Eating the traditional food of a country is one of the best parts of travel for me. In fact, if I don’t enjoy the local food, I’ve been know to get food depression. Fortunately, Jamaica has some fantastic flavours to try and some equally amazing places to try them. Whether you’re about to visit Jamaica or are looking to pull together a tropical feast for the family at home, here’s what to eat in Jamaica – traditional Jamaican food.
What to eat in Jamaica
Ask someone to name a traditional Jamaican food and they’ll most likely mention jerk chicken. Ubiquitous throughout Jamaica from roadside shacks to fancy restaurant twists, jerk chicken is, without doubt, a Jamaican institution. If you don’t know what it is, think pieces of chicken rubbed and marinated in a blend of hot spices before being smoked, traditionally over pimento wood.
Jamaican spice: I have an especially high tolerance for spicy food and I’m not going to lie – some of the foods I tried in Jamaica will flat-out blow your lid if you don’t regularly eat hot food. Scotch bonnet, one of the hottest chilli peppers on the planet, is liberally added to many dishes in Jamaica. To give you some context of its power, Scotch Bonnet peppers have a 100,000 to 350,000 rating on the Scoville (heat) scale while jalapeños have 2,500 to 8,000 on the same scale.
If you want to prepare yourself for a trip to Jamaican, it’s possible to slowly up your chilli tolerance by eating increasingly spicy food before you arrive. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for it.
Want to try it at home? The ‘hot’ version of this seasoning is going to be closer to what you’ll find in Jamaica but there is no prize for burning your mouth down so don’t be ashamed about trying the mild version.
Probably the next most popular dish in Jamaica (or at least next most commonly served) is curry goat. Exactly as it sounds, it’s goat – curried. As mentioned above, the curry has a fair kick to it, but should be tolerable by most, and the goat is usually so tender it falls off the bone.
Oh, and if you’re wandering whether I meant to title this ‘curried goat’, curry goat is how the locals refer to this dish and you’ll get an off look if you try to call it anything else.
Bones in Jamaican food: many of the meat dishes in Jamaica come on the bone and in the case of goat or chicken curry, the meat has been chopped into small pieces, bones and all. It’s a good way of keeping the meat succulent while cooking it to the point of supreme tenderness. However, it can take a little more effort to eat, separating the meat from the bone, as well as a bit of attitude adaptation given most of Europe and North America rarely serves boned meat within a sauce these days. Don’t let it put you off – just be careful when you bite!
Want to try it at home? Check out this popular cookbook, which includes a recipe.
Ackee and saltfish
I both loved and hated this traditional Jamaican dish in equal measures – I loved the saltfish (cod) but I couldn’t quite get my head around the squidgy consistency of the ackee.
Ackee is a Jamaican fruit (fruit in the same way that tomato and avocado are fruits) that arrived in Jamaica from Ghana in the early 1700s. The fruit grows in abundance and the locals love it. In fact, I think most tourists like it, too. I seemed to be a bit of an exception and the chances are you’ll love it. Ackee and saltfish is cooked up in one pot with tomatoes, onions and, of course, chilli and spices; and there’s as much chance that you’ll find this dish served at breakfast as you’ll find it at dinner.
Want to try it at home? Neither of the base items for this dish are cheap…but it’s cheaper than flying to Jamaica for the night, right?
Yep, I thought someone was telling me they were getting sick when I heard the words ‘run down’ but in Jamaica it’s a popular one-pot dish that usually includes fish and vegetables (yam, tomatoes, onions) cooked in coconut milk until the fish is ‘run down’ i.e. breaks into pieces.
Want to try it at home?
You may know Solomon Grundy best from the nursery rhyme (Solomon Grundy, born on Monday, Christened on Tuesday…) but in Jamaica, Solomon Grundy is an appetiser of pickled fish pâté. Served with crackers, this bite size dish with its compliments of salt and vinegar is very moreish – back away after a few crackers if you plan on making it all the way to dessert.
Can’t find scotch bonnet peppers at home?
If you can’t find them in your local supermarket, try the powdered or dried variety or, even better, grow your own.
Very traditional in the Caribbean, callaloo is a dish made from cooking leaf vegetables (commonly amaranth, taro or xanthosomo). Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of those veggies before, I can assure you they taste just fine. In fact, callaloo turned out to be one of my favourite dishes in Jamaica – probably because of its similarity to cooked spinach.
Want to try it at home? Buy Callaloo on Amazon here.
Rice and peas
Jamaica still retains a traditional protein and rice approach to its meals with rice and peas being one of the most common side dishes you’ll be served. Don’t be confused by the word ‘peas’ – that’s a Jamaican name for beans similar to kidney beans. All in, this dish is very similar to the red beans and rice you’ll find in Louisiana with the key difference that the Jamaican version is cooked with coconut milk for a very tropical taste.
