The cuisine of Jamaica is definitely unique and quite flavourful, bringing with it a blend of the island’s local harvest and spice. The island’s food is represented by Jamaica’s motto, “Out of Many, One People”. Jamaican inhabitants have come from around the globe, including the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, East Indian, West African, Portuguese and Chinese, who brought with them their own unique cooking techniques, flavours, and spices, blending them with the island’s bountiful harvest.
The original inhabitants of Jamaica were the Arawak Indians, who died out after the arrival of the Spanish in 1509, due to disease and overwork. The Spanish then began importing slaves from Africa to replace their workforce. The Spanish brought with them their own culinary influence. As well, many Spanish Jews also arrived during the Spanish rule and contributed their influences to Jamaica’s cuisine, such as a dish still popular today, escovitch fish.
In 1655 the English took over Jamaica from the Spanish and turned much of the land into sugar plantations. The English influenced the development of one of Jamaica’s most popular foods, the Jamaican Pattie, a spiced meat turnover that is the equivalent of the island’s hamburger. Many varieties of Jamaican patties are found in many grocery freezers today.
A century later, indentured labourers of Chinese and East Indians replaced the African slaves after emancipation. These immigrants influenced the curry dishes that grace nearly every Jamaican menu today, such as curry goat, chicken and seafood.
A point of interest is in the Jamaica population of the Maroons. The Maroons are people descendant of escaped slaves of the Spanish, fierce fighters who took to the hills and were never recaptured. They settled in a remote hilly region south of Montego Bay in Cockpit Country. The Maroons now live in a completely self-sustained existence off the land are known as the island’s greatest herbalists.
As seen from above, Jamaica’s food is influenced by its history. “Bammie”, a toasted flat cake eaten with fried fish today, was made from the cassava grown by the Arawaks. The Maroons, slaves who were always on the run, devised a way of “jerking” meat (through spicing and slow cooking pork) that is popular in Jamaica today. Breadfruit, yams, root vegetables and ackee were brought from Africa to cheaply feed the slaves. It is said the breadfruit arrived with Captain William Bligh on the Bounty. And, as mentioned, the Chinese and East Indians brought with them their contributions of exotic flavours in their curry and other spices.
Added to the contributions of the foreign influences, indigenous vegetables, such as cho-cho (a squash-like vegetable) and callaloo (similar to spinach) are also popular in Jamaican cooking today, along with the island’s fruits of bananas, coconuts, mangoes and pineapples. Among the more exotic fruits popular in Jamaica are guineps, pawpaw, sweetsops and the star apple.
The native pimento tree brings allspice to many Jamaican dishes, as do ginger, garlic, nutmeg, and the Scotch Bonnet peppers, which are considered some of the hottest peppers on earth. The Scotch Bonnet is essential to making the jerk pork, chicken and fish for which Jamaica is famous. The Maroons marinated meat for hours in a mixture of peppers, pimento seeds, scallion, thyme and nutmeg, and then cooked it slowly over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood. Jerk stands can be found all over the island today offering tourists and inhabitants alike the unique spicy flavour famous all over the world.
Negril, located on Jamaica’s western shore, is famous for its “hippie” era. Hippies set up a colony there and enjoyed a laid-back lifestyle and “ganja”. From here, vegetarian meals abound.
Middle Quarters, an area of the south coast, offers dried peppered shrimp which is sold by the bag. Stamp and Go (saltfish fritters eaten as an appetizer) and mackerel Run-Down (pickled fish cooked in seasoned coconut milk until the fish just falls apart or literally “runs down”), as well as boiled green bananas and yams are served over the whole island.
Jamaica is also quite famous the world over for its Blue Mountain coffee, which gets its name from the Blue Mountains where the coffee beans are grown. The coffee industry in Jamaica began in 1725, when the governor brought seedlings from Martinique and planted them on his estate. Mountains cover approximately four-fifths of Jamaica, with the Blue Mountains reaching a height of 7,400 feet. The coffee is planted on terraces along the mountain slopes, 1,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level, and which is often shaded by avocado and banana trees.
Jamaica’s national dish is saltfish and ackee, an island breakfast dish. Ackee, when cooked looks and tastes much like scrambled eggs. Ackee is poisonous until it is ripe and is always served cooked.
Rice ‘n peas is also a popular island dish, but is not really peas but beans (usually red kidney beans.) Other favourite Jamaican dishes include red pea soup (again kidney beans, salted pig tails, beef and vegetables), hard dough bread, fish tea (a fish bouillon), Johnny cakes (fried or baked breads), mannish water (a spicy soup made from goats’ heads), bulla (a spicy bun), stew peas (a soup of red peas or gungo peas), Solomon Gundy (an appetizer made of pickled fish) and festival (a type of bread).
As one can see, Jamaica offers a vast variety of dishes influenced by the island’s history. From British, Spanish, African, East Indian and Chinese, the cuisine of Jamaica is quite flavourful and often spicy, and is a culinary experience that all will enjoy.