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The Best Of Jamaican Food | 21 Must-Try Jamaican Dishes

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Long before Columbus first laid eyes on the Caribbean, the Arawak Indians who hailed from South America built an island empire that stretched across most of the Caribbean.

Their traditions and ways of cooking meat and seafood on wooden skewers were passed down to the Africans they subjugated, and so it became the Jamaican national dish, the jerk chicken.

Jamaican Food: Columbus and Arawaks

So the barbecue we know today has its origins in Jamaican cuisine. It became a delicacy that enslaved Africans adapted to make even better. They made their barbecue with marinated chicken, goat, and mutton. 

They spiced these meats differently than the Arawaks did. The Africans used a blend of peppers, sage, thyme, onion, and garlic to spice up their BBQ meats, giving it a sweeter flavor than the Arawaks had created.

The Arawaks brought their natural ingredients to their barbecue outings, as well. For example, they would use trees like the hibiscus and the coral tree for wood when grilling. 

Jamaican Food

The wood from these trees was sweeter than sticks, which was perfect because it smelled good when cooking meat on them. The corn cobs they used to throw into the fire and cook also added a unique flavor to grilled delicious meats.

In the late 1400s, the Spanish invaded Jamaica. They also imported pigs, goats, cattle, sugar cane, lemons, limes, and coconuts, leading Jamaica to earn its reputation for these products today. 

The Spanish settlers brought culinary traditions like escovitch fish from the Jewish world to Jamaican food. Jamaica became so well known for its rum after British colonialists introduced various pastries and baked goods, as well as sugar production, during the 17th century.

In exchange for labor, the Spanish traded slaves from Africa’s West Coast. Throughout Jamaica’s traditional food history, slavery has played an important role. Ackee, peanuts, and okra were among the foods brought by slaves. 

Also, in the mid-1500s to the 1700s, the Taino tribe from Cuba was brought in to serve as slaves. They influenced Jamaican cuisine from their main dish, “Yuca,” which shaped traditional Jamaican food tremendously.

The food culture in Jamaica is also much more diverse than any other place on earth, making it a foodie’s paradise. Jamaican cuisine, now considered authentic, combines foods from many cultures and people, including Tainos, Africans, Europeans, and Chinese. Each group of people brought its own way of cooking to Jamaica, and these delectable and indelible contributions left a lasting impression on traditional Jamaican food.

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The Twenty Must-Try Jamaican Dishes & Drinks

Ackee and Saltfish

The national fruit of Jamaica is Ackee, a vibrant red tropical fruit that looks like a member of the lychee family. It tastes like one too! Ackee and saltfish are traditionally served with boiled green bananas, breadfruit, Johnny cakes (or Juan cakes), and boiled yams. 

A saltfish is also known as bacalao, bacalhau, or a baccalà. It is a dried fish that has been preserved with salt to remove its moisture. This allows it to be stored without refrigeration for an extended period of time. Though technically, any kind of fish could be salted. However, in Jamaican cuisine, “saltfish” usually refers to salted cod.

Jamaica’s national dish is traditionally served in the mornings on Tuesdays and Fridays, though it is available all the time.

Jamaican Food: Ackee and Saltfish

The yellow portion of the ackee fruit is carefully removed, as it’s poisonous, and the remaining ackee pod gets cooked in recipes such as boiled ackee and saltfish or fried ackee and saltfish. 
There are several other ways to enjoy ackee, but these two dishes are the ones that nearly every Jamaican will highlight. Primarily eaten as a Jamaican breakfast, ackee doesn’t appear to be typical in Jamaican homes. It’s instead more commonly found in restaurants, typically in jambalaya dishes.

Jerk Chicken/Pork

Jerk Chicken is one of my all-time favorite Jamaican dishes. Since Jamaicans adopted the jerk chicken/pork years ago, it has become a cuisine staple. The jerk version of pork and chicken tastes much more succulent and moist than the regular versions. 

The marinade or spice mixture can be altered endlessly, with different peppers, seasonings and spices added. The traditional Jamaican Jerk is made with Scotch bonnet peppers (the hottest), whereas the regular one has peppers like Nicaraguan and ancho chiles instead. 

The jerk sauce that the meats are slathered with before roasting consists of allspice (the signature flavor of a jerk), garlic, onions, Scotch bonnet peppers (jerk’s famous HEAT source), soy sauce, honey, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and thyme are all blended in this dish.  The interplay of these bold and dynamic ingredients creates a flavor experience that your taste buds will not soon forget!

Jamaican Food: Jerk Chicken with Sides

The methods of cooking used to create jerk also play an essential part. Traditional Jamaican jerk involves wood-burning ovens and long periods smoking the meat to impart a dynamic and bold taste. There’s something intensely delicious about the interplay of flavors in this dish. It’s smoky, sweet, earthy, tangy, zesty, bright, and bold; like nothing you’ve ever had before. 

