Jamaican Cuisine: 9 Foods to Try in Jamaica

Jamaican cuisine is a treasure trove of vibrant flavors, influenced by the island’s rich history and cultural diversity. From the fiery jerk seasoning to the savory ackee and saltfish, each traditional dish tells a complex story and offers a unique culinary experience.

Traditional Jamaican cuisine reflects the island’s diverse cultural influences. Today African, Indian and European flavors all blend together after centuries of difficult and complicated history.

Traditional Jamaican cuisine reflects the island’s diverse cultural influences.

Jamaican cuisine through local eyes

I was lucky enough to be able to explore Jamaican cuisine from a insider’s perspective since I got to attend a local wedding. Not a destination wedding but an authentic party at a local home, no less!

My friends Paul and Dominika were getting married. While the ceremony was held at a stunning sea view hotel, the reception (read: the feast) was an intimate affair in Paul’s mom’s backyard.

Since the trip was all about the bride and groom, your girl did not take too many food pictures. That said, I did get a very good insight into the local way of eating and really wanted to share with you what I learned about Jamaican cuisine.

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jamaican cuisine, jerk fish rice and peas
Jamaican cuisine is a treasure trove of vibrant flavors. Jerk fish with rice and peas and callaloo.

I invite you to embark on a gastronomic journey and explore some of the most beloved traditional foods that define the Jamaican culinary experience.

So, whether you’re planning a visit to Jamaica or simply want to embark on a culinary adventure of exploring Jamaican restaurants near you, make sure to indulge in these mouthwatering dishes:

1. Jerk

No exploration of Jamaican cuisine would be complete without mentioning the world-famous jerk seasoning. Most common is jerk chicken but you can have jerk fish or shrimp too.

You can also find vegetarian versions. We recently had jerk seitan in a Jamaican cafe in LA. Essentially, you can rub anything with jerk spices.

This spicy and smoky seasoning is a mixture of scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, allspice, garlic, and other aromatic herbs and spices. You then grill the dish over pimento wood to infuse it with an incredible smoky flavor.

Traditional Jamaican cuisine reflects the island’s diverse cultural influences. Today African, Indian and European flavors all blend together after centuries of difficult and complicated history.

2. Ackee and Saltfish

Fish for breakfast? Yes, please! Considered the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish is a delightful combination of flavors. Ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, is sautéed with salted codfish, onions, peppers, and aromatic spices.

The result is a savory and creamy dish you can enjoy with fried dumplings, boiled green bananas, or roasted breadfruit. This breakfast staple is a must-try when visiting Jamaica.

rick's cafe sunset, jamaica, jamaican cuisine
One of the Caribbean’s most iconic sunset spots: Rick’s Cafe, Jamaica.

3. Jamaican Patties

If you’re wondering what is Jamaica’s most popular street food, patties are definitely in the running. Typically made with ground beef, today you can find plenty of meatless filling options.

It’s the crust that steals the show, not the filling. Flaky and buttery, a traditional Jamaican patty is so good, local people have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Almost every cuisine in the world has some kind of patty equivalent, from Argentinian empanadas to Cuban pastelitos. In the case of Jamaican cuisine, most people believe that they derive from Cornish pasties and that they were introduced to the Caribbean by British colonizers.

4. Rice and Peas

Rice and peas is a staple side dish in Jamaican cuisine. The dish combines fragrant rice, kidney beans, coconut milk, thyme, and spices such as allspice and garlic.

The result is a flavorful and aromatic accompaniment that pairs well with various main dishes, including jerk chicken, curries, and stews.

5. Escovitch Fish

Jamaica’s love for seafood shines through in dishes like escovitch fish. Whole fish, usually snapper or kingfish, is marinated in a tangy blend of vinegar, onions, carrots, bell peppers, and scotch bonnet peppers.

After marinating, the fish is fried until crispy and then topped with the vibrant escovitch sauce. This dish offers a delightful combination of textures and flavors, with the sweet and tangy sauce complementing the succulent fish perfectly.

6. Festival

Festival is a popular Jamaican street food, often enjoyed alongside jerk meats or fish. The deep-fried dumplings mixture consists of cornmeal, flour, sugar, and spices.

The dough is shaped into elongated dumplings and fried until golden brown, resulting in a crispy exterior and a soft, flavorful interior.

Festivals are the perfect complement to savory dishes, and their slightly sweet taste adds a delightful contrast.

Seven mile beach, Negril, Jamaica.

7. Ital Stew

Ital stew is perfect for vegetarians and vegans and it’s closely associated with the Rastafarian movement. The word “ital” stems from the word “vital”. Vegans and omnivores alike will fall in love with the rich taste of veggies stewed in a coconut milk broth.

There is absolutely no meat included in ital stew. Although some Rastafarians consume small fish under 12 inches (fun fact), other types of animal protein i.e pork, chicken, beef are prohibited. Ital stew is made with very strict vegetarian elements derived from the earth.

Another fun fact: some people even think that iodized salt is also considered a forbidden ingredient in this food. Indeed, orthodox Rastafarians don’t use salt and instead overcompensate with additional herbs.

8. Callaloo

This popular Jamaican veggie side dish is very similar to collard greens. It is made with amaranth (known locally as callaloo) and cooked with onions, tomatoes and seasoning including nutmeg.

It tastes a little bit like spinach or steamed swiss chard. The best thing about callaloo is that it contains many nutrients like vitamin A, B and C, calcium and iron. You will typically eat eat alongside festival and saltfish.

9. Rum Cake

And for dessert… Jamaican rum cake is a staple at holidays and weddings. There are many family recipes. That said, most people make this moist and dense cake with a combination of flour, dark rum, dates, dried apricots, raisins, brown sugar, molasses, baking powder, butter, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and pecans.

Jamaican cuisine – also look out for:

Fried plantains, soursop, rundown (or run-dun) fish, roasted breadfruit, coco bread, curries (especially goat curry if you eat meat), saltfish fritters, dumplings, bulla cake, gungo pea soup, gizzadas (coconut tarts), hummingbird cake, bammy aka cassava cake, pepper shrimp, and more!

What to drink in Jamaica:

Red Stripe beer, fresh fruit juices and smoothies, Jamaican rum, Dirty Banana cocktail, Rum Cream, Blue Mountain coffee, Ting soda, Tia Maria liquor. Don’t miss the world famous rum punch at the iconic Rick’s Cafe at sunset – jumping off a cliff optional…

Exploring Jamaican cuisine allows you to delve deeper into the island’s fascinating culture and savor the bold and delicious flavors that have captivated food enthusiasts worldwide.

Check out Visit Jamaica and my Travel Resources for useful info to plan your trip. Let me know which Jamaican foods are your favorite in the comments below!

Heading our for catch of the day.

Images: Gaby Aziz and Pixabay


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