WHY JAMAICAN FOOD IS SOOOO GOOD?
This is my first post about food and probably will be the only one, we’ll see. Anybody would think that being Italian I should be able to cook perfectly and have a huge repertoire or Italian recipes that I could easily prepare. Nothing like that. I don’t actually know how to cook properly. What I do very well is eating! that’s my best skill, and appreciating good food and good cuisine. I have a curious and happy palate which is eager to know all about the dishes of the place where I travel, of course to a limit. I didn’t eat crickets in Oaxaca and I am not going to eat snakes or bugs of all sorts. But with some exceptions, I am a good foodist.
Jamaica is one of the places where I literally fell for the food and didn’t miss at all my good Italians habits, although a good pizza every now and then would have been appreciated.
But why is Jamaican food so good? I am not sure if they make it what specific spice or flavour they put in their cooking process but it has a very special taste and I do miss it a lot now that i don’t live there anymore.
It could be because they dance and sing when they cook and the food absorbs the good vibes.. no kidding here.. anything its possible 🙂 Anything you do with love must come out good.
Anyway my intention here is to guide you through Jamaican specialities but before that I would like to give you a list of local products from mother earth, some of them are endemic from here and you wouldn’t find it anywhere else or in very few places and others are typical of the caribbean region.
FRUITS AND VEGGIES
I loved to drive around Jamaica and stop by the street vendors because they have the best fresh fruits and veggies straight from the grounds and so well displayed on their handmade wooden stalls, an outburst of colours and genuine food for the soul. That was my fruits and veg supermarket. In Negril there is a lady in downtown on the way to Sav la mar and many others are scattered around the island on the main roads, but the most beautiful are on the way to Port Antonio from Ocho Rios. Here’s the list of fruits and veggies.
MANGOES – that is an easy one, everybody knows mangos, but watch out for the Julie mango quality, bigger and more pulpy and juicy, while the regular one, yellow-orange is smaller and full of strings that sticks between your teeth
PAPAYA – In Jamaica the papayas are small and sweet all year round delicious, and different from the one you find in Mexico for example, much bigger but not always so tasty.
JACK FRUIT – It is a huge green/yellowish fruit very heavy very very smelly when you open it, but I love it. The meat is a bit chewy, but sweet and it’s very nutritive. It has big seeds stucked in the pulp.
BREAD FRUIT – It looks like a green banana when its still behind and grows into a perfect green ball when its mature and ready to fall from the tree. They cook it on a stove leaving the skin to burn and then peel it off. The dry and thick pulp has the consistency of bread or a soft potato. It is then cut in slices and either fried or toasted and it is normally used to combine with a main meal. It’s total carbs, but natural ones. Sometimes you will find it as a snacks made like chips. Delicious.
PEAR – You will know it already but under the name of Avocado – in Jamaica they name it pear, which actually make sense because it has the same shape. This is what I call healthy fat. And after I found out that natural veggie fats are good for health and diet.. well, I am eating one avocado a day 🙂 when I can of course.
ACKEE – This is the Jamaican thing – the national fruit and ackee and saltfish (see below for the dish), although it is not endemic, it has been imported from west africa but it is now distributed only in and from Jamaica, that I know. It’s a fruit, as it grows in trees and has seeds, but it is eaten as a vegetable. Its seed is actually poisonous and it needs to be extracted properly before eating the fruit, that is when the fruit is spontaneously open. Only then it is ready to be cleaned and cooked. You don’t have to worry about that because they sell it already cleaned in case you want to cook it, otherwise you can go to a restaurant and you are sure it’s done in the best way. I was just explaining what it is ( actually see the top picture). Jamaicans usually eat it with salt fish for breakfast which is a little heavy for me but I have tried it and it’s just delicious, although I prefer to have it for lunch or dinner 🙂 You know we Italians are weird like that. They also sell it in can and it is one of the most exported product in Jamaica.
CALALOO – Another super healthy veggie, very frequently used in Jamaica! It’s like a sort of spinach but a little more tasty. It’s eaten sauté to accompany main dishes, just like any other vegetable. The majority of the time it is a little too spicy for me. But I love it.
SUGAR CANE – In the past, before the introduction of refined sugar, the sugar cane was the major exported product of the whole caribbean island – they used to have huge plantations which you can still see. From the pulp they make all sorts of stuff, among which the melassa to make Rum. But also they used to press the sugar cane and drink the juice which is one of the sweetest thing I have ever tasted. You will still see street vendors with their own machine to smash sugarcane and sell the juice or you will see eating and chewing sticks of the plant. You should try one.