Oxtail

Oxtail is more than just a popular food item in Jamaican cuisine. It is a traditional Jamaican food with many benefits. The oxtail consists of gelatin-rich meat, an extremely valuable fat, and an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, a prized ingredient among traditional cultures.

Jamaican Food: Oxtail

Oxtail is the culinary name for cattle tails, and the term was initially used only for ox or steer tails, a bullock. However, this term describes many other cattle species in recent years, such as buffalo and water buffalo.  

Jamaicans boil the oxtail with onion, scotch bonnet pepper, and thyme, then fry it in a little bit of oil, and finally, it’s slow-cooked with more onions and green pepper. The result is a rich and aromatic stew that takes the flavor to another level.

Goat curry

Jamaica isn’t just the land of jerk chicken and reggae music. It is the land of hot and spicy curried goat. Few people know that curried goat is a classic example of Jamaican fusion. 

It was made by local cooks using traditional Indian culinary methods to make food more flavorful and preserve it for long periods.

Goat curry is a wholesome, filling, and flavorful dish loaded with vitamins and minerals to give you the energy and strength to do anything you like. 

Jamaican Food: Goat Curry

It is prepared with goat meat, cut into small pieces with all the skin removed. Curry goat is spiced with various curries, herbs, and spices, including nutmeg, salt, cloves, red pepper, black pepper, turmeric, coriander, and cinnamon. It is most commonly served with rice and peas or plantain.

Jamaican Beef Patty

The beef patty is the unofficial national Jamaican food. It was introduced to the masses in the nineteenth century by Chinese immigrants and remains hugely popular. 

Jamaican Food: Jamaica Beef Patty Shop

You can often find it on Jamaican streets, but don’t expect a traditional meat pie or sausage roll. Instead, it is savory and has a filling that includes beef or seafood and vegetables mixed in a spicy tomato sauce.

The pastry shell is usually flaky to make it distinct from other meat pies. During the 18th century, British settlers in Jamaica developed a recipe for the Jamaican patty. 

Jamaican Food: Jamaica Beef Patty

Typically found at lunch, Jamaicans eat patties with coleslaw, gravy, and potato salad. It is served with rum or ginger beer as an added dessert.

Jamaicans know how to eat their patties, and some even dip them in juice from green coconuts for added flavor. Delicious!

Escovitch Fish

Escovitch is a Jamaican style of cooking fish that is believed to have been brought to the island by the Spanish Jewish community nearly 500 years ago. 

The dish is most prevalent in Jamaica and other Caribbean areas, but it is also enjoyed by many in North America, where it takes place on a  Christmas dinner. 

Jamaican Food: Escovitch Fish

This marinade is based on the escovitch method, a Spanish and Portuguese way of marinating in vinegar, which also appears in the Peruvian dish ceviche. The vinegar imparts a tangy flavor to the fish, making it delicious. Fried food usually contains a lot of fat, and this food is extremely healthy because it reduces that fat significantly.

It is traditionally eaten around Easter, but since there is such a large Jewish community in Jamaica, it is not surprising that people consume it throughout the year. 

This dish, in particular, has roots in Dutch colonies in South America, where instead of vinegar, a hot sauce was used, changing it from Escovigado to Escovitch.

Manish Water

This spicy Jamaican soup is often called “power water” and is considered an aphrodisiac. It’s made with goats’ heads, scallions, green bananas, scotch bonnet peppers, and spinners (small dumplings). White rum is an optional ingredient.

Jamaican Food: Manish Water

There are many claims about the origin of this very spicy stew with rum, but it has undoubtedly been around for a very long time. The power water or Manish Water in Jamaica is derived from a Yoruba name that means “to kick”;  some kind of supercharged drink you get the strength to “kick-ass.”

Callaloo

Callaloo is an essential dish in the Caribbean, and Jamaica is one of the countries which prepares this leafy green with a lot of diversity. The meaning of callaloo depends on who you talk to since it’s widely cooked in all Caribbean countries. 

I can say about callaloo that it’s a dish you’ll find on most Jamaican restaurant menus throughout the world.

Jamaican Food: Callaloo

Jamaica has two main types of callaloo recipes: The first one is made with steamed spinach (or a locally grown green called tute) and spices, such as garlic, black pepper, red pepper, thyme, and Scotch bonnet pepper. 

The second version steams a type of green called amaranth, which is known locally as “tibs.” Callaloo made with spinach or other greens can be served both as a stew or a side dish or stuffing on another staple, such as rice and peas. You can call this a tasty yet healthy Jamaican vegan food.

Festival – Fried Dumpling

Jamaican Food: Festival

This is by far my favorite Jamaican side dish. Festival is a fried dumpling made with cornmeal, flour, salt, and the reason for the unique taste, sugar! 

