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Bursting with heat, spice, and flair beneath the Caribbean heat, Jamaican foods bring some truly unique, wondrous, and fiery flavors to the dinner table.
Jamaican cuisine is an eccentric fusion of Caribbean, Asian, African, and European flavors, bound together by tropical produce, melt-in-mouth meats and seafood, and a more-than-generous handful of seasonings and spices.
Join us on one of the Caribbean’s most enthralling culinary adventures, guided by the expertise of a local writer, as we see the true heart, passion, and soul of this magical island through 17 of its most popular and beloved dishes.
Traditional Jamaican Foods You Should Try
1 – Rice and Peas
‘Rice and peas’ is an all-time favorite Jamaican Sunday dinner. The dish consists of a simple and wholesome combination of white rice and a choice of peas, including kidney beans, gungo peas, and many more.
Across Jamaica, everyone — rich, poor, male, or female — sits down for dinner on Sundays to enjoy a steaming-hot bowl of rice and peas.
If dried, the peas are pre-soaked overnight to make them easier to cook. It is not, however, necessary to pre-soak the peas if you are using a pressure cooker.
Once prepared, the peas are cooked in coconut milk before the rice and spices are added to the pan. The sweetness of the coconut, the earthiness of the peas, and the heat of the spices all combine to create a dish that bursts with flavor, despite the simple ingredients.
Practically all Jamaicans look forward to this delicious meal at the end of the week, which can commonly be served with chicken and a refreshing glass of carrot, beetroot, or soursop juice.
2 – Curry Chicken
This delicious curry dish is another Jamaican favorite. Curry chicken consists of chicken cut into small pieces, seasoned with spices and natural herbs, cooked in hot oil with Jamaican curry powder or turmeric.
This tender, spicy dish is usually served with white rice, but Jamaicans eat it with just about anything — bread, rice and peas, cooked or fried dumplings, you name it.
In fact, curry chicken is so simple to prepare that you’ll often hear Jamaicans say, “I’m gonna ‘run a boat and rustle-up’ some curry chicken to eat.” The term “run a boat” means to cook up a quick meal when hungry.
Curry chicken is a prime example of how both Indian and West African cuisines have historically influenced Jamaican food.
3 – Ackee and Saltfish
Ackee and Saltfish is Jamaica’s national dish and a huge favorite among Jamaicans. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an islander who doesn’t eat this truly unique food.
The ackee fruit was brought to Jamaica via Africa, and today, it is the country’s national fruit. With its muted yellow skin and big, orb-like black seeds, ackee is very much an odd-looking fruit.
Once deseeded, the flesh is removed, cleaned, and placed in a pot to cook separately. Ackee has a very unique taste when cooked, with some describing it as almost scrambled-egg-like in its taste and texture. Once cooked, the ackee is drained and added to a dish of seasoned saltfish.
Ackee and saltfish are somewhat of a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ of Jamaican cooking! Both bring strong, savory flavors to the forefront, forming a flavorsome dish, which is commonly served with boiled green bananas, roasted breadfruit, or fried /cooked dumplings.
4 – Jamaican Patty
This wholesome Jamaican dish is an island favorite. A versatile lunch meal, the Jamaican patty can be eaten by itself, but it is also commonly served with cocoa bread.
Essentially, the Jamaican patty is a flaky pastry filled with various savory fillings. The pastry gets its iconic yellow/golden color from the use of egg yolk and turmeric in the dough-making process.
Although traditionally, the Jamaican patty was prepared with a beef filling, through generations, Jamaicans have experimented with a range of other delicious fillings, including chicken, vegetable, cheese, shrimp, and even ackee and saltfish.
Served piping hot, Jamaican patty is the ideal grab-and-go snack or lunch. In a similar vein to the British pasty or the South American empanada, the creativity of cooks and chefs when it comes to the filling knows no bounds. The more vendors and food markets you visit, the more unique and interesting the patty flavors you’ll find!
5 – Jerk Chicken
A titan of Jamaican cuisine, practically all Jamaicans agree that when it comes to food, Jamaican jerk chicken is simply the best! The aroma, heat, flavor, and taste of this spicy and fiery food are enough to get even casual foodies salivating at the lips.
The term ‘jerk’ refers to the style of preparation, where the chicken is either rubbed or marinated in what islanders have proudly named ‘Jamaican jerk sauce,’ a hot, explosive marinade of various spices and Scotch bonnet peppers. Once marinated, that iconic smokey taste is achieved by slowly smoking the meat over a wood burner, open fire, or other techniques.
