Jamaica is such a vibrant country and its food certainly reflects that. From delicious tropical fruits to succulent seafood and spicy meat dishes, there’s a whole array of Jamaican cuisine to enjoy. Blending African, Spanish and Asian influences, it has developed its own unique style over the years. We’ve picked 10 of the top Jamaican food dishes that you should try, that will give you a true flavour of this beautiful island.
Ackee and Saltfish
The national dish of Jamaica is ackee and saltfish. Although it looks a bit like scrambled eggs, ackee is actually a fruit. It wasn’t originally indigenous to Jamaica but now grows there abundantly. The fruit has to ripen on the tree before picking as the unripe fruit contains a toxin. Once ripe, ackee has a number of health benefits due to the high number of nutrients it contains. To make ackee and saltifsh, fry salt cod, scotch bonnet pepper, tomatoes, onion, garlic and scallion with boiled ackee. As Scotch bonnet pepper is over 40 times hotter than a jalapeno, you can always omit it or chop it very finely. We tried ackee and saltfish for breakfast at Kanopi House in Port Antonio, but it can be eaten at any time of day. It’s served here with fried dumplings, another popular Jamaican dish. Ackee is also used to make a sweet wine and as a herbal treatment for many ailments.
Whilst Jamaican jerk chicken is famous all over the world, you can also try Jamaica jerk pork, sausage and even rabbit. The term jerk refers to the method of seasoning and cooking and the technique dates back to the 1600s. At that period, runaway slaves who were known as Maroons escaped to the mountainous regions of Jamaica. There, they encountered the Taino and Arawak tribes who had developed specific ways of preserving meat by hanging it over a low fire. It is thought that the covered pit used to cook jerk was a way of hiding any smoke from cooking, which might lead to their discovery and recapture. The village of Boston in Jamaica is considered to be the birthplace of jerk cooking, and if you visit today you can still try authentic jerk cooked on open pits. The pimento wood logs give the jerk meat its unique flavour. As for the spiciness, it’s down to the Scotch bonnet pepper used in the marinade. We loved it but we drank a lot of water to combat the fieriness! We also made a milder version by omitting the Scotch bonnet pepper, on a culinary tour of The Great House in Yaaman Adventure Park, thanks to our friendly and knowledgeable instructor.
See more about our tour here:
Jerk chicken is often served with rice and peas, like the delicious version we sampled at GoldenEye, the iconic resort in Oracabessa Bay. I was pleased to see that the peas are actually red kidney beans, as I’m not a huge fan of peas themselves.
No visit to Jamaica would be complete without sampling traditional Jamaican patties. It’s thought that they derive from Cornish pasties, introduced to the Caribbean by colonialists from Britain. These developed into Jamaican patties, filled with ground beef, chicken, shrimp or cheese. Vegetarians should be aware that some of the cheese patties actually have beef mixed in with them. Many people eat them with cocoa bread in a sandwich as a real carb fest! A few of the most popular patty stores are Juici Patties, Mothers and Tastee.
One of our favourite Jamaican recipes, run down is made from fish such as mackerel, tomato, onion, garlic, scallion, Scotch bonnet pepper and coconut milk. It takes its unusual name from the fact that its cooked until it “runs down” or falls apart. It is eaten at all times of the day, and often served with baked breadfruit, plantains, boiled bananas or dumplings. We savoured this run down dish at Moon Palace, a luxury resort in Ocho Rios.
We had some of the best food in Jamaica at Miss T’s Kitchen, an authentic Jamaican restaurant in Ocho Rios. They do some great dishes including these fish bites and escovitch, which is topped with Scotch bonnet peppers, onions and pickled carrots.
Another Jamaican food that we tried at Miss T’s is oxtail stew, with butter beans, carrots and spinners, aka boiled dumplings. The meat is braised for several hours, making it extremely tender.
This popular Jamaican side dish is made with amaranth, also known as callaloo and cooked with onions, scallions and salt. It tastes a little like spinach and contains many nutrients like vitamin A, B and C, calcium and iron. It’s served here with festival, a fried pastry made from cornmeal, flour and brown sugar.
One of the most well known Jamaican dishes is curried goat. When slavery was abolished in Jamaica, many people came from India to work on the plantations and popularized curries on the island. If you’ve tried it elsewhere and found it a bit overpowering, try it in Jamaica as it’s braised for many hours and has a more subtle taste than you’d expect. It’s usually served with rice and peas or boiled green bananas, and used to be reserved for parties or other celebrations but is now more frequently consumed.
Ice Cold Jelly Coconut
You’ve probably tried fresh coconut from the shell as well as coconut milk, but have you ever eaten coconut jelly? It holds a special place in the heart of most Jamaicans and you will see lots of roadside stalls selling “ice cold coconut jelly”. It comes only from green coconuts, not the brown ones and is believed by many to help flush out the digestive system.
Jamaica Rum Cake
You can’t leave Jamaica without tucking into the Caribbean rum cake. Tortuga is one of the best known brands, and their rum cakes are hand glazed with 5 year-old Tortuga Gold rum.
Other popular Jamaican desserts are gizzada, a mix of coconut flakes, brown sugar, flour and spices and plantain tarts. Don’t miss picturesque I Scream store at Errol Flynn Marina in Portland or the historic landmark store at Devon House in Kingston.
Enjoy these traditional Jamaican dishes with a locally brewed Red Stripe beer, a cup of Blue Mountain coffee or the obligatory rum punch – well it would be rude not to ;-). It’s best enjoyed on a beach in Jamaica, but if you can’t get there then the Jamaica Garden Terrace in Canary Wharf, London is a good port of call.
I don’t know about you, but all this talk of food has got us hungry! Which of these Jamaican food dishes would be your favourite?