Jamaica is known for reggae, all-inclusive resorts, and white-sand beaches, but travelers who don't venture beyond the vacation compound are missing out on the epic food movement that's happening on roadsides, in homes, and at food festivals (a new one seems to pop up every year) in the Caribbean country.
Happily, those who do branch out are rewarded with one-of-a-kind restaurants, lively bars (they almost outnumber our churches), roadside stalls supporting the weight of seasonal produce, and villagers selling veritable feasts from bubbling pots and smoking grills.
Jamaica is a food country. We produce some of the best rum in the world, our Blue Mountain Coffee is beloved by baristas; and our bean-to-bar chocolates have won numerous gold medals. There are local artisanal cheeses to taste, and in Kingston, the capital city, a wealth of exceptional restaurants to try.
Jamaican cuisine is so varied and complex that I wish I could tell you about hundreds of our essential dishes. But seek out these 15, and you'll leave my homeland with an appreciation of Jamaican culture, an understanding of local flavors, and—of course—a full belly.
Ackee and Saltfish at Summerhouse
Jamaica’s national dish consists of flaked salt cod sautéed with butter-yellow ackee (a creamy, squash-like fruit that tastes a bit like yellow split peas). It’s served at nearly every restaurant, hotel, and cook shop (informal takeaway), but for a version that even the pickiest of Jamaican grandmothers would endorse, head to Summerhouse in Harmony Hall. Owned by sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, both veteran restaurateurs and cookbook authors, Summerhouse doesn’t cut corners with the cod: They soak it, regularly changing the water, until the fish is plump and just salty enough, then and sauté it with ackee, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, and enough minced Scotch bonnet to keep you on your toes. Served with Johnny cakes (fried dumplings) and pressed fried green plantains (tostones), it's the most satisfying breakfast you'll have on the island.
Beef Patties at Devon House Bakery
Take it from a beef patty authority: The patties at Devon House Bakery are some of the best you’ll ever eat. If you’re reading this between noon and 2 p.m., trust that there’s a long line as we speak. These are maverick patties: Instead of the usual crescent shape, Devon House bakes raised triangles, pinched at the corners and atop. Within the turmeric-tinged, flaky crusts is a heap of steaming ground beef with just enough thyme, pimento (allspice), Scotch bonnet, and scallions to make you want to grab a second patty for the road. Hot tip: When in season, the curried lobster patties are a must.
Pepper Shrimp at Middle Quarters
No trip to St. Elizabeth parish is complete without stopping in the fishing village of Middle Quarters for the roadside pepper shrimp. Fisherfolk catch the crustaceans in the nearby Black River, then cook them in spicy thyme- and scallion-laced bouillon over coal stoves. Sold by villagers alongside the road in clear plastic bags, the shrimp, with their alluring vermillion shells, are punctuated with large slices of yellow Scotch bonnet peppers and black pimento berries. When you open the bag, your eyes will water from the chiles. But braving the spice is worth it when you pop the plump tail (or if you’re like me, the whole critter, head and all) dripping with peppery juices into your mouth.
Rum-Braised Oxtail at Zest
I’m one of a vanishingly few Jamaicans who don’t much care for oxtail (too much bone-sucking, not enough meat)—but that all changed when I tried chef Johnoi Reid’s version at Zest. Lacquered with a gastrique fortified with Appleton Estate 8 Year Old Reserve rum and redolent of garlic, pimento, thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers, this is an oxtail worth canonizing. Unlike most oxtail recipes, Reid’s starts with two-inch-thick cuts of meat, the way the late Norma Shirley—Jamaica’s culinary grande dame and his mentor—prescribed. Served as a weekend special, it comes with chewy broad (fava) beans and rice and peas made with gungo (pigeon) peas—a holiday version of the side dish that you can try here year-round.
Cookup Salt Mackerel at Sonia's Homestyle Cooking and Natural Juices
For 40 years, Sonia Gibbons' food has graced the tables of prime ministers, corporate elite, and regular folk alike. Her cookup (sautéed) mackerel is one of the best on the island. It starts with salt (pickled) mackerel that's scalded, its larger bones removed. The mackerel is then hand-torn into pieces and sautéed with tomatoes, bell peppers, white onions, cracked black pepper, garlic, pimento berries, and lots of Scotch bonnet pepper. The symphony of flavors is a hallmark of talented hands; no wonder folks (like myself) regard Gibbons as a matriarch of Jamaican cuisine.
Jerk Pork and Festival at Boston Jerk Centre
Credited as the birthplace of Jamaican Jerk, Boston hamlet (named for the adjacent Boston Bay) is world-renowned for its cluster of jerk pits, whose sweet, smoky pimento wood you can smell from the main road. Cooked over pimento wood and covered with pimento leaves, jerk pork has a delectable crust encasing succulent meat. With each bite, you unlock jerk's pantheon of flavors—allspice, ginger, Scotch bonnet, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, scallion, and citrus. Jerk pork tastes best alongside fried festivals—doughy deep-fried cigars made with cornmeal, wheat flour, and a smidge of sugar and cinnamon. As you lick your lips and wipe your brow (because of the “meat sweats,” hot Jamaican sun, or high-octane chiles), you'll be begging for a Ting or Red Stripe—and another serving of jerk pork.
