Jamaica’s motto is “Out of many, one people.” The saying could also apply to the island’s food, for out of the many ethnic groups to populate the area throughout history, one distinctive cuisine has emerged. If you are lucky enough to go on a Caribbean vacation and have the chance to sample the local delicacies yourself, there are some you should pay special attention to. Here are Jamaica’s ten best food specialties, dishes that are not to be missed if you want to taste all that the island has to offer.
1) Jerk Chicken
Jamaican cooking uses a lot of spices, and the culmination of their fiery and flavorsome potential is jerk sauce. A mixture of island-grown seasonings like Scotch bonnet peppers, pimento, cinnamon and nutmeg are dry-rubbed on meat which is then traditionally roasted, sometimes for hours, over pimento wood. Any meat can be jerked, but chicken is the favorite, and Jamaican chicken is unlike any you’ll find in the States. Chickens raised in the Caribbean are fed on locally-grown foods rather than the typical imported grain, which results in a deliciously richer taste. Try the sweet and spicy meat with a piece of hard-dough bread for a traditional meal.
2) Ackee and Saltfish
The traditional Jamaican breakfast takes some getting used to, but after spending some time on the island you’ll find it becomes addictive. Resembling scrambled eggs, the dish is a combination of codfish and the locally-grown ackee fruit. Ackee is not a typical fruit. Its somewhat bland but sweetish taste contrasts with the salty fish, which, when combined with onions and peppers, makes for a hearty and filling morning dish, much like the Caribbean version of an omelet.
3) The Jamaican Patty
There are as many kinds of patties as there are kinds of people, and you’ll be sure to find a favorite filling. Frequently sold at stands or in tourist restaurants, the best patties are the homemade kind. The typical patty is a savory pastry with ground meat inside, much like an empanada or a samosa, but the seasonings are distinctly Jamaican. Look for patties stuffed with lobster, pork, chicken or even with vegetarian ingredients, all with the zesty aroma of curry and island spices. With a side dish, one tasty patty can make a meal.
This leafy green is to the islands what spinach is to the States. Nutritious and much less bitter than spinach, you can find it served dozens of ways. You can sample it stuffed in a patty, steamed as a side dish, or even taste its juice as a health drink. One of the best ways to try callaloo is as an ingredient in a hot bowl of traditional Jamaican pepper pot soup. Callaloo is so versatile that you’ll probably end up having it in a dish even if you don’t intend to. It crops up everywhere, and when you get home you’ll wish there was a healthy food available that was so easy to eat.
The bountiful seafood of the island, whether its snapper, kingfish or grouper, is often cooked in a style known as “escoviching”. The fish is marinated in vinegar, onions and spices for a dish that preserves and brings out the taste of the ocean fresh fish. It tastes better than it sounds, and the longer it marinates, the better. Think of escoviche-style fish as an ultra-fresh seafood cocktail, with extra Jamaican kick.
6) Rice and Peas
Don’t be fooled by the name. The “peas” in the dish are typically red beans, though any legume can be used. Rice and peas are a mainstay of the Jamaican diet, and as you can probably expect, there’s more than meets the eye. The extra Jamaican twist to rice and peas is that they are simmered in fresh coconut milk, making a creamy, sweet side dish with a tropical taste. Peppers and other spices kick it up an extra notch, and combine with the sweet coconut to make a traditional side that’s pleasing to the tongue in multiple ways.
You’ve probably seen plantains at the grocery store and been perplexed: what’s with the big, green bananas? The sweet and starchy fruit has to be cooked to be palatable, but once it is served piping hot, it’s a delicious side dish to any spicy Jamaican meal. Often fried, then topped with butter and salt and pepper, the plantain is much like a tropical sweet potato. You can also find them sold by themselves as a substantial snack; their gooey richness makes them delicious at mealtimes or in between.
The gizzada is the Jamaican version of a pastry, and it rivals any European dessert with its decadent sweetness. Found in bakeries, restaurants, and at food stands, the gizzada is a tart shell filled with butter, fresh sweetened coconut, ginger and nutmeg. Crunchy and gooey at the same time, you’ll be glad that the majority of Jamaican food is made up of veggies and fresh fish. You can afford to indulge in a pastry or two…or three.
9) Fresh Fruit
You can’t sample Jamaican food without tasting its best natural resource: fruit. Don’t expect dull apples and oranges, though. In Jamaica you have the chance to sample exotic and unusual fruits, fresh from the tree, that you’d never find at home. Try a ripe paw-paw, a sweetsop, a star apple or a guinep. Even the fruits you’ve heard of are better on the island: juicy pineapples, lush tangerines and mangoes in shapes and sizes you’ve never seen before. Even if you’re not normally a big fruit eater, you won’t be able to stop yourself from indulging in these sweet, sun-kissed varieties.
10) Blue Mountain Coffee
If you’ve seen Blue Mountain coffee at your local coffee shop, you may have been shocked at the price. That high cost is because the coffee beans grown in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica are among the best in the entire world. Known for its smooth, non-bitter taste, the cup of Blue Mountain coffee you drink in Jamaica will be one that is at the height of its freshness. What a way to start your day on the island!
If you’re planning on spending some time on the island of Jamaica, be sure and try as many of these specialties as you can. It won’t be a chore, but an exciting culinary adventure. From the fiery spices to the juicy tropical fruits, your tongue will be doing a reggae dance, Jamaican-style.