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Tales of a Foodie in Jamaica

June 10, 2014 | By |

If you’re anything like me, as soon as you read “Jamaica,” strong smells of jerk chicken come to mind. Yes, food is definitely an integral part of Jamaican culture. Experiencing local eateries and tasting local delicacies should be an essential (and delicious!) component of any trip to this Caribbean country.

Jamaican cuisine has been influenced by many different cultures – from the indigenous people of the island, to the Spanish, British, Africans, Indians, French and Chinese – who have all made their mark on the island’s history. The techniques, flavours and spices all have different origins – so do the ingredients. While plenty are native to Jamaica, many foods have been introduced and are now grown locally.

Ackee and saltfish: Jamaica’s national dish

Jamaica’s national dish is ackee and saltfish. It is traditionally served for breakfast, but any Jamaican will tell you that it is delicious at any time of the day. Ackee is a fruit, but has the texture of scrambled eggs. It is folded into saltfish and Scotch bonnet peppers to create this unique dish. It is often served with fried plantains, callaloo (similar to spinach) or johnnycakes (fried or baked bread.)

Canadians will be surprised at just how spicy this dish is – especially for breakfast. Most Scotch bonnet peppers have a heat rating of 100,000-350,000 Scoville heat units, which is a lot spicier than the peppers we traditionally find in Canada. The Scoville scale is how we measure just how spicy a pepper is : the higher the heat rating, the spicier the food. Jalapeno peppers, for example,  have a heat rating of 2,500-8,000. The Carolina Reaper is currently considered to be the world’s hottest chilli pepper, with a heat rating of 2,000,000-2,200,000 Scoville heat units. Hot!

Interestingly enough, saltfish may have been introduced to Jamaica by way of Canada. Legend says that plantation owners were looking for an inexpensive source of protein for the growing population of enslaved Africans who worked on their land, so they traded the salt-cured cod for rum and molasses.

Jamaican traditional dishes to try on your trip

Jamaica is known worldwide for another popular dish: Jerk. Its key ingredient? Jamaican jerk spice, made with Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, also known as pimento in Jamaica. A recipe is hard to find, as all chefs and cooks like to put their own twist on the classic, and recipes are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter. What we do know is that pork, chicken or fish are dry-rubbed or wet-marinated with the jerk spice, and then the meat is roasted or smoked, often for hours. You’ll often see old oil barrels being used as smokers but traditional ovens are used too. The dish is often served with even more hot sauce and festival bread (a Jamaican cornbread fritter). Everything else depends on who is doing the cooking!

Jerk chicken and red stripe

“Jerk chicken with red beans and rice” by Clint McMahon (Flickr)

Interested in trying jerk from different Jamaican institutions? The Jamaica Jerk Trail offers a map that will help you locate some of the country’s most famous jerk restaurants.

Other popular Jamaican dishes are the famous patties (you can’t leave Jamaica without trying a Juici patty!), and rice and peas, which are actually pigeon peas or kidney beans.

Rastafarian culture

The Rastafari movement is an African-based spiritual ideology that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica and that was later popularized worldwide by Bob Marley. Visually recognizable because of their dreadlocks, the Rastafarians also observe an Ital diet. This diet aims to increase Livity, or the life energy that lives within all human beings. The food Rastafarians eat should therefore be natural and come from the earth.

 

Interested in trying this type of cuisine? You will find a cluster of food huts called Old Bay in Green Island. One of these is Ital Vital, which serves vegan Rastafarian health food such as beans stewed in coconut milk, ackee with tofu and bulgur rice.

Origins of the Ital diet

The word “Ital” derives from the English word "vital.” The diet is an essential part of Rastafarian culture , and early adherents adapted their diet based on their interpretation of several books of the Bible. For example, they were influenced by the following passage: “Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food." (Genesis 1:29).” Today, however, many Rastafarians consider the movement to be more a way of life than a religion.

Rastafarians observe a vegan diet that is free of chemically modified ingredients or artificial additives (such as dyes, artificial flavours, preservatives, etc.). They eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and staples in their diet include coconuts, bananas, callaloo, pimento and coconut oil. What’s most surprising is that some do not use salt at all in their cooking.

Some less strict Rastafarians will use pure sea or kosher salt and will even eat fish, as long as it is less than 12 inches. Chicken may also be added to a non-strict diet, but pork and shellfish are not likely to be eaten by anyone following an Ital diet. Their meat is considered to be unclean and harmful to the body because they are scavengers.

Local drinks – from rum to Blue Mountain coffee

Jamaicans love their rum. Rumour is there are more rum bars per capita in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. Rum punch is very popular on the island and easy to reproduce at home to instantly feel on vacation. It is possible to tour one of Jamaica’s oldest and most famous rum factories, Appleton Estate located in the Nassau Valley (90 minutes from Montego Bay), and Canadian adults can bring back one litre of alcohol upon their return to the country.

Another Jamaican favourite is coffee¾but not just any coffee, Blue Mountain Coffee. As its name states, this coffee is grown in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, and is one of the most popular and expensive brands in the world. To be considered Blue Mountain Coffee, the beans have to be harvested in Saint Andrew, Saint Thomas, Portland or Saint Mary. Blue Mountain Coffee is a globally protected certification mark, meaning that only coffee certified by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica can be labelled as such. This brand of coffee, known for its smooth, mild and bitter-free taste, is now sold everywhere in the world, in fact, more than 80% of the production is exported to Japan, but it is at the height of its freshness on the island.

