One of the best ways to learn about Jamaica is through its food, so why not eat your way around the island? Ackee and saltfish for breakfast, curried goat for lunch and an I-tal vegetarian dinner will teach you more about Jamaica than a month at any all-inclusive resort.
Jamaican cuisine has the weight and heft of a peasant’s diet, with heavy starches and the colorful flavor you associate with the crossroads of the Caribbean. The Taínos introduced callaloo, cassava, corn, sweet potatoes and tropical fruits; the Spanish tossed in escoveitch (a variation on ceviche); Africa added yams, rice, stews and smoked meat; India its curries and rotis; the Chinese added a dash of heat; and the English wrapped it all up in a meat pie.
Year in Food
Portland Jerk Festival, a celebration of everything smoked and spicy, is held across Portland parish, the spiritual home of Jamaican jerk.
Farmers, roasters and baristas alike gather together in Kingston to celebrate everything coffee, from Blue Mountain bean to cup, at the Jamaica Coffee Festival. A stone’s throw from Kingston, Port Royal Seafood Festival celebrates a fisherman’s haul of splendid seafood (and music) in Jamaica’s old pirate capital.
Held across Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, Jamaica Restaurant Week is Jamaica’s biggest festival of the island’s culinary arts.
To travel and taste at the same time, join a specialist culinary tour. Those offered by Jamaica Cultural Enterprises in Kingston and Falmouth Heritage Walks in Falmouth are particularly recommended. Stush in the Bush near Ochi Rios offers tours of their farm followed by sumptuous meals. Don't forget coffee tasting in the Blue Mountains, and the tours offered by the Appleton Rum Estate.
Rum Jamaica is proud of its rum – the smooth and dark Appleton rum is the most celebrated brand and is great sipped or mixed. You can even visit the estate where it's made. Wray & Nephew's white overproof rum carries a knockout blow – it may come in a shot glass, but if you down it in one go you’re heading home early. Mix it with ginger beer, or even milk ('cow and cane').
Beer Red Stripe is Jamaica’s famous beer, a crisp and sweet antidote to spicy jerk creations. Real Rock is a slightly heavier, local lager, while Dragon Stout is also popular. Heineken and Guinness are brewed locally under license.
Coffee Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is considered one of the most exotic and expensive coffees in the world. It’s relatively mild and light-bodied with a musty, almost woody flavor and its own unmistakable aroma. Most upscale hotels and restaurants serve it as a matter of course. The majority of lesser hotels serve lesser coffees from other parts of the country or – sacrilege! – powdered instant coffee. Be careful if you ask for white coffee (with milk), which Jamaicans interpret to mean 50% hot milk and 50% coffee.
Tea ‘Tea’ is a generic Jamaican term for any (usually) hot, nonalcoholic drink, and Jamaicans will make teas of anything. Irish moss is often mixed with rum, milk and spices. Ginger, mint, ganja and even fish are brewed into teas (though the latter is really a thin soup).
Cold drinks A Jamaican favorite for cooling off is ‘skyjuice,’ a shaved-ice cone flavored with sugary fruit syrup and lime juice, sold at streetside stalls. You may also notice ‘bellywash,’ the local name for limeade.
Ting A bottled grapefruit soda, Ting is Jamaica’s own soft drink, although Pepsi is pretty popular too (Coca-Cola is surprisingly difficult to find).
Coconut water Sold straight from the nut from streetside vendors, along with its white 'jelly.'
Roots tonics Made from the roots of plants such as raw moon bush, cola bark, sarsaparilla and dandelion, roots tonics are widely available in small shops, and are sold roadside in handmade batches. They taste like dirt…but in a good way.
Eating in Jamaica
Fruits & Vegetables
‘All fruits ripe’ A Jamaican expression meaning ‘all is well,’ which is also the state of Jamaican fruit. This island is a tropical-fruit heaven. Sampling them all and finding your favorites is a noble, healthy and rewarding task. Don’t just taste the obvious, like coconut, banana, papaya and mango. Savor your first star apple, soursop, ortanique, naseberry, ugli or tinkin’ toe.
I-tal Thanks to the Rastafari, Jamaica is vegetarian-friendly. The I-tal diet (derived from ‘vital’) has evolved an endless index of no-nos. For instance: no salt, no chemicals, no meat or dairy (the latter is ‘white blood’), no alcohol, cigarettes or drugs (ganja doesn’t count). Fruits, vegetables, soy, wheat gluten and herbs prevail. Because of the popularity of the I-tal diet many restaurants offer I-tal options on their menus. Popular dishes include eggplant curry, whipped sweet potatoes and steamed vegetables.
