Growing up in New York City, I’ve long been familiar with the foods that Jamaicans eat and prepare, but on my recent trip to Jamaica, I got to try the real-deal. Jamaicans have very flavorful foods, and many which are specific to their culture more than anywhere else. Below are some of the quintessential delicacies, as well as some of the lesser-known foods, that you should try on your next visit to the island.
Jerk Chicken/Pork – Jerk chicken is probably the most well-known of all the foods in Jamaica, and jerk pork is not that far behind. This is chicken and pork that is slow-roasted or grilled and basted with a dry rub that is known as jerk seasoning, made primarily of allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. The word “jerk” comes from the same root that “jerky” comes from, the dried meat products. Usually, the meat is marinated for a while (perhaps overnight), so that it can be flavorful inside and out; the Jamaicans love their foods robust and full of flavor.
Curry Goat/Chicken – Curry goat and curry chicken is another very popular dish on the island. It is similar in style to the Asian versions, though Jamaicans have their own unique ingredients thrown into the mix. The spices in the Jamaican variety that form the the curry paste commonly included mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, turmeric, anise, thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, and fenugreek seeds. Goat and chicken meats are cheap and easily-accessible on the island, making them the centerpiece of many meals.
Oxtail – Oxtail is a dish made with the tail of cattle, such as cow or steer. It is usually prepared as a kind of stew, with the oxtail braised slowly on low heat until it reaches a consistency where the meat just falls off the center bone structure. In Jamaica, as well as in other Caribbean islands, it is common to have butter beans and rice on the side. This portion of the animal is full of cartilage and connective tissue, but after cooking it, it becomes gelatinous and is part of the experience.
Patties (Beef, Chicken, Veggie, etc.) – Patties are ubiquitous treats in Jamaica, as well as in Jamaican restaurants around the world. It is a kind of pastry, filled with cook stuffing that is spiced. The shell is a made of an egg dough that is yellow, due to turmeric added to the mix. Ground beef is the most common kind of patty, but patties are now common that are made with chopped chicken, pork, fish, mixed vegetables, et al. The filling is usually sauteed on the side with numerous spices readily found in most other Jamaican foods, until it is cooked and ready to put into the patty. When it is made, the dough is rolled flat, the filling put inside, and then it is folded in half with the sides pinched together to seal it, similar to an empanada. It is then baked until the pastry shell is crisp.
Bammy – Sometimes spelled “bami,” a bammy is a simple flat bread made of cassava, a starchy root vegetable (yuca) that is often used in Latin American and Caribbean cuisines. They are thick, usually circular in cut, and deep-fried after being soaked in coconut milk. It is often eaten as a side with meals.
Festival – A festival is a sweet, fried fritters made of cornmeal or maize dough. Though it might have confectioner’s sugar sprinkled on top, it is usually eaten not as dessert but as a side to meals, especially jerk chicken and pork. It is said that its name is derived from the fact that eating one is fun.
Callaloo – Callaloo is about the most popular dish that is vegetable-based. It is made with large, dark, leafy vegetables, commonly taro (called “dasheen” in Jamaica) or amaranth. The Jamaican version is simple in manufacture, steamed with salt, onions, and scallions, for the most part.
Coco Bread – Coco bread is a bread made with coconut milk. It is sweet and often opened up to use as a sandwich medium to stuff jerked meats or even a patty inside.
Gizzada – A traditional Jamaican dessert, a gizzada is a kind of tart with a crisp, flaky crust and a filling made with coconut. The coconut filling is usually spiced with nutmeg, sugar, cinnamon, and ginger, and then the pastry is baked.
Ackee and Saltfish - The national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish is a full, flavorful meal commonly eaten for breakfast. Ackee is a fruit similar to lychee and longan, and saltfish refers to any salted fish, typically cod. The ackee fruit is cooked with the salted fish (which must be soaked for hours in water prior), as well as peppers, tomatoes, and onions.
Mannish Water – Mannish water is a soup made with various goat parts, often including its heart, brains, and other offal parts. Known as an aphrodisiac to some, mannish water is a think soup that has fruits and vegetables such as bananas, carrots, and scallions mixed in. It is commonly referred to as “goat’s head soup,” since an entire goat head chopped up is the popular way to make it.
Escoveitched/Escovitch Fish – Escovitch fish is another popular breakfast main dish, similar to ceviche, though the fish is not raw, but rather fried. King fish or red snapper is preferred, but most any fish can be used. The fish is soaked with an acidic mixture of lime juice and/or vinegar, then fried in a pot of oil with some vegetables.
Dukunu (aka “Tie-a-Leaf” or “Blue Drawers”) – Dukunu are common food in Jamaica consisting of either ground cassava, yams, or corn meal that is made into a thick mass with spices, wrapped and tied into a plantain or banana leaf, then boiled.
*One thing I learned that absolutely astonished me, while having a night-long conversation with two locals, was that vegetables were the foods of the richer portion of the population. As I recall, we were talking about the Rastafarian folks that lived in the center of Jamaica up in the mountains, and the reason that they can live only on vegetables was not because they were poorer than most of the country, but richer. It seems that there is an abundance of meat around, such as pigs, goats, and especially chickens, that this meat is so cheap. To have vegetables in Jamaica, or a good helping of them, is more of a luxury; vegetarians and vegans, like true Rastafarians, need to have money.