A word on restaurant prices in Jamaica: thanks in no small amount to the number of tourists that flood Jamaica each year, restaurant prices are way north of what you might expect them to be. My best tip for managing your food expectations is not to make comparisons with what you pay (and what you might get) for the same price back home. You’re in the Caribbean and food prices reflect that. For example, I paid $20 for an average (at best) plate of curry chicken and rice and a small bottle of water in a restaurant. Keep your comparisons between the relative quality of the restaurants in Jamaica and you’ll have a much more pleasant time.
For some of my favourite places to eat in Jamaica, see below.
Bammy is nothing short of divine. A very simple but delicious flat bread that’s made from cassava (yuca), you’ll probably end up craving it when it doesn’t appear on your plate. But don’t indulge too much if you want to take care of your waistline – the reason bammy tastes so delicious is because the cassava is soaked in coconut milk and fried.
Want to try it at home? Buy Bammy on Amazon here.
Fancy making it from scratch? You can find a recipe here.
While we’re on the topic of deep-fried sides, if I didn’t find bammy on my plate, I could most certainly locate a dumpling or two. Made from flour, dumplings are usually boiled or fried (or boiled and then fried) and are often served with fish dishes. And those dumplings that are made from white flour and are fried without being boiled are known as Johnny cakes. There are two types of dumplings (top left and centre) in the picture above.
Want to try it at home? Buy Jamaican Dumplings on Amazon here.
Look, I never said you were going to get thin eating traditional Jamaican food and with patties on the table, there’s every chance you’re going to eat more than one during your stay. Akin to a meat pie, Jamaican patties are made up of a pastry outer that can be stuffed with all manner of meat, vegetables or fish. However, unlike British pies, you’re going to have a lot more flavour and spice in Jamaican patties. Try a few flavours to find your favourite.
Want to try it at home?
Planning your trip? Lonely Planet guides can be low on pretty pictures but they more than make up for it with a wealth of information.
Plantain: chipped, fried, fresh
Of course, plantain, like several of the dishes in Jamaica, is not exclusive to this Caribbean island, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. Whether you’re having it as chips served as a snack (great with a beer), deep-fried or boiled, plantain is a welcome addition to pretty much every Jamaican plate.
Want to try it at home? You can buy plantains on Amazon here.
Soups (especially pepperpot soup)
This may sound like a generic suggestion – go to Jamaica and eat soup – but the fact is that Jamaica has an extensive soup repertoire. My favourites include Jamaican pepperpot (callaloo, yam and Scotch Bonnet) and good old pumpkin soup. Whichever version you try, expect some heat.
Want to try it at home?
You can find a recipe for pepperpot soup here. This is a vegetarian version – some recipes include pig’s tail, which may not be to your liking (it doesn’t appeal to me too much – I had the veggie version when I was in Jamaica).
A thin amount of fruit flesh around a hard, inedible pip makes for some mouth work, but the soft, gently sweep flavour of soursop makes it worth the effort. Think lychee without the strong perfumed taste and you wont be far off the mark.
A word on desserts: I can’t help feel like I’ve let you down on the dessert front but since the beginning of the year, I seem to have lost my sweet tooth – I could barely manage one let alone two gelato a day when I was in Italy. Once upon a time, I would choose my main course according to what I was going to eat for dessert but recently the urge has left. For that reason, I didn’t order a single sweet dish while I was in Jamaica. Apologies – here’s a list of traditional Jamaican desserts (as eaten and written by someone else).
What to drink in Jamaica
As well as what to eat in Jamaica, you probably want to know what to drink, too? Fortunately, I haven’t, lost my urge to drink, so here are a few Jamaican brews for you to try.
Blue Mountain Coffee
After oxygen and water, coffee is perhaps my third most necessary life item and, if it were considered acceptable, I’d consume it by the bucket load. Thanks to my caffeine urge, I’ve built up a bit of coffee knowledge over the years and I declare the coffee from the Blue Mountains in Jamaica to be some of the best I’ve tasted. In fact, if you have the chance, get up into the blue mountains so that you can taste the coffee at source (more details below).
Want to try it at home? You can buy the amazing Blue Mountain Jamaican coffee on Amazon here.
I almost didn’t add this drink to the list because Red Stripe is commonly available in many countries around the world and it’s not one of my favourite beers. However, I have to give Jamaica credit because its home-grown brew does taste much better when consumed in the country of origin. Maybe it’s the sunshine?
And this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning rum.
Here are a couple of local rums to try that were recommended to me by people in Jamaica.
