One thing you definitely don’t want to end up doing on vacation is defaulting to the food you eat at home anyways.
But when you’re in a country with a totally different cuisine consisting of very foreign ingredients and flavors, where do you even start?
There are so many amazingly unique Jamaican dishes to try while in the land of wood and water — here’s a list of 14 of the most popular ones to keep an eye out for!
Jerk is a way of seasoning and cooking meat that is ubiquitous in Jamaica and has become well-known worldwide.
Meat — typically chicken or pork but any kind of meat (or even veggies) can work — is marinated or dry rubbed with an assortment of scotch bonnet pepper, cloves, garlic, ginger, pimento, and other spices.
The method of cooking is just as important as the ingredients, as an authentic jerk is cooked over hot coals on an open grill.
Ackee and Saltfish
Saltfish is the name given to dried, salted cod which is often paired with ackee. Ackee is a fruit that, in cuisine, acts more as a vegetable. It has a nutty and savory taste that’s hard to compare to anything else, although, visually, cooked ackee may look a bit like scrambled eggs!
Together, ackee and saltfish (stewed with other vegetables and spices) is Jamaica’s national dish. It’s very versatile as a component of a meal, as it goes well with many different sides.
There’s a significant Indian influence on Jamaica’s cuisine, which can be seen in the popularity of curry. Jamaicans put a uniquely Caribbean spin on curried meats, with recipes that add scotch bonnet peppers, onion, ginger, garlic, and local herbs to the sauce.
The meat — often goat meat, mutton, or chicken — is slow-cooked in the curry along with potatoes to allow the flavors to mix and mingle. Served with rice and peas, curried meats make a filling lunch or dinner choice.
Oxtail is almost literally what the name implies: a cow’s tail. It’s an uncommon cut of meat, for sure, but it’s a delicacy in Jamaica when prepared as a stew.
This is one of those dishes where, even though the preparation seems simple enough, everyone has their own unique take on the dish and what herbs and spices go into it. After being seasoned, the oxtail is slow-cooked and then served with rice and peas.
Escovitch fish is a Caribbean spin on a Spanish way of cooking. The word “escovitch” comes from the Spanish “escabeche”, which refers to marinating and cooking meat in an acidic mixture.
Introduced to Jamaica centuries ago by the Spaniards, escovitch is the de facto way of preparing fish on the island.
The dish consists of a whole fried fish (usually snapper, or sometimes parrotfish) topped with pickled, sliced vegetables such as onions, carrots, potatoes, and scotch bonnet peppers.
Rice and Peas
Rice and peas may seem like a pretty mundane combination on its own but it’s a versatile side that ties together countless Jamaican dishes. From jerk, to curries, to stews, to fried meats, rice and peas can go with almost anything!
“Peas” and “beans” are often used interchangeably in Jamaica and the peas in rice and peas are actually red kidney beans. They’re prepared with an overnight soak before being cooked with rice, herbs, spices, and coconut milk.
Caribbean-style dumplings are not like the ones you might be familiar with in East Asian cuisine. Instead, they’re doughy balls that are either fried or boiled.
Festival is one of the fried varieties and is sweeter than the average dumpling. The ingredients that go into it are flour, cornmeal, sugar, spices, and water or milk, made into a dough and then fried until it becomes a golden color.
Festival goes best with fried fish and jerk meats, but can also pair well with ackee and saltfish!
Plantain is a starchier relative of the banana and a popular side dish in Jamaican cuisine. It pairs well with both breakfast and dinner foods, depending on how you prepare it.
Ripe plantains are sweet and satisfying and can be fried in slices or boiled in halves or thirds. Unripe, green plantain is sliced into rounds and fried, then crushed and topped with butter while it’s still hot! They are often served alongside ackee and saltfish.
Snacks & Appetizers
Analogous to the empanada, patties consist of a flaky pastry with a filling. This filling is usually beef but can also be chicken, shrimp, ackee, vegetables, soy, and more.
Patties are ubiquitous in Jamaica and there are two patty fast food chains with restaurants all around the island. Mini cocktail patties are also a popular appetizer at events and functions.
A patty makes a great between-meals dish, or even a meal in its own right when eaten between a coco bread (a savory and sweet bread made with coconut milk).
Stamp and Go
Saltfish fritters, more commonly known as “stamp-and-go”, are the superstars of the Jamaican breakfast world.
Stamp and go is made by preparing a batter of saltfish, flour, peppers, vegetables (most commonly green onions), and spices, then frying it until it’s golden brown. The salty and spicy flavor makes stamp and go quite addictive!
Another entry in the list of unusual cuts of meat used in Jamaican cuisine, Mannish water is made with goat head, along with other parts of the animal. This is in addition to boiled dumplings and starchy vegetables like yam and green bananas.
Believed to be an aphrodisiac, this spicy and flavorful soup is one of the most popular soups in Jamaica. It’s hard to find in sit-down restaurants, though, being more popular at marketplaces and roadside “cook shops”.
Gizzada is a universally loved dessert in Jamaica. It’s a tart that isn’t too sweet, with a filling of grated coconut flavored with ginger, vanilla, and nutmeg. This dessert is also called “pinch-me-round”, for the pinched edges of the crust
Gizzada is believed to have Portuguese roots, despite Jamaica having never been colonized by Portugal or having had a Portuguese population. The origin is a bit of a mystery!
Sweet Potato Pudding
Sweet potato makes an unlikely yet amazing base for this Jamaican dessert. The sweet potato is grated very finely and combined with brown sugar, raisins, coconut milk, spices such as cinnamon, and sometimes a splash of rum!
You know sweet potato pudding has been made right when, after being baked, the bottom is firm but the top is spongy.
There are several different bases for drops but the two most popular are coconut and peanut. The main ingredient is boiled with brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and water until the liquid becomes a thick syrup.
areDrops taste best when prepared the traditional way: on a banana leaf! The syrup and coconut or peanut s heaped onto a banana leaf and left to cool until it’s time to eat.
There’s a very short window of time where the drops are ready to be moved from the pot onto the banana leaf — figuring it out is a skill in and of itself!