.
Christmas time in Jamaica brings this beautiful dark red festive drink made from the titular hibiscus herb. It’s considered to have many health benefits. It is supplemented with hints of ginger and cinnamon, and even a lime slice and can be enjoyed either hot or cold.
Bоb Marley Cocktail
Tip a glass to a local legend and ask your bartender for a Bob Marley cocktail. The colorful, layered drink – green, yellow and red – sports the traditional Rastafarian colors and tastes of strawberry and mango.
It can be found at almost any Jamaican bar and is a fantastic drink to enjoy while lazing on the beach. One love.
More Famous Jamaican Food You Must Try
While the above mentioned are the most common staples found at traditional Jamaican dinner tables, there are a few more dishes worthy of mention.
Ital is derived from the word “vital”, and has its roots in the vegetarian traditions of the Rastafarian faith. The important aspect of Ital cooking is its reliance on fresh and unprocessed vegetables and fruits.
So for this stew, locally grown vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and cabbage are used, along with coconut milk, herbs, and spices to taste.
Interesting fact: Some strict Rastafarians will not use salt in their cooking, especially processed salt, as it contains artificially added iodine. Luckily, they have a range of unprocessed, organic spices to make use of instead.
A popular party snack, Solomon Gundy is a pickled fish pâté eaten with crackers at social gatherings. Herring is the preferred fish used to make the spread, and it’s mixed with hot peppers and various Caribbean spices.
It’s uncertain whether there’s any connection between this spicy snack and the mythical monster Solomon Grundy. What is known, though, is that at one time the pâté was so popular, it was referred to as the “Caribbean Caviar”.
Put it down to one of those uniquely Jamaican instances of a great name evoking interest, regardless.
Soursop is a spiny fruit, growing throughout the Carribean. It can be thought of as a pineapple-like fruit, though with a hint of creaminess like a coconut might have.
In recent years, the fruit has also been found to have significant health benefits relating to the immune system and hypertension treatment.
The pulp of the fruit is used in a drink that goes by the same name. The Jamaica way of consuming it involves mixing strained pulp water with condensed milk, nutmeg and rum, and serving over crushed ice. Yum.
You’re thinking that banana bread is banana bread, right?
Well, the Jamaican way of making banana bread involves adding coconut, nuts, rum, and lime. The tropical ingredients add a new, mind-blowing dimension to this otherwise seemingly ordinary dessert.
Some variations seen around include adding pineapple, yogurt, sour cream, and even apple cider. The name of the game, it seems, is to bake in whatever flavor works. You’ll never approach banana bread the same way again.
Jamaican Black Cake
Let’s talk about Christmas time for a moment. The traditional Christmas cake is also called a black cake in Jamaica. The black color, due to the macerated dried fruit and consistency are what makes it specifically Jamaican in character.
When it comes to making the traditional Jamaican Christmas Black Cake, locals will tell you to soak the dried fruits in wine or rum for at least two weeks, but preferably up to a year! There are shortcuts, but why rob yourself of the effort?
Stamp and Go
Back in the days when ships would stop by for trade in the Caribbean, sailors would not have much time to spend at leisure. It’s said that the term “Stamp and Go” referred to a quick stop, and for administration to be hurried.
Perhaps the speed at which this cod-based finger food can be made, and eaten, inspired the name. It’s essentially a salty cocktail fish fritter, often served with dips at parties.
Alternatively, it makes for a light breakfast that can be eaten on the go.
Anyone with a sweet tooth will love this small pastry. It’s filled with a delicious spiced coconut mix, and baked? The pastry goes by another colorful name – pinch-me-round – because its round edges are pinched, naturally.
A Brief History of Jamaican Cuisine
Jamaican traditional food benefits from a vast set of influences. These stem from the many cultures that arrived in the Carribean during the seafaring colonial era.
When these new cultures mixed with that of the indigenous Arawak people, and the people brought to the region as slaves. This caused a fusion of styles, resulting in what is today a unique culinary landscape.
Another important cultural influence is that of Rastafarianism. Based largely on vegetarianism, it has impacted the use of locally-grown fruit and vegetables in a traditional Jamaican dish. Ital food, for example, has emphasized the use of from-the-earth, unprocessed produce.
This means that the most authentic traditional dishes contain lots of fresh or home-grown ingredients.
How to Enjoy the Best Jamaican Food on Offer
By now, you’re thinking that this food sounds great, but what’s the best way to try it? There are a couple of ways to get stuck in.
At a Restaurant
There are plenty of restaurants in Jamaica, but a couple of them stand out for their specialties. Scotchies is a small franchise with three outlets, but their jerk chicken draws crowds and long lines. Find them in Kingston, Montego Bay, and St. Ann.
For fresh fish served with bammy or festival, Aunt Merl’s Fish Place is right on the water at Half Moon Bay. You can actually choose your fish from the morning’s catch.
Try the curried goat at Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios. Alternatively, they are also the spot to sample the vegetarian and vegan dishes of the Caribbean.
Take a guided food tour and find the foods we’ve mentioned and more. The benefit of sampling the local cuisine with a guide is that they will offer some insight into the food only a local can.
If you’re planning to try to make some of the food yourself, they will also advise you on what to buy at the market.
If you’ve found Jamaican cuisine to your liking, take the opportunity to learn how to make some of the most common dishes. A great option is to take a lesson from a working restaurant this way you will take home some skills on how to make Jamaican food.
But a private lesson is also a viable option, as you’ll be able to take your time with the process.
Final Thoughts on Traditional Jamaican Foods
It’s obviously hard to extract the taste and spiciness from Jamaican cuisine. That, in a sense, reflects in the culture as a whole. The love of life in and around Jamaica is both laid back and vital. The flavor of its food is similarly vibrant and casual in its makeup.
Ital food offers vegetarians and vegans an avenue for exploration, whether it’s for health, spiritual, or environmental reasons. Many ingredients used in these dishes are also high in essential nutrients.
There’s a clear love of freshness in the preparation of good spicy Jamaican food, and love of sweetness in its desserts. The abundance of meat, fish, and vegetables makes popular Jamaican food a rewarding area of exploration for all food lovers.
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