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A true taste of Jamaica
Jamaican cuisine is an exotic amalgamation, influenced by cultures from all four corners of the globe. With the island having such a colourful history, rich heritage and diversity of influence, it’s not surprising that the food is equally as unique, fascinating and appealing.
The best way to describe food in Jamaica is a fusion of cuisines. When immigrants – mainly the Spanish, West African, English, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese and East Indians – arrived in Jamaica, they combined their home-grown herbs, spices and ingredients with the local fresh produce, meat, fish and seafood to create a wealth of new and exotic dishes, many of which are still cooked on the island to this day.
Jamaican cooking: History and influences
Jamaica’s culinary history begins with the Spanish who arrived in 1509 and drove out the original inhabitants. The Spanish brought along waves of African slaves who brought their own spices, recipes and cooking methods with them. The Spanish Jews also contributed greatly to Jamaican cuisine, bringing signature dishes such as the vinegary escoveitch fish to the island.
In 1655, the Spanish lost control of Jamaica over to the English, who brought their own ingredients and developed a myriad of new dishes on the island, the most famous of which is the Jamaican pattie. When the slave trade was abolished one century later, labourers from East India and China arrived on the island in search of work, bringing with them the Asian spices and curry blends which are so common in Jamaican cooking today.
Rastafarians have also had a huge influence on modern-day Jamaican cooking. Rastafarians generally follow an Ital approach when it comes to food – this involves cutting out meat, salt and all unnatural additives.
Key ingredients in Jamaican cooking
Scotch bonnet peppers
Scotch bonnet peppers, named so because of their shape, are the traditional hot chilli pepper which grows in abundance all over the island. These peppers have a heat rating which ranges from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Units – that over 40 times hotter than a jalapeño. Whilst this spicy ingredient makes appearances in all sorts of Jamaican dishes, it’s most commonly used in jerk marinades.
The allspice berry is one of the ingredients which makes Jamaican food so fragrant. This ingredient comes from the evergreen pimento tree which is native to the West Indies and grows with such prosperity throughout Jamaica that the majority of the world’s allspice berries comes from this island. Although the berries resemble dark brown peppercorns, they smell like a heavenly combination of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.
In Jamaica, locals regard coconut as one of the most versatile fruits available and absolutely none of it goes to waste. The white flesh and creamy milk of the coconut is used in a vast array of sweet and savoury dishes, such as rice and peas, curries and cakes. Whilst the brown outer husk of the coconut isn’t used in cooking, it does have plenty of other everyday uses, such as a tool for buffing wooden floors.
Although Ackee is known as Jamaica’s national fruit, it’s usually served in savoury dishes and cooked as a vegetable. The fruit isn’t indigenous to the island and was most likely brought over by West African slaves. It’s most commonly seen in the incredibly popular ackee and saltfish dish and has even recently been made into wine, although the unusual drink has yet to catch on.
Traditional Jamaican recipes
Jerk chicken is the national dish of Jamaica and originates with the African slaves who blended together scotch bonnet peppers, allspice berries, thyme and ginger to create the distinctive Jamaican jerk spice we know today. A multitude of cooking methods were tried over the years, starting with cooking pits and smoking over an aromatic allspice wood fire, before efficient modern-day inventions – such as the barbecue – took over.
Although it now means the spicy marinade which flavours the meat, the term ‘jerk’ originally referred to the traditional method of cooking this type of dish. This style of cooking is native to Jamaica and involves dry-rubbing meat (usually chicken or pork) with a spicy blend of seasonings before smoking over a barbecue.
Goat is one of the most readily available meats in Jamaica and is the star of the show in curried goat – one of the best local dishes on the island. Whilst goat is often known for its strong, acquired taste and tough, stringy texture, this recipe turns these assumptions upside down.
Jamaican curried goat takes hours and hours to cook, which results in succulent, tender and juicy chunks of meat bursting with aromatic spicy flavours. Like many Jamaican dishes, this speciality is usually served up alongside a hearty portion of rice and peas.
The island’s answer to doughnuts, Jamaican festival is best described as sweet and addictive fried dumplings. These delicious bite-sized delights are made from cornmeal, flour, baking powder and sugar which are mixed together with water to form a dough before they’re deep-fried.
Unlike doughnuts, Jamaican festival comes in small finger-like shapes and usually features in savoury dishes, often paired with jerk meats or fish. You’ll find this moreish side dish available from street vendors throughout the island who usually sell it alongside escovitch fish.