Tia Maria dark liqueur combines two Jamaican favourites: rum and Jamaican coffee beans. The legend associated with the drink dates back to the mid-17th century. A beautiful young Spanish aristocrat reportedly fled the turmoil that colonial war brought to the island of Jamaica. Her maid saved one family treasure: a small jewellery box with black pearl earrings and an ancient manuscript with the recipe for a mysterious liqueur. Of course, the recipe was the famous drink, so it was then named after the woman, Tia Maria. The liqueur was then “rediscovered” in the 1950s by Dr. Kenneth Leigh Evans, who began to produce and market it.

Red Stripe beer, a pale lager, is well known and very appreciated in Jamaica. It is easily recognizable by its stubby brown bottle. Coconut water and coconut milk are also popular in Jamaica, and tap water is safe to drink.

Where should you eat in Jamaica?

One thing is for sure, a big part of Jamaica’s food culture is found on the street. Indeed, many of Jamaica’s best dishes can be found in roadside shacks. Don’t let the looks scare you away, the food prepared in these mobile restaurants is safe to eat, and delicious to boot. In fact, don’t be put off by the lack of a sign. Some food stands do not have permanent addresses or names!

Curried goat is a street food staple and a popular dinner choice, especially for parties. In fact, it is said to be best at a local backyard party! Festivals and carnivals will often bring in experts to prepare the dish perfectly. If your visit does not coincide with a major event, the restaurant Moby Dick in Kingston is also renowned for its recipe.

If you wish to stay at your resort to eat, you will find that many offer fine-dining options. Sugar Mill Restaurant is a renowned establishment serving both Caribbean and International cuisine, located in a restored 17th-century mill, inside the Half Moon resort in Montego Bay. For the best seasonal ingredients including locally caught seafood and fresh vegetables, Jake’s Country Cuisine at Jake’s Hotel is a must-visit on the South Coast.  The food is delicious, but you must come here for the view from the restaurant, which is simply stunning, day or night.

If you are staying in Ocho Rios, a visit to Bizot Bar is a must for Jamaican specialties and American foods alike. Also available are in-room and private outside dining, as well as a beautiful Gazebo, the perfect place to watch the sunset while enjoying a cocktail.

A great dining option in Montego Bay is Scotchies, on Falmouth Road, an institution famous for its jerk chicken and pork, and festival bread. There are two other Scotchies locations in Jamaica, in Kingston and Ocho Rios, so you’ll be sure to find one close to where you are staying. In Montego Bay, be sure to dine at the Houseboat Grill – you will not forget this relaxed and delicious experience!

Negril is the place to be for foodies visiting Jamaica. Rick’s Café is considered to be one of the best beach bars in the world. It has been open for 40 years, and is popular with locals and tourists alike. The place is always packed, thanks to live music every night and beautiful sunsets. Zimbali’s Mountain Cooking Studio has been described as “an experience you must have in Jamaica” and the menu features organic fruits from their garden. 3 Dives and Murphy's West End Restaurant are also places to visit for authentic Jamaican cuisine. Finally, the Caves is also a must-try experience in Negril: yes, you can eat in a candlelit cave! Tables are also available oceanfront, where you can try the Cliffhanger, the Caves’ signature cocktail, and foods ranging from jerk to tropical field greens.

Devon House Ice Cream, in Kingston, is considered to be amongst the best places to have ice cream in the world. The parlour serves 27 different flavours, including a beer-based ice cream called the Devon Stout. A must-try! You’ll also find stands all over Jamaica.

Some restaurants add a service charge to the bill in addition to the General Consumption Tax of 16.5%. Jamaican and US dollars are accepted at most establishments.

Cooking Jamaican foods at home

After coming back home from Jamaica, your taste buds will surely be asking for more traditional and spicy Jamaican dishes. Many cookbooks, such as The Real Taste of Jamaica and Traditional Jamaican Cookery, offer tricks and tools to reproduce traditional Jamaican dishes at home.

Ingredient availability will vary by region and season, but more and more traditional Jamaican produce is available in Canada. No need to worry if you can’t find some of the ingredients, as many recipes have now also been “Americanized” to help you reproduce them at home with what you have access to, such as this ackee and saltfish recipe.

Jerk is one of the Jamaican recipes that’s the hardest to reproduce, partly because of the lack of a proper grill. However, if you have access to a charcoal barbecue, this Jerk chicken recipe is a must-try, especially for the Jamaican barbecue sauce! It’s about as close as you will get to the real thing¾unless you can convince a local to give you their traditional family recipe! Make sure to bring back some Walkerwoods jerk seasoning from Jamaica to create your own jerk meals back home.

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

A cold Red Stripe beer, available in certain Canadian locations, is a must to cool off the heat from the delicious spicy jerk chicken dishes!

Happy eating!

Photo credits :

"Jerk chicken with red beans and rice" by Clint McMahon is licensed under CC BY 2.0