Jamaican food is a reason in itself to visit the island. Home-cooked meals are generally the best so it's worth seeking out an invitation whenever possible. The traditional dishes were developed during the era of slavery and typically include a generous, even overwhelming, serving of starch, and at least a token of meat or seafood protein known historically as "the watchman." In recent years pan-Caribbean fusion has caught on as a new culinary trend, with creative dishes added to the traditional staple dishes.
Ackee is a central ingredient of the national dish, ackee and saltfish. The fruit contains dangerous levels of toxic amino acid hypoglycine until the fruit pods open naturally on the tree, or "dehisce," in horticultural terminology, at which point the yellow fleshy aril surrounding the glossy, black seed is safe to eat. Ackee has the consistency and color of scrambled eggs and is generally prepared with onion and rehydrated saltfish. Dried codfish was the original ingredient, which made an important dietary contribution during slavery when it was shipped from its abundant source off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Today cod has become scarce and very expensive when available as a result of over-fishing, and the fish is most often imported from Norway or replaced altogether with other saltfish substitutes.
Bammy is derived from the Taino word guyami, which was a staple for the Tainos. Bammy is made from cassava (known in many Spanish-speaking countries as casabe ). In Jamaica, bammy is either steamed or fried and usually eaten as the starch accompaniment to fish.
Bun, or Easter Bun, is a tradition that has become popular enough to last throughout the year, so much so that by Easter there is little novelty left. Bun is typically eaten with yellow cheddar cheese.
Bulla is a heavy biscuit made with flour and molasses.
Callaloo is a spinach-like green often steamed and served for breakfast, either alone as a side dish or sometimes mixed with saltfish.
Curry was brought to Jamaica by indentured Indians and quickly caught on as a popular flavoring for a variety of dishes, most commonly curry goat, but also including curry chicken, conch, shrimp, crab, and lobster. Curry rivals ganja as the most popular contribution from Indian to Jamaican culture.
Dumpling is a round doughy mass that's either boiled or fried, generally to accompany breakfast. When boiled, there is little difference at the center from raw dough. Spinners are basically the same thing but rolled between the hands and boiled with conch or corn soup.
Fish tea is similar to mannish water except it is made with boiled fish parts.
Festival is another common starchy accompaniment to fish and jerk meals, consisting basically of fried dough shaped into a slender cylindrical sort of blob.
Food refers to any starchy tubers served to accompany a protein, also known as "ground provisions." The term has its roots in the days of slavery when provision grounds were maintained by slaves to ensure an adequate supply of food.
Jerk is a seasoning that goes back as far as Jamaica's Tainos. The most common jerk dishes are chicken and pork, optimally barbecued using pimento wood which gives the meat a delicious smoky flavor complemented by the spicy seasoning that invariable contains hot scotch bonnet pepper.
Mannish water is a popular broth with supposed aphrodisiac properties made of goat parts not suitable for other dishes (the head, testicles, legs) and cooked with green banana, spinners, and seasoned with pepper and sometimes rum.
Oxtail is a popular dish that requires little explanation.
Provisions are an inexpensive and important part of the Jamaican diet. The most commonly consumed starches include rice, yam, cassava, breadfruit, dumpling (fried or boiled balls of flour), boiled green banana, or fried plantain.
Rice and peas is the most ubiquitous staple served with any main dish. "Peas" in Jamaica is what the rest of the English-speaking world refers to as beans and usually consist of either kidney beans sparsely distributed among the white rice, or gungo peas cooked with coconut milk and other seasoning.
Saltfish was originally codfish that was shipped from New England in large quantities, with salt used as a preservative. It became a protein staple that helped sustain the slave trade. Despite the widespread use of refrigeration today, saltfish continues to be a sought-after item, even as the stocks of cod have been depleted from the Great Banks of Massachusetts and other salted fish has been substituted in its place.
Fresh seafood is readily available throughout Jamaica, though fish, shrimp, and lobster are typically the most expensive items on any menu. Fish is generally either red snapper or parrot fish prepared steamed with okra, escovitched, or fried. Escoveitch fish comes from the Spanish tradition of escaveche, with vinegar used in the preparation. In Jamaica, scotch bonnet pepper and vinegar-infused onion is usually served with friedescoveitch fish.
The most common Jamaican lobsters are actually marine crayfish belonging to the family Palinuridae (Palinurus argus). Commonly known as the spiny lobster, two species are widely eaten, and, while noticeably different, are every bit as delicious as lobster caught in more northern waters.
Popular breakfast items include hominy porridge and beef liver in addition to ackee and saltfish, typically eaten on Sundays.
Jamaican coffee is among the most prized in the world, Blue Mountain Coffee being the most coveted variety on the island. The Blue Mountain name is itself a registered trademark, and only a select group of farmers are authorized to market their beans as such by the Coffee Board. Some of the best Blue Mountain Coffee is grown on the Twyman's Old Tavern Estate. The Mavis Bank Coffee Factory sells under the Jablum brand and is also of good quality.
Jamaica's coffee industry dates to the Haitian Revolution, when many farmers in the neighboring island fled to Jamaica out of fear for Haiti's future prospects. The cloud forests of the Blue Mountains were found to provide ideal growing conditions that allow the beans to mature slowly, giving the coffee its unique, full-bodied flavor.
Jamaica has, since the days of old when pirates stormed from port to port pillaging and plundering their way to riches, been an important consumer of rum. Rum production in Jamaica was an important component of the colonial economy under the British, and Jamaican rum is still highly regarded today. There are two varieties of Jamaican rum, white and aged. Aged rum has a reddish-brown tint and is smoother than white rum. Jamaica's high-end brand is Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum, owned by Wray & Nephew and produced in the parish of St. Elizabeth. Worthy Park Estate in St. Catherine has been attempting to rival Wray & Nephew's White Overproof Rum with its Rum Bar Rum brand in recent years.
It is said that the number of rum bars in Jamaica is matched only by the number of churches, the two classes of institution equally ubiquitous down to the smallest hamlets across the island.
Sauces and Spices
Jamaica has for centuries been a great producer of spices, from pimento, known commonly as allspice, to scotch bonnet peppers and annatto. The island's historical reputation as a spice island gave birth to several successful brands sold the world over, from Pickapeppa Sauce, produced in Shooters Hill, Manchester, to Busha Browne's Jamaican sauces, jellies, chutneys, and condiments made in Kingston, to Walkerswood Jamaican Jerk Seasoning, produced in St. Ann. Belcour Blue Mountain Preserves, produced on a cottage-industry scale in the Blue Mountain foothills, continues this tradition.