From fiery jerk pork and chicken to inventive seafood and ubiquitous rice and peas, Jamaican cuisine is delicious and varied, and even vegetarians are fairly well catered for with the meatless offerings of Rastafarian Ital dishes. Snacking is good, too, with spicy meat, vegetable or seafood patties the staple fare, along with a vast selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.
All the resort towns, as well as cosmopolitan Kingston, have a wide variety of eating options, from posh seafood places to Italian, Indian, Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine. Elsewhere on the island, Jamaica’s restaurants tend to be of two types: no-frills filling stations patronized mostly by locals and with a standard menu of Jamaican staples, or tourist-oriented places with more in the way of decor and a menu geared towards American and European palates. If you’re after fast food, you’ll find chains such as Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and Pizza Hut in all the larger settlements. Jamaica has the honour of being one of the few countries in which lack of demand prompted McDonald’s to close its few local franchises, and the island is now golden arch-free. Note that a fifteen-percent service charge is often added to restaurant bills in touristy places.
The classic – and totally addictive – Jamaican breakfast is ackee and saltfish. The soft yellow flesh of the ackee fruit is sautéed with onions, sweet and hot peppers, fresh tomatoes and flaked salted cod, producing a dish similar to scrambled eggs in looks and consistency but wildly superior in taste. You’ll often find it served with the leafy, spinach-like callaloo, boiled green bananas, fried breadfruit, a hunk of hard-dough bread (a dense, slightly sweet white loaf), and fried or boiled dumplings, the former also called Johnny cakes. Other popular morning options include delicious and filling cornmeal, plantain, hominy corn or peanut porridge; or smoked mackerel “rundown”, cooked with coconut milk, onions and seasoning. All hotels and restaurants in resorts serve more international breakfasts, from continental (rolls, jam, juice and coffee) to omelettes and American-style bacon, pancakes and scrambled eggs, as well as fresh fruit plates.
Chicken and fish are the mainstays of lunch and dinner. Chicken is stewed, fried, jerked or curried, while fish can be grilled, steamed with okra and pimento, brown-stewed in a tasty tomato-based sauce or “escovitched” – seasoned, fried, and then doused in a spicy sauce of onions, hot peppers and vinegar. Red snapper is the most common (and the tastiest) variety of fish, but you’ll also be offered juicy steaks of kingfish, jackfish, tuna and dolphin (mahi-mahi, rather than the mammal).
Other staples include stewed beef, curried goat, oxtail with butterbeans and pepperpot soup, made from callaloo, okra and beef or pork. More adventurous palates might fancy “mannish water” (goat soup that includes the testicles, considered an aphrodisiac), cowfoot (a gelatinous and arguably tasty stew of bovine hooves) or fish tea, a delicious broth of fish and veg, sold by the cup at roadside stalls. Pumpkin soup, often made with chicken stock, is also a tasty lunch filler. Another great option for a quick meal is a hunk of jerk chicken or pork (jerk fish or seafood are also widely available): spicy, marinated meat cooked slowly over an open fire and served with festival (a deliciously light sweet fried dumpling), roast yam or breadfruit or slices of hard-dough bread. Specialist jerk centres are scattered all over Jamaica, while pan chicken, seasoned in the same way as jerk but barbecued in a modified ex-oil barrel over coal rather than the traditional pimento wood, is cooked up by vendors who set up on street corners in the evenings, typically on Friday and Saturday nights.
Seafood is another Jamaican joy, with fresh lobster – curried or grilled with garlic butter – and shrimp widely available, and surprisingly inexpensive, too. Freshwater crayfish (known as janga) are pulled from rivers across Jamaica, and in Middle Quarters vendors sell bags of them, hotly peppered and ready to eat; an equally tasty alternative is janga soup. Though it’s not the most visually appealing fruit of the sea, conch (the inhabitant of the huge pink shells sold in the resorts) is dense and delicious, cooked up into a fortifying soup or curried in silver-foil parcels at roadside stalls and served with bammy (a substantial bread made from cassava flour which is soaked in milk or water and then fried or steamed). Seapuss, also occasionally on menus, is octopus or squid.
Rice and peas (white rice cooked with coconut, spices and red kidney beans) is the accompaniment to most meals, though you’ll sometimes get bammy, festival, sweet or regular potatoes (the latter often referred to as Irish potatoes), yam, dasheen, Johnny cakes or fried or boiled dumplings.