Escovitch Fish at Gloria’s
Each fried fish order at Gloria’s comes with two whole, freshly caught, deep-fried snappers. After the chef plucks them from the hot oil, another dresses the crispy skin with a traditional Jamaican escovitch (similar to an escabeche) sauce. The fish is always juicy and never overcooked, but it’s the escovitch—the tang of the white cane vinegar, the heat of the Scotch bonnet peppers, the crunchiness of the vegetables—that always sticks with me.
Beef and Pumpkin Soup at Susie's Bakery
Susan “Susie” Hanna makes the best bread in Kingston and St. Andrew, but in-the-know locals are just as fond of her hot meals, salads, wraps, and—on Saturday afternoons—beef and pumpkin soup. Chunks of tender beef float in a rich broth alongside local pumpkin (calabaza), cho-cho (chayote), sweet potatoes, African yellow yam, carrots, and dumplings. The contrasting textures play off one another like a well-choreographed dance. Even the steam emanating from each bowl of the golden aromatic soup seems to pirouette seductively, pulling you closer spoonful by spoonful.
Sweet Potato Pudding at The Puddin’ Man
Edgar Wallace, aka the Puddin' Man, has been delighting locals and tourists for over two decades with his various puddings (pones) made from cassava, cornmeal, pumpkin, or sweet potato. Good sweet potato pudding is easy to get on the island, but folks flock to the Puddin' Man because he bakes the pudding in the traditional way: in a Dutch pot (Dutch oven) on a coal stove with insulating ash atop the lid. Just before the pone finishes baking, a rich coconut custard is poured over the top, which hardens into a pleasing topping.
Curry Chicken Thighs with Tamarind at ROKstone Pool Bar & Grill
Three of my favorite flavor profiles—tropical tamarind, earthy Caribbean curry, and smoky meat—collide in this standout appetizer. The grilled brochettes of juicy chicken thighs immediately awaken your palate with their piquancy, but the tamarind sauce (with its complex alchemy of tart, floral, and sweet notes) tones down the meat’s spiciness and leaves behind a pleasingly sweet finish. Hot tip: Ask for extra tamarind sauce for dipping. If you’re like me, you’ll wind up using your index finger to scoop out every last drop.
Stout and Coffee Fudge Pops at Chill-Pops Gourmet Paletas
Poll Jamaicans about their favorite ice cream flavors, and stout and coffee would no doubt be in the top five. Chill-Pops has taken those beloved Jamaican flavors and turned them into Mexican (or Jamexican, if you will) paletas using no preservatives, stabilizers, or additives. The adult-only creamy Dragon Stout (Jamaica’s boozier, heftier version of Guinness) fudge pop—with cinnamon, nutmeg, caramel, and molasses—will make you as giddy as the sound of an ice cream truck. The Blue Mountain Coffee pop, my other go-to, is like a frappé, but it’s the decadent flavor that amps you up rather than the caffeine.
Curried Goat at Murray's Fish and Jerk Hut
Don’t be fooled by the name of this grillhouse—for me, the star dish (the GOAT, if you will) is the curry goat, Jamaica’s favorite stew seasoned with curry powder, turmeric, cumin, and allspice. The bone-in stew is a deep golden brown, a hue that more resembles Japanese curry than Indian. Fresh ginger, Scotch bonnets, thyme, and pimento also go into the cauldron to create a balanced, intensely flavourful (yet not too spicy) dish. If you looked “bone-lickin’ good” up in the dictionary, its definition would be this. Take it from me and order a second roti to sop up all the gravy on the plate.
Saltfish Fritters at EITS Cafe
At this cafe-restaurant nestled in the Blue Mountains, saltfish fritters are available year-round. And what a relief, because you can’t have just one. Crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside, these appetizers are fried in fragrant local coconut oil. Take a bite, and you’ll find a filling brimming with flaky Norwegian saltfish (Jamaica gets most of its salted fish from Norway), onions, scallions, Scotch bonnet pepper, and tomatoes. The fritters are served with cool green goddess dipping sauce, which—while wonderful in its own right—is just as good as the tamarind dipping sauce that comes with the ackee wontons.
Barbecued Pig’s Tails at M10 Bar and Grill
Claudette Tenn and her team at M10 make a barbecued pig's tail so good that folks reportedly finish eating one serving just to order another. (Tag me, I'm "folks.”) The dish is a labor of love. Brine-cured pig's tails are first boiled (to remove excess salt and tenderize the meat), then tossed in a barbecue sauce (ginger, tropical fruit, scallions, brown sugar, and a smidge of Scotch bonnet pepper), and finished in the oven. The M10 treatment makes it easy to chew the bones (if you so desire) to get every bit of flavor. Rice and peas and cabbage salad make ideal sidekicks for these sticky, tender morsels.
The Vesper Martini at Jamaica Inn
Here's a wildcard you may not have expected: a retro James Bond cocktail still served at the main bar where Ian Fleming rubbed shoulders with Winston Churchill. I'm talking about the floral, zesty, and slightly herbal Vesper. Jamaica Inn has been a destination for the globally well-heeled since saying "welcome home" to its first guests in 1958. James Bond creator and author Ian Fleming, who owned a villa a few miles from the inn, was a regular. His conversations with the staff, bartenders, and guests influenced several of his characters and plot lines, creating decades-spanning pop culture moments. The Vesper Martini is one of them. To the cocktail world, Jamaica Inn says, "You're welcome."
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