Escovitch fish is probably one of the earliest and most signature fish dishes found in Jamaica. This popular seafood favourite was introduced to the island by Spanish Jews in the 16th century and is made from fresh fish – usually red snapper – lemon, lime, vinegar, scotch bonnet peppers, onions, allspice berries and peppercorns.
This dish is usually served for breakfast and is best described as a kind of cooked ceviche – the fish is pickled in the lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar before it’s fried. Whilst escovitch fish is simple enough to freshly prepare in the morning, most locals choose to prepare it the night before, to allow the fish time to absorb the citrus and vinegar flavours before frying.
Unlike the beef hamburger patties that might spring to mind, Jamaican patties are pastries stuffed with various fillings and spices – a bit like a traditional British pasty. The pastry in this savoury dish is similar to a suet crust in the UK and is often tinted yellow through the use of egg yolk or turmeric. Jamaican patties are traditionally filled with ground beef, although the flavour possibilities are endless, with other common fillings including lamb, chicken, vegetables, fish, lobster, shrimp, soy, cheese and ackee.
Due to their heartiness, Jamaican patties are often eaten on their own as complete meals, although some locals do stuff them inside coco bread to create a very filling sandwich.
Rice and peas
If you’re unfamiliar with Caribbean food, you might be unaware that the term 'peas' in Jamaica doesn’t refer to the same thing as the word 'peas' in the UK. Unlike the small, round, green vegetables which grow in abundance in the UK, 'peas' in Jamaica refers to a type of bean – usually red kidney beans. Despite the rather bland sounding name, rice and peas is one of the best and most delicious recipes you’ll come across in Jamaica.
The rice and kidney beans are flavoured with coconut milk, garlic cloves, scotch bonnet peppers, spring onions and thyme to create a fragrant, tasty dish which has earned its place as being the most popular sides in Jamaica.
At a first glance, fresh plantain is almost identical to an unripe banana, although somewhat larger and straighter. Unlike bananas which are more suited for desserts and other sweet treats, plantains are similar to sweet potatoes and are a popular side dish in Jamaica.
This sweet and starchy fruit needs to be cooked in order to be edible and, when fried in butter with a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper, makes the ideal rich accompaniment to spicy jerk meat and fish.
Although authentic Jamaican desserts are few and far between, gizzada is one sweet dish you must try if you’re ever lucky enough to visit the island. This sugary treat is made up of a sweet pastry shell stuffed with a rich combination of butter, fresh sweetened coconut, nutmeg and ginger.
When you bite into a gizzada, the crisp and crunchy outer shell breaks open to reveal a sweet and gooey centre, resulting in an unbeatable flavour and texture combination which makes them a hit with everyone. gizzadas are found in bakeries, food stalls and restaurants throughout the island – testament to its huge popularity.
Jerk chicken recipe
This recipe serves four as part of a main meal and although the marinating needs at least eight hours, the preparation and cooking time are minimal and only require around 30 minutes of active time. Don’t let the long list of ingredients intimidate you – preparation is strikingly easy and simply involves chopping a few ingredients, blending everything together in a food processor then using the resulting mixture to marinate the chicken.
The best and most authentic way to cook Jamaican jerk chicken is on a barbecue, specifically one which is powered by burning wood. If barbecuing isn’t an option, you can get an equally delicious – although not quite as smoky – result by cooking the chicken in a frying pan over a high heat.
4 medium-sized scotch bonnet peppers
2 medium-sized onions
6 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons ground allspice
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
120ml olive oil
120ml soy sauce
Juice of one lime
240ml orange juice
4 chicken breasts
1. Roughly chop the scotch bonnet peppers, onions and garlic cloves. You don’t have to be too thorough at this stage – everything will get finely chopped up in the food processor
2. Place all the ingredients (except for the chicken breasts) into the food processor and blend until smooth – this can take up to three minutes – to make your jerk marinade
3. Place the chicken breasts into a large dish and pour ¾ of the marinade over the top. Use your hands to massage it into the chicken
4. Cover the leftover jerk marinade and the dish with the marinating chicken with cling film and leave in the fridge overnight for the flavours to absorb
5. When you’re ready to cook, heat a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and pour in one tablespoon of olive oil
6. When the frying pan is hot, add each of the chicken breasts into the pan and cook for around ten minutes on each side, or until they’re just beginning to blacken on the outside and they’re fully cooked through on
7. the inside. Generously brush the leftover jerk marinade onto the chicken whilst it’s cooking to add more flavour and keep the meat juicy
8. When it’s time to serve, remove the chicken breasts from the frying pan and chop each breast into six chunky slices. Serve the chicken with salad or rice and peas and a dollop of jerk marinade for dipping
Article written by Nicola Quinn.