Jamaica: Culinary Background

Flag of Jamaica

While the cooking of Jamaica is typically Caribbean in many ways, the island's unique mix of culinary influences, due to several waves of immigration, led to a distinctive cuisine.

Culinary Influences

The first cooking on the island was by the Arawak Indians who made use of native produce and meats. Fish, corn, cassava and callaloo - a green similar to spinach - were mainstays of the diet.

With European settlement and the introduction of slavery, English puddings and pasties and African yams, okra and ackee - a tree fruit used as a vegetable - entered into the repertoire.

After the abolition of slavery, the British brought over indentured servants from India, and various curries became popular. And Chinese immigration expresses itself in the popularity of sweet-sour dishes.

Common Ingredients

Ingredients in wide use on Jamaica include bananas, breadfruit, chocho (or chayote, a type of squash), bok choy, butterbeans, pawpaw (papaya), lime and avocados (known in Jamaica as pears). Pork, chicken, fish and shellfish find their way into various dishes.

Allspice and thyme are typical seasonings in Jamaican cooking, and the super-hot Scotch bonnet pepper adds fiery punch to almost everything.

Jamaica rum lends itself to a variety of tropical drinks. Blue Mountain coffee, grown in the interior, is a world famous export.

Popular Dishes

Goat curry is special occasion food and shows the influence of East Indian cuisine in Jamaica. Ackee and saltfish is a mixture of salt cod and the scrambled-egg-like fruit and is considered Jamaica's national dish.

Perhaps the most widely known and beloved of Jamaican food is jerk. This method of grilling meats originated with the Arawaks and involved cooking marinated meat over a fire of pimento wood. The pimento tree is the source of allspice, a beloved Jamaican flavoring, and allspice finds its way into every jerk recipe.

The vegetarian cooking of the Rastafarians, called Ital cuisine, is an important subcomponent of Jamaica's food culture. Ital focuses on not only the nutritive value of food but also on its medicinal effects.