You will find that beloved Jamaican cooking style absolutely everywhere, from restaurants and street food vendors to food markets and house parties.
While chicken is a staple of Jamaican jerk cuisine, you can also find jerk pork and various other jerk meats throughout the country. With the right seasoning and spices and your choice of meat, you can even make your own Jamaican jerk meat at home. But in Jamaica, trying it is pretty much a rite of passage!
6 – Escovitch Fish
There’s something about this Jamaican seafood dish, prepared with fish within the Caribbean waters that makes you simply hungry for more with each and every bite.
The word ‘Escovitch’ refers to the way in which the fish is prepared. Typically, the fish is first fried with a handful of natural spices, then marinaded in a pickled sauce that varies from region to region but commonly consists of onion, hot peppers, sautéed carrots, scallops, vinegar, and a splash of oil.
Although Escovitch fish is typically eaten with bread or roasted breadfruit, you can also eat it with bammy, fried plantains, or festivals (special Jamaican fried dumplings). Try it for yourself — you can find Escovitch fish at any Jamaican seafood festival or various food markets.
7 – Curry Goat
Curry goat is a tasty and traditional Jamaican food prepared in households and at food fetes across the country.
Curry goat is a rich, flavorsome dish of goat meat, chopped into small pieces and cooked in a stew with onions, garlic, ginger, hot peppers, and plenty of Jamaican curry.
The dish is slow-cooked, allowing the spices to blend with the meat to produce an authentic Jamaican flavor. Diced carrots, freshly chopped herbs, and potatoes are usually added to enhance the stew’s tantalizing flavor. When ready, this thick and rich stew is served with white rice or a combination of rice and peas.
8 – Bammy
Bammy, a thick, starchy, and delicious traditional food is usually served for breakfast, but you can be sure to find Jamaicans eating it at any time of the day.
Bammy looks similar to flatbread but is made from grated cassava root instead of flour. The root is grated, wrung dry, and then baked on a round griddle. It can be eaten when freshly baked, but if left for later, it can be enjoyed dipped in coconut or regular milk or fried in a pan until golden brown.
Bammy is commonly served as a side with callaloo or served with Escovitch fish, a rich seafood dish or fried fish smothered in a pickled sauce, or as a main meal in its own right.
9 – Mannish Water / Power Water
Manish Water is a spicy soup, claimed to be an aphrodisiac by Jamaicans, hence the name ‘Power Water’. The soup consists of a goat’s head, feet, and tripe, which are chopped into small pieces and slow-cooked in a large pot over an open flame.
Other ingredients added to the soup include green bananas, cho-cho, garlic, scallions, thyme and spinners (small dumplings), Scotch bonnet peppers, various spices, and even some Jamaican rum.
This soup is not usually found on restaurant menus, but can always be found served outside nightclubs, at food markets and festivals, and from many roadside vendors.
Jamaicans from all walks of life love gulping down a cup or two of Mannish Water and are not afraid to ask for it if they cannot find it at local food events.
10 – Run Down (Run-Dun)
Run-dun is another rich and delicious Jamaican stew on the must-try list, popular throughout the Caribbean. The dish consists of large pieces of fish, preferably “salt” mackerel, cooked in coconut milk, with plenty of garlic, tomatoes, onions or scallions, hot peppers, and a generous handful of spices.
While mackerel is the preferred fish in run-down, codfish is a more than worthy seafood substitute. The dish is slow-cooked to a thick, creamy consistency until the fish is broken down, hence the name “run dun”. Native Jamaicans across the country enjoy slurping this authentic and mildly flavored fish stew.
Similar to other dishes in Jamaica, run down is commonly served with boiled bananas, roasted breadfruit, and dumplings, among many other sides.
11 – Callaloo
Callaloo is a dark-green leafy vegetable and is a favorite among Jamaicans because it is one of those foods that is used to “run a boat” (cook a meal) if you’re hungry and need quick, hearty food.
One of the best ways to enjoy callaloo in Jamaican cuisine is chopped and sautéed with fresh herbs and spices, tomatoes, onions, and whole hot peppers. This classic dish is not only a favorite on the breakfast table but also a popular choice as a side dish.
Callaloo has a flavor similar to spinach, kale, and American collard greens. Jamaicans commonly enjoy callaloo with rice, dumplings (cooked or fried), bread, boiled yams, and boiled green bananas.
