Rustic, satisfying, and rich with spiciness and heat from scotch bonnet chilis and pimento, traditional Jamaican food is widely enjoyed both on the island and abroad. Here, whether you’re sitting down by a thatched-roof shack along the road or an upscale seaside restaurant, you can always find authentic Jamaican dishes on the menu or other modern variations of these original homestyle comfort food.
From jerk chicken to curry goat, here are the best dishes to try in Jamaica:
1. Jerk Chicken
Synonymous with traditional Jamaican food, jerk chicken can be found on almost every street corner on the island. From roadside stands to gourmet restaurants, this spicy, marinated chicken dish got its name from the method used to prepare it, called “jerk cooking”.
Usually, the chicken is seasoned with a paste made from allspice, scotch bonnet peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, garlic, and thyme. After slow-smoked over pimento wood in old oil barrel drums, the smoky and charred chicken pieces are then served with rice and peas, steamed cabbage, and fried plantain. You’ll also find other variations of jerk meat in Jamaica, including beef, pork, goat, and fish.
2. Ackee & Saltfish
Jamaica’s national dish is a bit of an oddball. Made in part with the yellow flesh of boiled ackee (a round, reddish fruit that originated from West Africa) sautéed with salted codfish, onions, tomatoes, chilis and various spices.
It closely resembles scrambled eggs on a plate and is typically served at breakfast, sometimes at dinner, with a side of coleslaw, Jamaican dumplings, or hardo bread. Although some consider this an acquired taste, ackee and saltfish is one of the most authentic Jamaican dishes you can try on the island.
3. Coconut Drops
Sticky, sugary coconut drops are a go-to when your sweet tooth starts making demands. About the size of the palm of your hand and the texture of peanut brittle, coconut drops are often homemade and available for a quick bite in grocery shops, general stores, and markets.
4. Fish and Festival
We cannot stress this enough. Special diets notwithstanding, you cannot leave Jamaica without indulging in a big plate of fish and festival!
Take your pick of fresh-caught seafood like parrotfish, king fish, or tasty crab, and pair it with grilled veggies and a pile of festivals (the golden-brown deep-fried dumplings that’ll have your mouth watering for weeks).
5. Run Down or Dip and Fall Back
Rest assured you won’t be doing a military drill after ordering a classic run dung. Instead, you’ll get a bowl of savoury, creamy, and fragrant fish stew made from large pieces of cod or mackerel, yams, tomatoes, and onions cooked in coconut milk.
The meat of the fish is boiled to the point where it breaks apart in the bowl, hence the name “run down”, while dip and fall back comes from dipping boiled green banana pieces or dumplings into the soup and tilting your head back as you eat to avoid the liquid dripping down. Warm, satisfying, and enough to make a Jamaican expat miss home, Run Down can be eaten at any time of the day.
6. Curry Goat
Another iconic Jamaican dish that is served almost everywhere on the island. Curry was introduced to Jamaica by Indian immigrants who came to work on the sugar plantations. It quickly grew to become an inseparable part of the country’s culinary landscape.
Different from traditional curry, Jamaican curry is heavy with allspice and packs a spicy wallop on the palate. When slowly simmered with goat meat, the brisket soaks up the aroma of the spice and becomes succulent enough to slide off the bones – a perfect foil for steamy bowls of rice and peas.
Whether made into stew or marinated with jerk sauce, Jamaican oxtail dishes are local favourites. Although rich and meaty, oxtails are incredibly tough and filled with cartilage. Before it can be served with a side of rice and peas or in a bowl with stewed vegetables, slow-cooking and patience are crucial in bringing the meat to the right tenderness.
When braised with tomatoes, butter beans, black pepper, and spices, oxtail stew is a rustic and hearty dish where authentic Jamaican flavours truly shine with a little bit of TLC.
8. Pepper Pot Soup
A classic creole-style soup made with callaloo, a mix of chopped leafy greens, mainly amaranth. Pepper pot comes in different variations and can be served without meat ingredients. Traditionally, the callaloo is first boiled and then diced or blended into a puree before being boiled with chopped yam, cocoyam, okra, pigtails, and salted beef.
For an added island flavour, the soup can also be made with coconut milk, scotch bonnet peppers, and pimento berries. While in Jamaica, try this soup with dumplings or vegetarian style with sliced avocados as sides. The island’s version of this iconic soup is unique from the other styles found in the Caribbean, being that it’s the only variation made with callaloo. Here, you get to taste many authentic local ingredients all within one bowl.
Also known as pinch-me-round, these mouth-tinglingly sweet tarts with pinched crust are stuffed with grated coconut and nutmeg fillings. Grizzada is a descendant of the Portuguese classic cheesecake pastry, Queijadas, which was introduced to the island by Portuguese Jews fleeing religious persecution in Europe around the 15th to 16th century.
Grizzada, however, is undeniably Jamaican, and each bite carries warm and piquant notes of ginger, brown sugar and cinnamon. Enriched by its light buttery crust, Grizzada is the perfect companion to a cup of freshly brewed Blue Mountain coffee.
10. Jamaican Patty
This ubiquitous meat pastry needs little introduction. From every convenience store counter to every newsstand at your local subway station, the Jamaican beef patty is easily the most recognizable Jamaican food outside of the island.
But far from the rock-hard, frozen, microwavables that you chuck into the back of your freezer, authentic Jamaican patties are flaky, spicy, and homemade. In Jamaica, beef patties can be found at almost any canteen, roadside shacks, or eateries.
Usually made with ground beef fillings mixed with allspice, paprika, garlic, and scotch bonnet peppers, the patties are baked until the turmeric dough is crispy and golden.
On the island, you’ll find vendors serving the patties sandwiched between coco bread, which balances out the spiciness with hints of buttery sweet flavour. Oh, you can skip the defrosting on this one!