Jamaican food is delightful and a welcome change to more moderate and bland diets. A trip to the islands could be as close as your dinner table. Of course, to truly appreciate Jamaican food, you need to know more about it.
Traditional Jamaican food includes jerk chicken, which you’ve likely heard of, and some other items you probably have not. Locals say things like coco bread, curry goat, and even carrot juice cannot be missed on a trip to their famous island.
But whether you are seasoned at preparing Jamaican dishes, or a complete novice, this article can help you navigate your way through the wonderful world of Jamaican food.
What is Jamaican Food?
Jamaican food is a highly varied type of cooking. As a result, the authentic cuisine has been growing in popularity in recent years.
The islands’ food began with the African cultures of its earliest inhabitants. The ackee, a fruit from the lingonberry family, came over with the African people and feature prominently in Jamaican cuisine alongside seafood and other meats.
Jamaican foods feature pork extensively, despite the overlay between the Jamaican peoples and Rastafarians, who do not eat pork. While Rastafarians favor a vegetarian cooking style, pork is popular with Jamaicans, and dishes have been adapted to accommodate both diets.
“Jerk” is the most well-known Jamaican treatment of food. There are jerk versions of chicken, pork, lobster, and fish. Jerk dishes were developed by runaway slaves, who cooked the food over pimento wood.
Local spices were used to season it, and as the population grew and changed, so did Jamaican cuisine.
Kinds of Meats in Jamaican Food
Many Jamaican people don’t eat meat, so plenty of options for vegans are available. But meat features in many dishes favored by the Jamaican people.
There are many different types of meats and preparation methods in Jamaican cuisine. But there are a few that are more popular than others.
- Goat Meat
Jamaican Food Spices
There are a significant number of spices used when preparing Jamaican dishes. But there are several you’re likeliest to find in traditional Jamaican food.
And here are ten in particular that are commonly found in Jamaican kitchens:
- Allspice: Also known in the islands as pimento. Used in dry rubs and marinades and common in jerk recipes.
- Cinnamon: Not native to Jamaica, but increasingly common in Jamaican dishes. This spice enhances sweet, salty, and spicy foods and blends well with others.
- Cloves: Used in fruit, beverage, and meat dishes, this spice can be sweet, pungent, or hot, depending on what dish it is used in.
- Jamaican Curry Powder: The British introduced this spice to the islands. It is one of the most frequently used and the one you’re likeliest to have heard of. Curry spices are used in curry goat, curry chicken, and spicy curry sauce. It also works well in soups and stews.
- Garlic: Unlike curry, you may not associate garlic with traditional Jamaican foods, but it is a common spice. It is a part of the blend that makes up Jamaican jerk spice.
- Fresh Ginger: Ginger is also featured in jerk recipes. But it is probably better known for its inclusion in ginger beer.
- Nutmeg: This spice is often used in desserts and beverages. It is considered medicinal and has been used for digestive distress.
- Parika: Used in meat, chicken, soups, and stews, this spice is often chosen as a garnish because of its bright red color.
- Scotch Bonnet Peppers: Though they resemble mini bell peppers, the Scotch bonnet pepper is one of the hottest peppers in the world. They are used in many traditional Jamaican recipes.
- Thyme: Thyme has a subtle flavor that complements other spices well. The taste is earthy, and it has medicinal properties. It is commonly found in chowders, stews, and fish recipes.
Traditional Food Preparation in Jamaica
Preparing traditional Jamaican food has changed over the years. Many of the early tools are no longer used but have been replaced by more modernized versions.
The preparation process and the equipment used came from other regions and cultures. They were adopted by those who settled in Jamaica.
The major ethnic groups that influenced traditional Jamaican food:
Some of the earliest forms of cooking include the barbacoa, developed by the Tainos.
A bed of pimento wood was used to smoke spice-rubbed meats to create a food the islands would become known for – Jamaican Jerk Chicken. The coal stove, similar to today’s Hibachis, is still used by some families.
Pots could be placed directly on the coals, or meats could be placed on a grill above them. The Dutch introduced the coal stove to the island, but it has now been replaced in most homes by gas, kerosene, and electric cooking devices.
