I've always believed that one of the best ways to learn about the culture of a country and its people is to eat their food. There is so much history you can gather from the simplest dish. Foodies and travellers alike would agree that food is a universal language. Food generally brings people together. Food is a must at any Jamaican gathering. If asked about Jamaican foods, the first thing that usually comes to mind is jerk chicken. But I'll let you in on a little secret "Jamaican cuisine is much more than that".
Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean and one thing that all the islands have in common is the diversity of the people who landed on their shores. Being a Caribbean island, the Jamaican cuisine is ideally a 'melting pot' of flavours from the indigenous people who lived here and Africa along with other influences. Jamaican food is rich in flavour as a result of the various herbs and spices used during preparation. Our food, much like our people, is sweet and savoury with 'a whole heap a' spice. In this post, I'll be talking about Jamaican foods to try. This will cover a few traditional dishes which are often popular during a certain time of the year while some are available all year round. The culinary prowess of my fellow Jamaicans has evaded me so the majority of these photos will be outsourced.
This had to be number one on my list. In Jamaica, the word 'jerk' has nothing but good connotations. Picture this, perfectly seasoned cuts of meat, sizzling on a grill. Jamaican jerk is amazing regardless of where you have it. However, nothing beats the authentic jerk which is generally cooked over sweet or pimento wood. Jamaican jerk can be purchased from street vendors who are easily identified by their old oil barrels which are converted to 'jerk pans'. These vendors are more than willing to offer you some of their special pepper sauce which is more often, than not, extremely spicy and generally not for the faint of heart. Upon purchase, your meat may be served with a slice of bread or festivals. Jerk chicken and pork are the most commonly consumed jerked meats in Jamaica.
The internationally known, Boston Jerk Centre located in Portland Jamaica is dubbed 'the home of authentic Jamaican jerk' because of how they jerk. Speaking of Portland, I had an awesome adventure in Portland last year. You can read about it here. Jamaican jerk is truly an adventure for your taste buds and you haven't tried Jamaican food if you haven't tried Jamaican jerk.
Stamp and Go (saltfish fritters)
Saltfish fritters are deep-fried dough containing flaked salted codfish, scallion and pepper. The name 'stamp and go' was derived from the fast preparation time as well as the fact that it was easy to be consumed while on the go. Fritters are great as breakfast food or appetizers. They are extremely easy to prepare. I like to add a little curry powder to the batter when making them. It gives it a nice colour. While saltfish is the most commonly used ingredient it can be switched out with sardine, tuna, sausages or even shredded chicken. Here is a simple recipe for those who want to try this dish.
Sweet Potato Pudding
"Hell a top, hell a bottom and Hallelujah in the middle" this describes the traditional process of baking the Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding. This method consists of placing the baking pan or dutchie in (some cases) over hot coals and putting a piece of zinc with coals on top. This way the pudding bakes from both sides giving it a beautiful crust all around. The mixture contains sweet potatoes, raisins, flour, coconut milk, nutmeg and additional spices. Sweet potato pudding is a popular dessert. At local, resorts, it is often served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Sweet potato pudding tastes great hot or cold. But for me, nothing beats eating a freshly baked piece of pudding served in foil paper.
Rice and Peas
This is a Sunday staple for most Jamaicans. It is also a popular lunch menu item at different restaurants during the week. The dish consists of rice and red kidney beans cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with scallion, thyme, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper and salt (some persons may add a little sugar). The kidney beans are switched out with gungo peas during the festive season, however, they are preferred because they add a bit of colour to the rice. It's neither here nor there for me because I don't eat peas and usually spend a part of the time picking them out or eating around them (a skill I've now mastered lol).
Sidenote: Rice and peas taste way better when you use the actual coconut than when coconut milk powder is used.
Ackee and Saltfish
Ackee and saltfish is the national dish of Jamaica. The ackee is a fruit that is native to the tropical region of West Africa. When properly prepared ackee has a consistency which is similar to a scrambled egg. The unripened fruit is poisonous so great care must be taken in preparation. Ackee and saltfish (salted codfish) is cooked up with additional seasonings and spices. It is popularly served as a breakfast food item but can be eaten at any time. It is usually paired with fried dumplings for breakfast and later on paired with boiled green bananas, dumplings and ground provisions (yams, potatoes etc). This dish is a favourite of mine and not just because I'm Jamaican. There are people in Jamaica who don't eat ackee the horror!
Mackerel run-dung is a traditional Jamaican stew. This dish entails salted or smoked mackerel being cooked in coconut milk, onions, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper and additional seasonings. Run-dung is usually served with yam, boiled banana, breadfruit, and dumplings. While it a favourite of the many traditional Jamaican dishes, mackerel run-dung has an acquired taste which I'm yet to acquire so I will have to default to my fellow Jamaicans on this one. However, it would be remiss of me to write about Jamaican food and not have it on my list.
Dukunoo is another popular traditional dish in Jamaica. This tasty dessert has several names, dukunoo, blue draws and tie-a-leaf. As a child, I found the name 'blue draws' to be a little risque, and couldn't help but snicker whenever it was called that. I had the pleasure of seeing it made once by my grandmother. It is easily identified by the presentation, it is cooked while tied in a banana leaf, foil or parchment paper. This gives it the appearance of a tasty little package. Dukunoo is often sold at events during special holidays.