J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum – owned by the bunch behind Appleton, legend has it, this was the original Jamaican rum, so it’s worth a taste for that reason alone. However, drinkers are urged to take caution. This spirit comes in at a hefty 63% alcohol so it’s going to hit you in the head as well as in the back of the throat. You’ll probably just want to try this just once. Or with lots of coke.
Appleton VX – if you aren’t in the mood for throat burn, try to get your hands on some Appleton VX. Sugar, spice and all things nice. That is what this rum is made of.
Favourite food spots in Jamaica
The best thing you can to do for your palette in Jamaica is avoid the resorts and their all-inclusive buffets. There’s very little that tastes good when it’s served from a bain-marie (those metal buffet bins).
Here are some of my favourite food places in Jamaica.
Mille Fleur (Port Antonio)
Long regarded as the number one restaurant in pretty Port Antonio, I can’t decide if it’s the dedication to locally sourced, organic produce or the creativity of the daily changing menu that blends local and European flavours that makes this place a winner. Or maybe it’s the views over the port, the Blue Mountains and the Caribbean Sea. Most likely, it’s a combination of all these things. Go for sunset cocktails and stay for a long, indulgent dinner. And if you’re too full to walk more than a few steps afterwards, you’re in luck – the restaurant is part of the award-winning eco-boutique Mockingbird Hill Hotel.
Pelican Grill (Montego Bay)
It can be hard to find a place for dinner in Montego Bay that isn’t part of an America chain and doesn’t come with not paper (fast-food) napkins. Luckily, after a few conversations with locals I was pointed towards Pelican Grill. Sat on the (poorly named) Hip Strip, Pelican Grill has a beautiful traditional Jamaican menu as well as a few more Americanised options if you’re after a change.
Belinda’s (Rio Grande)
Everything about Belinda’s is going to blow your mind. First up, you can only reach it by taking a raft down the Rio Grande. And then you have to make sure Belinda’s going to be there on the day you visit – she most likely is, but with a 7 kilometre walk ‘to work’, heavy rain can keep her away. Assuming fortune is in your favour, get ready for a feast that’s cooked up in huge, heavy pots over firewood flames. With the Rio Grande floating by and a plate piled with some of the best local food you’ll find in Jamaica, eating at Belinda’s is most likely going to be a highlight of your trip.
I arranged my rafting trip with Mockingbird Hill Hotel and they have a direct line to Belinda, so they know whether she’ll be cooking on a certain day or not.
Dressing for dinner in Jamaica: Jamaicans dress well. Incredibly well. So, if you’re heading out for dinner or intending to visit a decent restaurant for lunch, do as the locals and present yourself well. I ended up in a few places where I was glad I’d put a simple dress on instead of just a t-shirt and shorts.
Of course, if you’re at the beach or on the Rio Grande (see below), beach wear is just fine.
Cynthia’s Winnifred beach (Port Antonio)
Think Belinda’s but with a beach-side setting and that pretty much sums up the restaurant run by Cynthia on Winnifred Beach. There are very few public beaches in Jamaica, most of the patches of sand having been claimed by the big resorts, so it’s refreshing to step onto beautiful Winnifred Beach, which is mostly occupied by locals. Cynthia serves up a healthy portion of local food that’s going to send you straight for a lie down on the sand.
Devon House i-scream (Kingston)
Tell a lie, I did have one dessert when I was in Jamaica (even if I did technically eat it just before lunch). The i-scream ice cream shop at Devon House in Kingston is an institution in the city with families making it a regular part of their weekend routine. You’ll absolutely have to queue for a cone but it’s absolutely worth it. What did I try? Rum and raisin, of course – when in Jamaica…
I’ve already mentioned the exceptional quality of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee but you can’t beat sampling a cup and buying beans direct from one of the growers. After a couple of hours winding up towards the peak of the mountains, I hit upon the Old Tavern Coffee Estate and once there I came very close to refusing to leave. Three cups of freshly brewed coffee later, I probably could have run down the mountain. And I’d happily run back up it just for another cup.
Life Yard 360 (Kingston)
One of the most impressive projects I saw in Jamaica was Life Yard 360, an urban garden that’s been planted and cultivated in the middle of Kingston. Using Rastafari tradition, Life Yard serves vegetarian food. Sadly, the kitchen wasn’t open when I stopped by so can someone pop in and let me know how good it is? Stop by the Facebook page to make sure food is being served on the say you plan to visit.
For more information on travelling through Jamaica, check out my related article: An itinerary Through Real Jamaica.
Have you been to Jamaica? Any favourite foods I’ve missed or any other restaurants you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
Photos: Jerk Chicken (Sean Hickin); Run Down (Dane Brian); Solomon Grundy (e_hmm); Rice & Peas (simthom); Bammy (Purple Globetrotter); Patties (mesohungry); Soursop (taramarie). My stay in Jamaica was courtesy of Hotel Mockingbird Hill.