Jamaican Fruit Primer
|ackee||Its yellow flesh is a tasty and popular breakfast food, invariably served with saltfish.|
|cho cho||Also known as christophine or chayote; a pulpy squashlike gourd served in soups and as an accompaniment to meats. Also used for making hot pickles.|
|guava||A small ovoid or rounded fruit with a musky sweet aroma. It has a pinkish granular flesh studded with regular rows of tiny seeds. It is most commonly used in nectars and punches, syrups, jams, chutney and even ice cream.|
|guinep||A small green fruit (pronounced 'gi-nep') that grows in clusters, like grapes, and can be bought from July through November. Each ‘grape’ bears pink flesh that you plop into your mouth whole. It’s kind of rubbery and juicy, and tastes like a cross between a fig and a strawberry. Watch for the big pip in the middle.|
|jackfruit||A yellow fruit from the large pods of the jackfruit tree. Jackfruit seeds can be roasted or boiled.|
|mango||A lush fruit that comes in an assortment of sizes and colors, from yellow to black. Massage the glove-leather skin to soften the pulp, which can be sucked or spooned like custard. Select your mango by its perfume.|
|naseberry||A sweet, yellow and brown fruit that tastes a bit like peach and comes from an evergreen tree. Also known as sapodilla.|
|papaya||Cloaks of many colors (from yellow to rose) hide a melon-smooth flesh that likewise runs from citron to vermilion. The central cavity is a trove of edible black seeds. Tenderness and sweet scent are key to buying papayas.|
|Scotch bonnet pepper||Celebrated for its delicious citrus sparkle just before your entire mouth and head go up in flames, Scotch bonnets are small hot peppers that come in yellow, orange and red.|
|soursop||An ungainly, irregularly shaped fruit with cottony pulp that is invitingly fragrant yet acidic. Its taste hints at guava and pineapple.|
|star apple||A leathery, dark-purple, tennis-ball-sized gelatinous fruit of banded colors (white, pink, lavender, purple). Its glistening seeds form a star in the center. The fruit is mildly sweet and understated.|
|sweetsop||A heart-shaped, lumpy fruit packed with pits and a sweet, custardlike flesh.|
|ugli||A fruit that is well named. It is ugly on the vine – like a deformed grapefruit with warty, mottled green or orange skin. But the golden pulp is delicious: acid-sweet and gushingly juicy.|
Ackee & saltfish The Jamaican breakfast of champions. Ackee fruit bears an uncanny resemblance to scrambled eggs when cooked, while the salty, flaky fish adds a savory depth to the pleasing blandness of the ackee. Usually served with johnny cakes and callaloo (a spinach-like vegetable).
Bread-kind A sort of catch-all term for starch accompaniments, which can include yams, breadfruit, bammy (cassava flatbread), festival (sweet fried cornbread), johnny cakes (dumplings) and steamed bananas (plantain), among others. While not technically bread-kinds, rice and peas (rice and beans) is also a major addition.
Brown stew Often more of a sauce than a stew, brown stew dishes are a nice combination of savory and sweet (and slightly tangy); it’s a good choice for those who don’t like spicy food.
Curry All kinds of curry are popular in Jamaica, but goat curry is king, chopped into small bits with meat on the bone. While the curry has Indian roots, it’s not as hot as its motherland cuisine.
Escoveitch Imported from Spain by Spanish Jews, escoveitch is a marinade – most commonly used on fish – made of vinegar, onions, carrots and Scotch bonnet peppers.
Jerk The island’s signature dish, jerk is the name for a tongue-searing marinade and spice rub for meats and fish, and for the method of smoking them slowly in an outdoor pit over a fire of pimento wood for its unique flavor. Every chef has a secret ingredient, but allspice, a dark berry that tastes like a mixture of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, is essential.
Oxtail Simmered with butter beans and served with rice, stewed oxtail is a national obsession.
Patties Delicious meat pies; fillings can include spicy beef, vegetables, fish and shrimp. A Jamaican favorite is a patty sandwich – a patty squeezed between two thick slices of coco bread (a sweet bread baked with coconut milk). Juici Patties and Tastee Patty are reliable, national fast-food chains selling patties and other Jamaican takeout dishes.
Rundown chicken Cooked in spicy coconut milk, and usually enjoyed for breakfast with johnny cakes. Some say the dish is named for the method by which the chicken is caught.
Fish tea ‘Warm up yuh belly’ with this favorite local cure-all. Essentially, fish broth.
Food at grocery stores is usually expensive, as many canned and packaged goods are imported. Dirt-cheap fresh fruits, vegetables and spices are sold at markets and roadside stalls island-wide. You can always buy fish (and lobster, in season) from local fishers.
Jamaica has a wide range of eating options. With rare exceptions, booking on the day of your meal is usually fine. Most places can deal with walk-ups.
Restaurants Be aware that many midrange and top end restaurants frequently add sales tax and service separately to bills, which can increase menu prices by up to 25%.
Cafes There's not much of a cafe culture in Jamaica, but even cheap bars frequently offer food, canteen-style.
Hotels Many hotels and resorts have excellent restaurants. You don’t need to be a guest to dine in them, but many places may require smart casual dress.