A patty is described as seasoned, minced meat stuffed inside a flaky, flour crust. Patties are Jamaica's favourite lunch item and I can safely say “all Jamaicans, young and old enjoy eating patties”. I can attest to that since I was eating patties before I knew they were patties and I still enjoy them today. Patties have evolved immensely over the years. They were originally stuffed with beef; however, patties are now stuffed with a variety of stuffing including beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp and there are even ackee and soy patties. Patties can be enjoyed alone, however, for a filling lunch, they are paired with coco bread, another Jamaican favourite. Cheese can be added for that extra kick in the flavour. For some of the best patties on the island, you can visit Juici, Tastee or Mother's Patties. There are also a few smaller bakeries that produce mouth-watering patties.
"Breadfruit, You waan breadfruit? Jus tell me if you waan breadfruit" -Chi Ching Ching
Jamaicans love breadfruit so much we named a dance after it. The first breadfruit tree in Jamaica was planted in St. Thomas. It was brought to the island by Captain William Bligh in 1793. The fruit has since then become a favourite of Jamaicans at home and abroad. It is loved for its versatility as it can be prepared in a variety of ways. Breadfruit can be roasted, boiled and fried, the latter being my favourite. It is mainly consumed when fit. The ripened or turned fruit is sweet and isn't necessarily a hit with some Jamaicans. Breadfruit can be served as a side to several dishes including; salt mackerel, ackee and saltfish and steamed callaloo to name a few. It is enjoyed to the extent that persons with relatives visiting from overseas will ensure that they have a few roasted breadfruits to take with them when they leave.
Coconut Treats (gizzada, drops, grater cake)
In case you haven't noticed. Coconuts play an important role in Jamaican cuisine. Whether the oil is being used for frying or the milk is used to add flavour to food coconuts are quite useful. This is probably on account of the trees being practically everywhere on the island. We Jamaicans sometimes (like everyone else) have a hankering for something sweet and with this, in mind, we created these lovely coconut treats. Gizzadas, grater cakes and drops are all created using coconuts, sugar and in some instances flour and additional spices. These sugary delights are guaranteed to satisfy that sugar craving. These are all traditional treats which are usually baked during the festive season as well as other times throughout the year.
Johnny Cake (fried dumplings)
Not to be confused with its sweeter cousin 'festival', johnnycake is lightly kneaded dough, rolled into small balls and then fried. The dough consists of flour, salt and baking powder. Johnnycake also called fried dumpling is the perfect side for almost any dish. It goes well with callaloo, ackee and saltfish, baked beans and sausages, stewed chicken, tin mackerel and much more. Fried dumplings are great at breakfast, lunch or dinnertime.
This dish is a fish lover's delight. Escovitch is a style of cooking using vinegar, onions and other spices. It is mostly consumed during the Easter season, however, as long as there is fish on the menu, escovitch fish is always an option. This and most other fish dishes in Jamaica are usually served with festivals or bammy. Festival is like fried dumplings. The difference is that festivals contain sugar as well as cornmeal and they are not rolled into balls. Bammy is a flat bread that is made from cassava. It is usually soaked in coconut milk and then fried.
The ultimate breakfast food in Jamaica is porridge. Jamaicans love porridge. We make porridge with everything. Cornmeal, oats and peanut are the most common and I recently learned about arrowroot and bulgar porridge which aren’t as popular. Porridge is a healthy breakfast option and has lately become easier to prepare with the rise of instant porridge mixes. We usually have our porridge with a slice of bread. If you are unable to make your own it's available at almost every local restaurant that has a breakfast menu and vendors may be seen with their pots on carts or in trolleys serving up freshly made porridge. A cup of porridge will give you enough boost to start your day but please don't gulp it while it's hot. Nothing burns as hot as freshly made cornmeal porridge, my tongue probably still has the marks to prove it.
Soup (chicken foot, red peas etc)
The next best 'buss gas' remedy for Jamaicans aside from tea is soup. Soup is available at every event, whether complimentary or for sale. Jamaican soups can be served as both appetizer and main course. 'Saturday soup' is essential in most Jamaican homes and no weekend passes without it. Just like porridge we use everything to make soup. Our soups are extremely filling because they are basically one-pot meals. A good pot of soup generally consists of meat, vegetables, various spices and food (yam, breadfruit, boiled dumpling etc.). I am a proud soup lover. Some of my favourite soups are chicken foot, mannish water (goat head soup), fish tea and pepperpot soup. Red peas soup is also great but I don't eat peas so I don't enjoy it as much as I should.
This is last on my list, but it is my favourite. If you are a lover of all things spicy and not allergic to shellfish, peppered shrimp should be on your list of foods to try in Jamaica. I mentioned earlier that Jamaican food has a lot of spice and this certainly does not disappoint. This mouth-watering snack is full of flavour and is the perfect spicy treat on road trips. Peppered shrimp is extremely popular in Jamaica. The best peppered shrimp in Jamaica can be found in Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth.
Whether you're a spicy lover or you have the proverbial sweet tooth, you will find something on the menu at a Jamaican restaurant that will leave your tastebuds in utter bliss. As you can see from this list, Jamaican cuisine spans quite a wide spectrum so no one will be left out. Jamaican food is an experience and if you have never indulged in this unique experience, I'm sorry to say this but "half of your life gone".
Let me know in the comments which ones you have tried, which ones you have never heard of, and which ones you are most looking forward to trying on your next trip to my beautiful island home.
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