Other equipments used for Jamaican cooking include wooden spoons, Dutch pots or Dutch ovens, and Jesta Pots, similar to a roasting pan. Cast iron griddles for cooking flatbreads, a cast iron wok known as a Karahi pot, and mortars and pestles round out the list.
Coffee grinders also work wonders at grinding spices and coffee beans. In addition, extracting the most potent oils to provide the most robust flavor to your food.
Traditional means of food preparation include boiling, roasting, seasoning, drying, baking, and frying. Food preparation steps depend on the type of food you’re making.
25 Jamaican Food Ideas
A handful of dishes are both popular and known as traditional Jamaican food that you can recreate at home. Or go in search of if you happen to be in the islands.
These include classics like ackee and saltfish, Jamaica’s national dish, Jerk chicken, pork, or fish, pepper pot soup, oxtail, curry goat, chicken or mutton, brown stew chicken, run-down, and fish tea.
Typical side dishes include callaloo, fried plantain, or plantain chips, Jamaican patties, stamp and go, and coco bread.
But what about when it comes to recreating these dishes at home? You’d be surprised how easy it could be to replicate some of these to simulate a vacation or relive one.
Traditional Jamaican Food Dishes
There’s nothing quite like traditional Jamaican food. But you don’t have to go to the islands to get it. Here are a few versions you can whip up yourself at home.
1. Jamaican Salt Fish Fritters (Stamp and Go)
Stamp and Go is what the locals call fried fish fritters. And this version from All Recipes is served with a homemade Garlic Chili lime mayonnaise for dipping.
2. Jamaican Coco Bread
Coco bread is like an American dinner roll, but sweeter, courtesy of coconut milk. Its mildly sweet flavor makes it popular with local school children and working adults as a side or a sandwich bread.
Try it yourself with this recipe from Taste of Home.
3. Jamaican Brown Stew Chicken
Jamaican brown stew chicken is a chicken stew with sweet and savory spices. All Recipes has a version that calls for chicken thighs, paprika, allspice, garlic, ginger, habanero pepper, and dark brown sugar.
And that’s just the marinade for the chicken before you add it to your stew.
4. Jamaican Goat Curry
Done correctly, the goat meat in this curry recipe from Simply Recipes is so tender it will fall off the bone. Like stew chicken, curry combines sweet and savory flavors.
This particular recipe calls for habanero or scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, onions, potatoes, and curry powder.
There isn’t quite the demand for oxtail in the United States as in Jamaica and even other countries, so it may be harder to come by outside specialty meat shops. And these days, it is rarely the tail of oxen that is sold, but rather that of cattle or veal.
If you want to give it a try, Bake It with Love has a version she recreated after a trip to a Sandals resort in Jamaica. Sweet and savory, this one calls for Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, garlic, and brown sugar.
6. Jamaican Pepper Pot Soup
You might be tempted to make this for your vegetarian friends based just on the name, but this soup actually contains braising or stew beef. Olive Magazine combines this with coconut milk, ginger, scotch bonnet pepper, sweet potato, cinnamon, and spinach.
7. Run Down
Jamaican Run Down is simply a red snapper fish soup despite the unusual name. And this dish is one that many Jamaicans say they miss when they are away from home.
If you’re hosting Jamaican friends or family, or just looking to try something new and delicious, African Bites has a simple version you can make at home. It calls for smoked paprika, tomatoes, garlic, scotch bonnet peppers, red snapper filets, and coconut milk.
Most Popular Jamaican Food Recipes
You are in luck if you’re looking for popular Jamaican dishes instead of solely traditional ones. Recipes abound for things like jerk chicken, beef patties, and Jamaican rum cake.
8. Jamaican Jerk Chicken
Jerk chicken is one of the most popular Jamaican dishes. So it’s not surprising that it is one of the most requested recipes.
Lemons for Lulu provides one that is as simple as it is delicious. In addition to brown sugar, this one also uses orange juice to sweeten your chicken’s flavor and to mellow out the cayenne, cinnamon, jalapenos, and allspice.
9. Ackee and SaltFish
This is Jamaica’s national dish. While it may sound confusing, or even a bit offputting, it is delicious, and locals eat it all day long.