Though the island produces a fabulous array of fresh produce, vegetarians are only really catered for at Rastafarian Ital restaurants, where meals are exclusively meat-free and, in theory, cooked without salt. Mainstays include ackee and vegetable stews served with rice and peas; tofu, gluten and soya are cooked up in various forms as alternative sources of protein. You should usually be able to get patties filled with pulses, soya chunks and ackee. The majority of Ital restaurants are in Kingston, though there are also places in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Negril and Port Antonio.
Along with jerk meat, patties are Jamaica’s best-known snack, a flaky pastry case usually filled with highly spiced minced beef, though also available in veg, chicken, shrimp, ackee and saltfish, soya or lobster varieties, and sold at bakeries, cafés and snack bars. Brands to look out for are Tastee and Juici Beef. Other popular snacks are bun and cheese – a sweet currant bun sold with a hunk of processed cheese – or meatloaf and callaloo loaf, both made with bread rather than pastry. Bakeries also offer buttery folds of coco bread (eaten wrapped around a patty for the classic working-man’s lunch), bullas (flat, heavy ginger cakes, improved upon in the Portland area by the creation of lighter “holey bullas”), rock cakes (hard coconut-filled buns) and gizzadas (tarts filled with shredded coconut and spiced with nutmeg and ginger). If you’re lucky, you’ll find duckanoo (also known as “blue drawers”), made from cornflour, sugar and nutmeg, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.
Jamaicans are enthusiastic roadside eaters, and you shouldn’t miss out on breaking long journeys with a cup of fish tea, conch or pepperpot soup, which are all sold from steaming mobile cauldrons, or a chunk of buttered roast yam and saltfish. Peanuts and cashews are also hawked at major road junctions, sold salted or “Ital”; if he’s not holding a pile of them aloft, you’ll recognize a “nuts man” by the high-pitched, steam-driven whine that emanates from the pushcart roasting equipment.
One of the delights of touring Jamaica is stopping off at roadside stalls to try the local fruits. Bananas, oranges, guavas, pineapples and paw-paws (papaya) are the most common, while mangoes come in all shapes and sizes (though the juicy, non-stringy Julie variety is a universal favourite). Of more unusual offerings, the suitably named ugli fruit looks like a disfigured grapefruit but is more tasty, while the origins and flavour of the Jamaican-bred ortanique are described by its hybrid name – orange, tangerine, unique. Something like a green-skinned lychee, with delicate flesh around a large pip, guineps (in season from July to October) have a refreshingly tart sweetness; the brown, orange-sized naseberries are sweeter and slightly gritty; sweetsops, or custard apples, look like pine cones and, as they ripen, the sections separate for eating. Other options include soursops (a bigger, sharper and indescribably better version of the sweetsop, often made into a juice); green or deep purple, milky-fleshed star apples; and the perfumed, rose-tinted flesh of otaheite (or “Ethiopian”) apples, crimson-red, pear-shaped and with white, delicately perfumed and very refreshing flesh.
Ubiquitous vegetables include the whitish-blue dasheen, a slightly chewy and very delicious tuber. Of a variety of squashes, the watery cho-cho is the most common, and you’ll also find callaloo, okra, yams, cassava, breadfruit and plantains, the latter ripened and served as a fried accompaniment to main meals.
Jamaica’s water is safe to drink, but locally bottled spring water is widely available and much nicer. For a tasty non-alcoholic drink, look no further than the roadside piles of coconuts in every town and village, often advertised with a sign saying “ice-cold jelly”. The vendor will open one up with a few strokes from a machete, and you drink straight from the nut (with a straw if you’re lucky), after which the vendor will split the shell so you can scoop out the soft flesh using a piece of the shell. Sky juice – shaved ice flavoured with syrup or fresh cane juice – is also popular, usually served in a plastic bag with a straw.
Elsewhere, you’ll find the usual imported sodas, plus Jamaica’s own D&G brands: Ting (a refreshing sparkling grapefruit drink), Malta (a fortifying malt drink) and throat-tingling ginger beer. Most places also sell “box drinks” – from additive-filled, over-sweetened peanut punch or eggnog to sweetened fruit juices. The unsweetened Tru-Juice brand comes in some interesting varieties, including West Indian cherry or June plum with ginger. Fresh natural fruit juices – tamarind, June plum, guava, soursop, strawberry and cucumber – are always delicious, and are available at local restaurants, while blended fruit juices are a meal in themselves; if you haven’t got a sweet tooth, ask for yours to be made without syrup.