Festival is commonly eaten with fish, or sometimes another dish called beignets or soft dough-like pastries dusted with sugar. Ackee and saltfish are also eaten with the Festival and Escovitch (fish) and sometimes boiled green bananas. 

Festival gives Jamaican cuisine the texture that some people do not like in the other typical bread, like bammy and coco bread. It tastes great, and you can eat it plain or have it with any meat, fish, or fruit; unlike bammy, where you can only eat it if you mash it up with saltfish.

Porridge 

One popular Jamaican breakfast option is porridge because it is pretty filling, and what’s best about this recipe is that it can be modified to suit anyone’s tastes. 

Porridge is typically made with oats, cornmeal, or plantain. Depending on the amount of liquid used in cooking, its consistency ranges from thin and soupy to thick and creamy.

Jamaican Food: Porridge 

As a breakfast staple, porridge is popularly served with fried dumplings or boiled green bananas, sliced open and then fried in coconut oil. 

This dish can also be served with stewed fish, beef, or chicken. Meat lovers will especially enjoy it, referred to as “Jamaica’s answer to American hot breakfast.”

Fish Tea

Fish Tea is an easy way of saying that it is a spicy fish soup. However, you will often find the broth version to be light or other versions that are more hearty. Typically made with Jamaican Doctor Fish, and served with Fish Tea, it is considered to be an energizing drink. The plate also includes carrots, onions, and celery. 

Jamaican Food: Fish Tea

But you can also find potatoes inside. Adding tomato paste also gives the soup a brighter color. The main flavoring agents include citric acid, black pepper for spiciness, and different herbs such as scallion, thyme, parsley, cinnamon, allspice, etc. Pepper is the key to determining the level of spiciness.

It is often prepared for guests when they visit and can be served on special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays, or during a party meal. This Jamaican soup is most often “drank” instead of “eaten.”

Rice And Peas

Rice and peas are a staple part of Jamaican food, and a dish often overlooked in favor of other more spiced dishes like jerk chicken and curried goat. 

But trust me when I say that it’s more than worthy of a try, even if you’re not usually a fan of “soul food.” When done right, this Jamaican dish is as close to nirvana as you can get without knocking on heaven’s door.

Jamaican Food: Rice And Peas

It is typically served as a main course and is often paired with jerk chicken, another Jamaican delicacy. The dish contains red kidney beans cooked in coconut milk, onion, garlic, basil, and Scotch bonnet pepper, among other Jamaican spices.

One of the key ingredients of this dish is coconut oil – an essential ingredient not to be substituted! Combining all these ingredients offers a unique flavor to a dish that plays both the role of a side and main dish.

Bammy

Bammy is a Jamaican dish that is made from cassava roots and served quite often to pair with other Jamaican dishes like Escovitch fish. It is impressive to understand this plant has so many uses and can even be called a staple in traditional Jamaican food. 

Jamaican Food: Bammy

Bammy is a tasty treat worth getting to know. It can be eaten sweet, as a dessert, or salted, as a savory accompaniment. It’s usually served with callaloo and dumplings and is popularly paired with ackee and saltfish.

This flatbread soaked in coconut milk is a food you’ll grow to love in Jamaica. It’s easy to prepare and tastes incredible. 

Red Stripe Beer

You don’t have to be a beer connoisseur to love Red Stripe. This is why it’s the most popular beer in Jamaica, the Caribbean, and parts of South Africa. This beer has become part of the Jamaican way of life, from workdays to beach days, from lazy Sundays to parties.

It is the number one selling beer in Jamaica, and it is brewed locally. Red Stripe gets its name from the red stripe, which runs down its center. The original idea behind this red stripe was that it was just to distinguish itself from the rest of the gray bottles. And it sure does.

Coco Bread

Coco bread is a Jamaican delicacy made from cornmeal. It is often referred to as cornmeal bread or side-meat bread and is also the primary ingredient in the traditional Cornish pasty. 

Although Coco bread can be found throughout Jamaica, this traditional staple of island cooking is most prevalent in the western parishes where corn was once grown as a staple crop. The taste of coco bread varies significantly according to where it was made.

I have tasted sophisticated coconut bread with a hint of sugar and vanilla from high-end bakeries, unlike the hard and dry versions found in ordinary Jamaican bakeries. 

Usually, it is part of the Jamaican breakfast menu but also quite often eaten at dinner. Spanish settlers introduced coconut and wheat flour, two of the bread’s main ingredients, to Jamaica. The result is a sweet, soft bun that must be brushed with plenty of melted butter.

Run Down – Fish Stew

Fish with reduced coconut milk is yet another example of Jamaicans pairing seafood and fruit in another unique traditional Jamaican dish. Garlic, onions, tomatoes, chiles, spices, and carefully cut fish pieces are all used in the stew. Fish stews usually feature pickled mackerel, but cod may also be used.