Like Stamp and Go, this recipe from Luxury Columnist uses salted codfish. Ackee is a fruit whose color and texture are similar to scrambled eggs, which might explain its appearance on breakfast tables.
It also has red pepper, green pepper, and scotch bonnet pepper, so be prepared for some spice on this one.
10. Jamaican Curry Chicken
Curry chicken can be made quickly and easily at home, and your family and guests will thank you for your efforts.
My Jamaican Recipes points out that all you really need to whip this one up is chicken, scotch bonnet pepper, Jamaican curry powder, garlic, potatoes, carrots, onion, tomato, and sweet pepper.
11. Jamaican Beef Patties
Like jerk chicken, this is one of the most popular Jamaican recipes. They are basically fritters filled with beef.
The difference between these and your more traditional fritters? They are sweet instead of savory. Moreover, even the dough in this version from All Recipes contains curry powder.
More curry gets mixed in with the beef, which is sauteed with onion, thyme, salt, and pepper, and then plumped up with breadcrumbs and beef broth. The dough is filled with the beef patties mixture and deep-fried.
12. Jamaican Rum Cake
For a traditional Jamaican dessert, try this recipe for Jamaican rum cake. Rock Recipes describes it as a dense poundcake with a butter and rum syrup.
Undiluted evaporated milk straight from the can contributes to the denseness. But it’s the syrup that really makes this shine.
Butter, sugar, water, run, and vanilla extract are combined and poured over the finished cake. In fact, doing so will help the cake absorb the syrup and give it an extravagant and delightful flavor.
13. Jamaican Fried Dumplings
Jamaican fried dumplings are a bit like donut holes, only savory. As a result, they are often served as a side dish and are popular at breakfast.
You can make them yourself with just a handful of ingredients using a Taste of the Islands TV recipe.
Healthy Jamaican Food Recipes
Reading about Jamaican fried dumplings, fried fish, the beef patty, and rum cake, you might think all Jamaican recipes are unhealthy. But that simply isn’t the case.
14. Jamaican Hot Pepper Shrimp
Jamaican recipes often call for spice. Certainly, this one is no different. Scotch bonnet peppers appear in this That Girl Cooks Healthy recipe, alongside shrimp, Himalayan pink salt, garlic, paprika, thyme, sweet paprika, and Old Bay Seasoning.
15. Jamaican Cabbage
This All Recipes option is healthy, vegetarian, and vegan-friendly. Cabbage, carrots, green onion, green pepper, scotch bonnet pepper, onion, white vinegar, and sugar combine to create a delightful dish.
If you’re serving meat-eaters, this pairs perfectly with jerk chicken or pork. In addition, you could even use it as a side for a beef patty if you’re hoping to make dinner a little bit healthier.
16. Jamaican Callaloo
Another option that is both healthy and vegan is callaloo. This recipe from Healthier Steps is loaded with iron, potassium, calcium, fiber, vitamin C, and healthy protein, all for only 90 calories per serving.
Callaloo is grown locally in the islands, and it’s often served with Jamaican fried dumplings, ackee, and roast breadfruit.
17. Jamaican Rice and Peas
This one is a bit of a misnomer. Beans in general are typically referred to as peas on the island. Food.com has a recipe that couples red kidney beans and rice with seasonings, scotch bonnet pepper, brown sugar, and coconut cream.
18. Carrot Juice
You’re unlikely to make a meal out of this juice, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make a delicious addition to your other Jamaican dishes.
If you want to make your own, try this recipe from African Bites. It uses carrots, water, condensed milk, nutmeg, vanilla extract, and ginger, along with a vegan condensed milk made from coconut milk and coconut or granulated sugar.
19. Jamaican Ginger Beer
Looking for another delicious drink you can make at home? Ginger beer is incredibly healthy, easy to make, and delicious.
Jamaican Food and Recipes explains it is as simple as combining Jamaican ginger, limes, water, and carbonated water. In addition, ginger boosts immunity, relieves pain, and is an antibiotic.