Jamaican coffee is usually excellent. Blue Mountain beans are among the best and most expensive in the world, though the other local brews, such as High Mountain, Low Mountain or Mountain Blend, are also good. Made from balls of locally grown cocoa spiced up with cinnamon and nutmeg and then boiled with water and condensed milk, hot chocolate, known as cocoa tea, is a traditional but rather labour-intensive breakfast drink. Tea, in Jamaica, can mean any hot drink, from regular, insipid Lipton’s to fish tea, herbal tea or even ganja tea.
Jamaica’s national beer is the excellent Red Stripe, available in distinctive squat bottles and occasionally on draught; Red Stripe Light is a lower-alcohol version. Heineken is also widely available, as is locally brewed Guinness (stronger than British varieties), which competes with the sweeter Dragon as the island’s stout of choice.
Wine is also widely available in restaurants and bars by the glass or bottle, though it’s more expensive than locally produced drinks; supermarkets sell wine at more reasonable prices. A rum-shop staple, the local Red Label wine is a pretty grim fortified tipple.
Rum is the liquor of choice, with a huge variety at a range of prices. Rum-based liqueurs are the other local speciality; Sangster’s make award-winning rum creams and liqueurs flavoured with orange, coffee, pimento and more, while the coffee-infused Tia Maria is quite delicious.
Jamaica’s traditional rum shops are hole-in-the-wall places patronized by groups of men drinking rum, playing dominoes and gazing at the scantily clad ladies on the Red Stripe posters, but within the cities and resorts, there are hordes of drinking holes, from sports bars to English-style pubs.
In a bid to boost decimated fish stocks, the Jamaican government has enforced closed seasons on lobster and conch during their reproductive cycles – August 1 to December 31 for conch, and April 1 to June 30 for lobster. It is illegal for restaurants to serve lobster or conch caught during these times, and while many will tell you that the stock is frozen and predates the deadline, this is obviously not always true, and you should avoid restaurants that don’t comply with the law.
In 2014 the government of Jamaica issued a smoking ban for all public transportation, enclosed spaces (such as nightclubs and indoor restaurants), workplaces, places for collective use (such as bus stops), spaces for sports or recreational use and areas specified for children. Look for proper signage or ask for the designated smoking area before you light up.
Ever careful to safeguard his powerful libido, the average Jamaican man couldn’t live without gallons of potions concocted to supplement the diet and ensure health and sexual stamina. With self-explanatory names such as tan-pon-it-long or front-end lifter, these vitamin and mineral-rich drinks often include peanuts, oats and Irish moss, a seaweed boiled and strained into a glutinous milky-white potion and which serves as the main component of the ubiquitous magnum (Irish moss and linseed), strong back (Irish moss, oats, peanuts, paw-paw, Dragon stout and a decoction of the strong-back herb) and pep-up (Irish moss, Dragon stout, Red Label wine and liquefied green corn). Most people have their own favourite blend with a suitably libidinous name to match.
Another popular tonic is roots wine, now commercially produced and sold in shops and bars islandwide – look out for Zion’s Bedroom Bully, Ital Jockey and Mandingo varieties, as well as the Baba Roots brand. Roots wine is classically made by Rastafarian herbalists, however, who mix various quantities of roots and herbs such as arrowroot, chainy root, bridal wisp, strong back and occasionally ganja, boiling them with molasses or honey to make an evil-smelling brew. Most people have their own recipes, but as preparation is time-consuming, many prefer to visit their favourite “juice man”, who sells old rum bottles full of the stuff in most markets.
Most recently, and rather oddly, it’s the Lion Fish that has caught the attention of men trying to improve their prowess. An invasive specie introduced by chance to the Caribbean waters, it has no natural predators (regionally) except humans which makes the fact that it is a voracious breeder and eater – threatening reef life – a point of serious national concern. In an effort to curb its growth rate the government has set up campaigns and competitions for who can shoot the most (its poisonous barbs means it can only be killed by spear-gun), claiming half seriously that eating it fried, steamed or grilled, will, well, make you more of a lion.