BANANAS AND GREEN AND YELLOW PLANTAIN – It is specially present in the Portland ara as it was intensively cultivated in the colonialism times when on the other parts of the island and other regions the main product was sugarcane, from here the colonies exported bananas. The fruit is still the most cultivated in the area even though it’s not exported anymore. Then there are different other kinds of bananas, the green plantain is a small kind of plantain that is boiled and eat as a side order, just like rise or bread for example mostly for breakfast but also during other meals. The yellow one is fried and sometimes you will find it in the form of chips. Delicious 🙂 good source of carbs.
YAM –Somebody told me that one of the best fuel for Jamaican athletes is yam I am not sure about it but it is definitely better than pasta as a natural source of carbohydrates. It’s like a yellowish potato of the family of tubers, like cassava, sweet potato and the regular potato all of them well consumed in Jamaica. If you are driving around Jamaica you should stop on one of the most famous road shack where local vendors will roast yam and hand it to you with butter, a delish! it’s on the main road between Mandeville and Savanna La mar, on the south coast.
COCONUT – On this I should write a separate article because there is so much to say. Let’s say first that there are different types of Coconut. The hard and the soft. This last one is the youngest and mostly consumed for drinks. They cut the top with a machete and smooth the surface and drink it directly from the Nut. Some tourists prefer to use the straw and that’s ok but I would suggest you to drink it up just like that. (besides, straws are a huge contaminating factor). The best part comes when you finish drinking it. They cut the coconut in half and scoop away the pulp which you can eat, delicious and nutritive. Watch them because it is an art. They use the remaining half coconut as a plate and leave you the pulp on top of that for you to eat. OR they slice of a part of the nut for you to use as a scoop to dig into the pulp and eat it. That’s my favourite. This is not only in Jamaica. It’s a caribbean thing and we do it also in Mexico. The hard coconut is mostly used for cooking purpose they make flower or coconut rays and make delicious coconut deserts and cakes or biscuits.
PINEAPPLE – Although originates in Brasil, the Pineapple is very popular in Jamaica and you can also buy it on the road and see how they artistically cut it in perfectly clean slice without touching the pulp, for you to eat. I would buy it just to see them doing it.
PASSION FRUIT a particularly sour fruit sometimes you also find it on the road.
OKRA – It’s a green vegetable in the form of little pipes with small seeds inside. Not everybody is a fan of this veggie, at least I am not, since when you cook it, it produces a sort of slimy juice which feels kind of funny in the mouth.. but maybe that’s just me 🙂
GUAVA- When it’s guava season you can find it everywhere, it blooms almost all year round but especially in spring when warmer weather kicks in.
CASSAVA – Cassava is another root vegetable which is also called yucca or tapica or manioc, it originates in Brasil but the Jamaican variety is a very popular root as it grows in less fertile grounds very easily. It resembles the sweet potato or Yam, and it is eaten fried or boiled or if processed, they take out the water and create a cassava flour, which is mixed with water and the dough and cooked to make cassava flatbreads.
SOUR SOP – It is known as the cancer killer fruit most of all, for its properties, among other qualities. I haven’t verified that, but it ‘s definitely a tasty sweet fruit either in juice or eating the pulp. It’s native in latin america and widespread all over the caribbean and Mexico.
GUINEP – You might see kids on the road selling branches of small rounded green stuff on it. Those are the guinep fruits. You open the little balls kernels with your teeth and suck the sour juice out of that until the only thing left in your mouth is the dry seed, which you will spit out. A little gross, but that’s the jungle style 🙂 .
SORREL – It’s the Christmas fruit but it’s common all year round, and they make a tea out of their dry leaves, while the mild sweet fruit looks like an apple, but lighter and eaten as any fruit.
SWEET APPLE – Gosh! how many I have eaten of those! its’ a brown rounded fruit, kind of ugly from outside, it needs to be really really soft when ripe. You just squeeze the top and bottom extremities and it should open perfectly in two. Take out the black seeds and eat it up (not the skin of course). So sweet and delicious.
MAMEY – The Jamaican mamey is native to the West Indies and northern South America, although here, in Bahamas and St Croix is where it mainly is found growing spontaneously. It’s a thick brown skinned big fruit oval shaped with a dark bright orange pulp, very sweet and rich in nutrition. One of those makes a meal. It’s really satisfying for the belly.
SCOTCH BONNET PEPPER – Pure fire in your mouth! If you love hot sauce, have that. If you don’t, stay away. What I love is the multicoloured field of the pepper, the fruit is small and sort of rounded and it grows read, green and yellow. A pleasure to look at.
ACKEE AND SALTFISH
This is my favourite dish ever, (see head picture, served with johnny cakes). I would eat it every day if it was not so heavy. It’s done sauteed with onion and tomatoes, and saltfish, of course. The akee is boiled first and then mixed together in a pan. There is also a vegetarian (lighter) version without fish, just the akee and some other veggies, especially it comes served with calaloo which is cooked just like sauteed spinach.
