Bold flavors, spicy sauces, and a whole lot of rum punch, Jamaica is a culinary powerhouse of the Caribbean. You might know Jamaica for Bob Marley and reggae, or for its gorgeous white sand beaches, but get to know its food and you will fall even deeper in love with this tropical island. From jerk chicken to fried fish to sweet breads, Jamaican food will keep those good vibes going all day.
Jamaica’s culinary star, jerk sauce is known around the globe for its spicy and smoky flavor. The essentials for a great jerk marinade are scotch bonnet peppers (these add a tremendous amount of flavor), pimento, salt, pepper, allspice, thyme, and garlic. Recipes have evolved to include ingredients like ketchup, Red Stripe Beer, orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, brown sugar, and maple syrup. You’ll commonly find jerk sauce on chicken, pork, fish, and shrimp, but really, you can add it to anything! Try the jerk chicken or jerk rabbit at Murray’s Fish & Jerk Hut in Clarendon.
What makes Jamaican curry different from Indian or other Asian curries is definitely its spiciness. Goat can be a bit gamey for some palates, but if cooked right it should be tender, juicy, and fall off the bone. A mixture of onions, garlic, peppers (don’t forget your scotch bonnet peppers), and ginger, curry goat is traditionally served with potatoes or rice and peas. Try the dish at M10 Bar & Grill in Kingston.
Made with flour, yeast, and coconut milk, you’ll find that coco bread is usually used for sandwiches. It’s slightly sweet and traditionally split in half and eaten with a Jamaican patty, a meat-stuffed hand pie. Try the fresh patties with coco bread at Hammond’s Bakery for cheap eats that are filling and tasty.
Escovitch is for the true seafood lovers. Jamaican escovitch fish is a whole red snapper, seasoned and fried with a spicy and sweet, peppery and vinegar-based marinade. It’s then topped with julienned bell peppers, carrots, and onions, and best served with bread or bammy (a cassava flatbread). Try Sharkies in Runaway Bay or Quality's Sea Breeze Restaurant and Bar in Negril for this tasty dish while relaxing by the sea.
You can’t come to Jamaica without trying the famous rum punch cocktail. Fruity, sweet, and citrusy, Jamaican rum punch is perfect for summer and includes local rum, fruit juice (usually pineapple, orange, lemon, and/or lime), and grenadine. You can find rum punch anywhere on the island.
Ackee and Saltfish
Ackee and saltfish is Jamaica's national dish and this sweet, salty, and creamy breakfast is definitely a unique way to start your day. An absolute must-try while visiting the island, salted cod is sauteed with boiled ackee (a fruit), onions, garlic, spices, scotch bonnet peppers, and tomatoes. It's typically served with plantains, rice and peas, or dumplings. Try Tastee’s ackee and saltfish combo which comes with dumplings, green banana, and free coffee or juice.
Mannish water actually isn't water at all—it’s goat soup made from various parts of the goat, like its head and feet. It’s typically served on special occasions, and is great for large parties and events. Fun fact: mannish water is believed to be an aphrodisiac for men. It’s not usually served at restaurants, but you can find it at roadside stands or at a local wedding.
A healthy side dish, callaloo takes on many different forms across the Caribbean. In Jamaica, it’s steamed leafy veggies (usually amaranth) together with tomato, onion, thyme, garlic, and—you guessed it—scotch bonnet peppers. Think of it like the steamed spinach side of Jamaica, and you’ll pretty much find it everywhere.
Rice and Peas
Rice and peas is another name for rice and beans. The dried red kidney beans and rice are cooked in coconut milk with spices like allspice and garlic, and, of course, squash bonnet peppers for a little kick. This is a staple side dish in Jamaica, so you will see it on every menu and with your favorite entrees. Try the jerk chicken with a side of rice and peas at Scotchies in Montego Bay.
A member of the banana family, plantains are a tropical starchy fruit found all across the Caribbean. The Jamaican preparation of plantains is typically slathered in butter, salt, and pepper, and then fried, and is usually a side dish for any kind of meat or fish. For something a bit different, try the plantain tarts at Susie’s Cafe in Kingston.