{image} Run Down {image}

Jamaican Food: Fish Stew

The secret to making Run-Down is the broth itself. The broth should be thick and flavorful, so you end up getting a sauce with each bite of fish. With the stew, you can have red beans and rice or plantains mashed. 

It’s not something you’d want to eat every day, simply because there are other delicious Jamaican meals, but it’s still widely popular in Jamaica.

Coconut Drops

Coconut drops are traditional Jamaican sweets that consist of three simple ingredients: coconut flesh, ginger, and sugar. People often make this Jamaican coconut cookie in their homes, explaining the many variations in taste and appearance.

Some are small, round balls, while others are long sticks with a thicker core.

The outside is thin and crispy, while the inside is softly sweet and slightly chewy. Coconut drops are so-called since they fall in drops, just like seeds in watermelons or Chinese pearl teas do when you bite into them.

Jamaican Corn Soup

Jamaican food is famous for its spicy roots, and if you’re used to regular soups, you’re in for a real treat. Corn soup is a traditional Jamaican delicacy that’s got beautiful coloration and lots of Caribbean flairs. 

Of course, there are dozens of different types of Jamaican soup recipes out there, but this one has a unique spicy and sweet flavor that makes it a must-have for families all over the island.

Jamaican Food: Corn soup

In addition to the mushroom and onion ingredients, this dish contains Scotch bonnet peppers, baby corn, yellow split peas, pumpkin, potatoes, carrots, celery, and coconut milk. 

This tasty Jamaican soup is the real “comfort food,” so filling and full of flavor, it promises to take you to a happy place and warm your soul.

Jamaican Red Peas Soup

Jamaica is the land where the Red Peas Soup was born. It has a distinctive taste, and most Jamaicans will tell you that Red Peas Soup is incomparable to any other food. I absolutely agree with that.

Jamaican Red Peas Soup is rich in protein and fibers, making it the perfect satisfying meal for you and your loved ones. This delicious soup can be eaten as a first course or a main dish. 

The primary ingredients used are kidney beans, pumpkin, beef or pigtail (all cuts), carrots, onions, thyme, parsley, and green onions. 

There are many ways to prepare red peas soup that differ from household to household. In some Jamaican homes, the soup is made with added vegetables such as cabbage or dasheen.

Fried Plantain 

Anyone who has mastered the art of frying plantains will tell you how addictive this side dish can get. Fried plantain goes with just about any main course, so it’s a must-have in your Jamaican food arsenal while visiting the island. 

The fried plantain is a famous Jamaican appetizer, served alongside other starters such as jerk chicken, mussels, and Escovitch fish.

Jamaican Food: Plantain
Hot fried plantain slices and whole baked plantains stuffed with cheese, in foil serving dishes, picnic style.

You can dip the plantain slices into a mixture of soy sauce, garlic powder, and thyme – which, in my opinion, is the perfect combination for fried plantains. 

You can add salt to taste, but be careful not to kill the deliciousness of the sauce.

Jamaican Rum

All the above-mentioned foods would not be complete without the one and only Jamaican drink that is known worldwide. A Jamaican rum’s full-body comes from fermenting molasses in large wells called puncheons before distilling it with pot stills, a procedure that dates back to the 17th century.

Known for centuries, this “Jamaican funk” oozes tropical fruits, smoke, spices, and sweet caramel and molasses and is the perfect base for cocktails and punches.

It is prohibited to add sugar to Jamaican rum because it is already naturally sweet. Limestone, a mineral-rich sedimentary rock that is loaded with calcium carbonate, also makes Jamaican rum unique. The rum’s age, country of origin, and availability all play a part in its price. Jamaica is the world’s most expensive rum maker, thanks to the prestige of its country of origin.

{image} Rum {image}

Jamaican Food: Rum

Also, Caribbean Rum Punch is a mainstay on the island, where this golden-colored drink is mixed with chilled canned or bottled fruit juices and poured over ice.

Summary of the Best Jamaican Food

While you’re in Jamaica, be sure to visit as many local restaurants as you can, so you can try all the authentic Jamaican meals and have an all-sense feast. My top three recommendations are jerk chicken, curry goat, and ackee and saltfish. I loved these dishes and would happily devour them regularly if I lived near a Jamaican restaurant.

The exotic flavors are one of the many things that make Jamaican food known and enjoyed worldwide. There are a variety of cultures and people involved in what is now considered authentic Jamaican cuisine, including Tainos, Africans, Europeans, Chinese, and Indians.

In the course of time, each group of people who came to Jamaica offered a unique contribution to the country’s culinary heritage.

It’s no secret, however, that most people still adore the old-fashioned style of baking in brick ovens and cooking on old-time coal stoves when it comes to Jamaican food.

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