JERK CHICKEN or PORK – The jerk is the name of the sauce, an explosive mix of spices in which the meat has been previously marinated before being grilled. Its’ kind of art! The chicken or pork come already a little spicy but for the real jerk flavour you must add more sauce that will be given to you on the side.
STEWED PORK or CHICKEN – It’s a more regular version of the chicken or pork, its’ cut into pieces and cooked in a sort of tomato and different vegetable sauce. It comes in a brownish colour, very flavory and not so spicy.
CURRY GOAT – This is one of Jamaican’s favourite dishes. Goat meat has a very strong flavour and not everybody is fun of it. The curry gives it a little extra taste. But it’s still very strong. If you like to experiment, this is a very rich plate. Served with salad and rice and peas.
OXTAIL STEW- It’s not considered a fine cut anywhere in the world although I remember having eaten it as a child in Italy. For sure it is a very popular finger licking dish in Jamaica, stewed with other vegetables and of course serve with rice and peas.
STEAMED FISH – It’s a whole fish, normally a snapper, cooked in a vegetable broth. If you are sensitive about eating the whole fish, don’t take it. Otherwise this is another popular dish eaten with salted crackers.
RICE AND PEAS – It was a little weird for me to see that rice and peas is a side order included in a main course, because in Italy we have risotto as a first course or sometimes the only one (in the modern diet) – Almost everywhere in the world is eaten on the side and in Jamaica especially, rice and peas is never missing. I love its particular flavour given by the coconut milk that they use for cooking. It’s unique and delicious.
BOILED DUMPLING – Just water and flour mixed and boiled in salted water. They eat it together with main courses, as in the picture above. it’s a substitute of bread. Love it
FRIED PLANTAIN – In every Jamaican plate there will always be two pieces of fried plantain. I always keep it for last and eat it as a desert. In fact it is sweet. It looks like a banana but it is another kind. It’s called green plantain and it’s cooked either boiled or fried. This one in the plate is fried.
FRIED DUMPLINGS, FESTIVALS & JOHNNY CAKES – A sort of fried kind of bread that normally accompany a main meal as a side dish. There is a little controversy on the difference among the three versions, since I didn’t remember exactly, I have asked around and I got different explanations. Sure is they are all delicious, however the Johnny cakes and festivals are sweet while the fried dumpling are salted. The Johnny cakes should have cornflour in addition to white flour and they are round shaped while the festivals are long finger shaped. They are all fried and unhealthy but a great treat for sure. 🙂
PUMPKIN SOUP – Very common, in some restaurants you will receive a small cup as a starter, as a courtesy. It’s very creamy and most often very spicy. Delicious.
CONCH SOUP – Spicy!! and delicious.. it’s broth with vegetables and boiled conch bits. Most often it is sold by the streets vendors, on the road and by the entrance of nightclubs.
CONCH STAKE – Another favourite of mine. In Negril I used to go and have it at Sweet Spice. The best ever. It look like a pan fried stake but it’s conch (the mollusc). served with salad.
CONCH BITS – The same as the stakes but it’s cut into pieces and pan-fried separately. Not really the best for a diet but worth trying it once.
BUN AND CHEESE – This is a typical quick meal in easter time – the bun is a very thick cake made with candied fruits, therefore very sweet, cut in slices and eaten as a sandwich with cheddar cheese. Not really my favourite I have to say.
BUMMY – It’s a sort of flat bread, gluten free friendly as it is made with cassava flour only, salted, although, it’s good to eat soaked in milk. It is also served on the side of main courses.
PATTIES and COCOBREAD AH!!! the real snack! They are like half moon shaped bread filled with all sort of stuff, from veggie one with calaloo and other vegetables, akee and saltfish, meat and so forth. You can find it of any kind. It comes mostly fried. The coco bread is a sort of focaccia, very soft kind of bread. Typical is to cut the Cocobread in half and put a Pattie inside. Lots of carbs, I know but it tastes good!! The best place to find them is by Juicy Patties, it’s like a local fast food, a franchise with branches all over Jamaica. Although I prefer when I find more home-made ones from small local shops.
JAMAICAN SPICE BUN – As I mentioned before, it is a typical desert made and eaten for easter although you will find it all year round in the supermarkets, in the snacks section. It’s a dark think cake made with lots of candied fruits. very sweet.
JAMAICAN COCONUT DROPS – Extremely sugary dessert, or snack, made of diced coconut mixed with sugar and ginger, boiled together until the mixture dries off and it the syrup hardens. SWEET!
JAMAICAN GIZZADA – Another super sweet treat – made with a base that is similar to a tart, filled with a blend of coconut, brown sugar, cinamon and ginger, cooked and melt together.
Woooow ! That was a long list. I hope you didn’t get bored and you will find it useful during your trip to Jamaica. Of course it is not everything they have. I have just included what I remembered from my time there and most of all what I loved the most. If you think I forgot something important please feel free to write in the comments section below. I will be happy to fix it.