20. Caribbean Curried Butter Beans
Curried butter beans are a scrumptious and healthy option. Moreover, they are simple to make as you can whip them up in your slow cooker. In this recipe from That Girl Cooks Healthy, they are cooked in a blend of coconut milk, carrots, onion, ginger, curry powder, Himalayan pink salt, garlic, scallions, paprika, tomatoes, and scotch bonnet peppers, if you like things spicy.
Vegan Jamaican Food Dishes
If you haven’t already figured it out, vegan options are abundant as traditional Jamaican foods. They may not be the first thing you find on the menu in Jamaican restaurants, but there are some spectacular options if you know what to look for.
And you can always adjust recipes to suit your vegan tastes.
21. Vegan Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding
Desserts aren’t always the easiest things to make vegan. But this sweet potato pudding will keep you coming back for more.
The Healthier Steps recipe calls for sweet potato, coconut milk, rice flour, and all the traditional Jamaican spices – ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
22. Sticky Sweet Fried Plantain
This sweet treat will make your tastebuds sing. Plantains are fruit, like bananas, but must be cooked before eating. Delicious Little Bites fries them up in coconut oil, with maple syrup, brown sugar, and vanilla extract.
23. Jamaican Jerk Roasted Cauliflower
This is just like jerk chicken, but swapping out cauliflower makes it vegan.
If you’re genuinely vegan, and not just vegetarian, you’ll want to skip the aioli in this Lemons for Lulu recipe or use vegan mayo.
Dishes with Jamaican Influence
Looking for something with Caribbean flair and flavor that’s a little less traditional? There are a few options available.
24. Jerk Chicken and Simple Vinaigrette Slaw Tacos
Jerk chicken and tacos might not seem like the perfect pairing. However, this option from Nutrition in the Kitch will make you reconsider.
This is clean eating at its best. Cabbage and carrots combine to make a slaw dressed with dijon and apple cider vinegar. It’s folded into tortillas and topped with traditional jerk chicken.
25. Jamaican Jerk Chicken Dip
Another way to do jerk chicken is to create a dip. Lemons for Lulu combine canned chicken with jerk sauce. This is mixed with cream cheese, blue cheese dressing, Monterey Jack, and Greek yogurt for an appetizer that will have your guests double-dipping all night long.
Why is Jamaican food so good?
This is a matter of personal preference, of course. But there are several reasons the island is becoming more popular with foodies and gourmet travelers.
Most ingredients are locally sourced, and scotch bonnet peppers are growing in popularity.
Jamaica has had 11 distinct foods, including ginger, hot pepper, sorrel, pimento, and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans. By comparison, France has 9 distinct foods, Italy has 13, and both are destinations marketed to foodie travelers.
Is Jamaican food healthy?
Jamaican cuisine can be remarkably healthy, depending on what you choose to eat. However, fried items like beef patties should be eaten in moderation.
But jerk recipes combine calorie-conscious spices and smoking with chicken, goat, pork, beef, and even fish. This leads to a flavorful, delicious dish that is also low in calories.
There are also several superfoods commonly used in Jamaican recipes. These include moringa, sorrel, passion fruit, and turmeric.
Is Jamaican food spicy?
Some traditional Jamaican foods are spicy, but not all of them. When people think of spicy Jamaican cuisine, they are likely thinking of jerk recipes.
But other options, like the national dish, Ackee, and Saltfish, aren’t spicy at all.
If preparing the food yourself or buying it outside the islands, you have the option to get a milder version. In fact, some international restaurants that serve jerk chicken intentionally make it less spicy to cater to the more sensitive palates of their customers.
What is hard food in Jamaica?
Hard food is a dish made with ground provisions, including boiled green bananas, yams, plantains, potatoes, pumpkins, roots, and dumplings. The items are boiled in saltwater. After that, they are used as a side dish or cooked in soups and stews.
Hard food is often served for breakfast but can also be eaten as a side with ackee and saltfish, callaloo, fish stew, curry chicken, and curry goat.
Jamaican Food Conclusion
Whether you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, a style that suits your particular tastes, or a more traditional Jamaican dish, there are options for everyone in the Jamaican isles and in your home, if you choose to replicate them
You are sure to find something that pleases your palate, from the storied beef patty to rice and peas, Jamaican curry, and, of course, all the variations of jerk recipes.