12 – Red Pea Soup
Red pea soup is a traditional dish, enjoyed by Jamaicans at all times of the day. The soup consists of a rich, fiery combination of red kidney beans or various red peas, yam, breadfruit, dumplings, Irish potatoes, garlic, scallion, thyme, and hot whole peppers.
Red pea soup is renowned for its bright red color and deep, rich flavor, courtesy of the lavish amount of red peas used. Traditionally, red pea soup included pig tail or salted beef, but today many Jamaicans enjoy this dish without the inclusion of meat. True comfort food during the Jamaican rainy season, red pea soup is Caribbean home-cooking at its finest.
13 – Oxtail
Oxtail is a juicy, sumptuous dish, referencing the name given to the tail of a steer, bullock, or ox. It originated in Jamaica and, in time, has become a beloved dish across the island.
Visit nearly any butcher, food market, or supermarket in Jamaica, and you will be able to find oxtail, pre-cut into pieces and ready for cooking.
Oxtail is commonly seasoned with herbs and spices, then fried, and finally placed in a pressure cooker to be served tender and succulent.
Broad beans and “browning”, a rich Jamaican sauce, are added to the juices, and one ready oxtail is commonly served with rice and peas. You will find this Jamaican recipe on the menu of nearly every restaurant in Jamaica.
14 – Stewed Peas
Stewed peas is a wholesome dish of kidney beans (red peas in Jamaica), cooked with a generous amount of herbs and spices, and Scotch bonnet peppers. Small dumplings known as “spinners” are also added to the mixture, helping add a thick, gravy-like consistency to the dish.
Similar in appearance to red pea soup, stewed peas has a noticeably thicker consistency. The dish is often served with white rice, but Jamaicans often serve this classic dish with plenty of other delicious, hearty sides.
15 – Fish Tea
Despite its name, this beloved dish is not a tea, but in fact, a soup. Fish tea can be served as both an appetizer and as a main dish. Jamaicans will often use fish heads or fish cuts sold at local meat shops in the broth to make this meal in a simple, inexpensive way.
Traditionally, this dish was made with small whole fish and seasonings, including Scotch bonnet or other hot peppers, creating a broth packed with salt, spice, and heat.
When fish tea is served as a main course, commonly yam, chocho, dumplings, and/or green bananas are added to the soup, to add plenty of body and stodge to the dish.
Also prepared as a comforting dish for Jamaicans who are ill and under the weather, fish tea is one of the heartiest examples of Caribbean home-cooking you’ll find on the island.
16 – Blue Draws
Every Jamaican love this sweet treat. The dish can be called Blue Draws, Tie-A-Leaf, or Dukunnu, depending of what region of Jamaica you are from.
Blue draws is traditionally cooked with cornmeal, but many variations have been developed over time, including recipes with cassava, sweet potato and green banana.
Flour, brown sugar, coconut milk, nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon are added to the mixture, which is then wrapped in banana leaves, tied with thin strips of banana bark or cord, and boiled in water, reaching a consistency that is neither too hard, nor too soft.
Once ready, the banana leaf is untied and removed, revealing the starchy and sweet pudding-like dessert that so many Jamaicans find utterly irresistible.
17 – Grater Cake
A Jamaican dessert kids and adults alike adore, grater cake is a beloved candy made from coconut, sugar, and food coloring.
It is made by first grating coconut into fine particles and cooking the grated mound with granulated white sugar.
Once cooked, the mixture is then separated into two halves. One half is colored with red food coloring. Then, both the white and red halves are sandwiched together and baked in the oven, producing a sweet and creamy cake with a delightful crusty exterior.
Grater cake can either be spooned into small stacked rounds before baking, or the entire mixture can be spread over a baking tray, then baked, and finally cut into squares once cooked.
Jamaican Foods Summary
For an utterly unique and explosive culinary experience in the Caribbean, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cuisine that pushes the boundaries quite like Jamaican food.
With its abundant spices, vibrant colors, fresh ingredients, and global influences, Jamaican food, through the ages, has brought dishes to the table unlike anything else in the world.
Embrace the heat. Savor both the sweet and savory. And be sure to try as many authentic dishes as you can. You will not regret it!
Finally, be sure to have this list of Jamaican food handy when you visit so that you can try one or more of these popular and traditional foods.
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Contributor: Linda Singh is a Jamaican writer from Montego Bay. When not translating texts, she writes on a number of topics relating to her home country, including Jamaican cuisine and top destinations.
Editor: Dan Bevan is an experienced copywriter, editor, and proofreader from Nottingham, United Kingdom.
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