When planning a trip to Jamaica, especially for food lovers, it’s not always easy to find out what to eat. Particularly if staying in a resort, it’s hard to find the most traditional Jamaican food. This food guide offers recommendations for what to eat in Jamaica and how to do it.
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Our Trips To Jamaica
During our first trip to Jamaica, in 2001, we stayed at an all-inclusive resort and didn’t really focus on what to eat in Jamaica. We ate what the resort fed us. This often meant curly fries on the beach and Italian night, in addition to frozen rum drinks at the pool bar.
We visited Jamaica on our honeymoon. Had a wonderful time. Back then, though, we didn’t even think about researching what to eat and how to find those dishes in a destination. A lot has changed since then.
During our latest trip, though, we wanted to try as much traditional Jamaican food as we could. In our Jamaican food guide, I wanted to share our tips on the must-eat Jamaican dishes and a few recommendations on where to eat these dishes. We also cover what to drink in Jamaica.
Traditional Jamaican Food Guide – What To Eat In Jamaica
Many people who travel to Jamaica book all-inclusive resorts, which is fine. But, then they never leave the resort nor find out what to eat in Jamaica. They don’t seek out a great Jamaican restaurant to try some traditional dishes, off the resort property.
It’s important to know that Jamaica is a melting pot. Settlers from Europe, India, and Africa influenced the cuisine. This is why Caribbean cuisine, in general, is not homogenous. Different people settled each island at different times and each cuisine represents those differences.
We researched what to eat in Jamaica. Of course, we knew about jerk chicken, but we also knew there had to be more.
I offer a few recommendations for some Jamaican restaurants. But, first I want to answer the frequently asked question: What is Jamaica known for when it comes to food? What is typical Jamaican food? Because food in Jamaica is more than just jerk chicken.
What is Jamaican Cuisine
If I had one word to describe the Jamaican diet, it would be hot! Traditional Jamaican cuisine caters to the local palate, and that means Jamaica food carries some heat!
Jamaica’s traditional food is not quite as spicy as Szechuan cuisine in China, but it could be up there in the consistency of the heat. It’s slow and steady. But, there is more to the most famous Jamaican dishes than spice and heat.
History Of Jamaica And Its Cuisine
Authentic Jamaican cuisine is a result of the melting pot that is Jamaica. The earliest settlers were Spanish. The British controlled the island up until about six decades ago. But, Jamaica is also home to Chinese and Indian settlers.
Some of the dishes that could top a list of Jamaican national foods are meat. There’s no shortage of island influence, though, as many of the dishes include fish as well as tropical fruits. There is also a great deal of heat to the dishes, which might be due to the influence from Africa and Asia.
The 20+ Must Eat Jamaican Dishes
Here’s our list of the must-eat dishes when traveling to Jamaica. Some of these are pretty obvious but others are foods or dishes you’ve probably never heard of before.
Jerk Chicken – Is this Jamaica’s National Dish?
When people think about traditional Caribbean food and traditional Jamaican cuisine, many people think of authentic jerk chicken. This is regardless of whether they are thinking about Jamaica or one of its neighbors! Jerk is the most popular dish in Jamaica.
We ate some amazing authentic Jamaican jerk chicken while in Jamaica. We also ate jerk pork. And, jerk fish, and jerk short ribs…you get the picture. It seems that many dishes involve some kind of jerk.
Whatever the main protein (pork, chicken, or fish) it is marinated with a mix of seasonings, including Scotch bonnet pepper, pimento, allspice, and other spices. And, the best jerk is cooked slowly over an open flame, outside.
One might argue that jerk chicken is the national dish of Jamaica, but there are so many classic foods served up on the island that it’s hard to say just what is the national dish of Jamaica. What we can say is that it is one of the most typical Jamaican dishes, and definitely the most well known.
Where To Eat Jamaican Chicken
Scotchies in Montego Bay is often credited as being the best jerk chicken in Jamaica. We also ate some amazing jerk chicken during our tour of Croydon Plantation in the Jamaican mountains. We even ate some beachside from a shack while staying at the luxury Half Moon Resort.
Jamaican Meat Pie
Wondering what is the most popular food in Jamaica? Could the best Jamaican restaurant be a fast food joint?
The Jamaican meat pie is a popular Jamaican food, most similar to an empanada. It’s a pastry filled with spicy meat and lots of yum. Probably the most famous Jamaican takeaway, we scoured Montego Bay looking for the best patties.
Jamaican patties are an integral part of the Jamaican food culture. And, grabbing a Jamaican beef patty is similar to grabbing a burger for an American – part of the national identity!
Where To Eat Jamaican Patties In Jamaica
The two most well-known places for patties are Juici and Tastee. And there is a bit of a rivalry (think McDonald’s versus Burger King). The beef pie is the most traditional, but beef and cheese, and chicken curry are also popular.
Coco bread goes hand-in-hand with Jamaican meat pies. It’s a flour and yeast bread that is flavored with coconut milk. Although typically used for sandwiches, it is most famously known to be served with Jamaican meat patties.
It comes in a brown paper bag, along with the patty. It’s popped open and the patty is placed inside. It’s a heavy snack and meant to satisfy someone for a good portion of the day.
Jamaican Curry Goat
I love how much of the Jamaican cuisine we tried was made with humble meats, or parts of the animal that are not all that common elsewhere. That included goat! That said, we had a hard time tracking down curry goat during our trip to Jamaica.
Many hotels don’t offer goat regularly because Americans don’t eat goat and don’t order it (Hey, America, eat goat!). And, our meals during our excursions were pretty set. But, we managed to secure a last-minute chow down of Jamaican curry goat while staying at Half Moon.
Yes, it was a little gamier than a beef curry, but the meat was fairly tender, and the curry flavor was amazing! It’s more likely to find curry goat at festivals and parties more than at Jamaican restaurants. It could be one of the best Jamaican dishes you eat – if you can track down.
I would also recommend travelers eat at Sugar Mill, one of the best places in Jamaica for contemporary Jamaican cuisine, and a prime example of modern Jamaican cooking. They occasionally offer a curry goat ravioli as a special. If they have it, order it!
Where To Eat Jamaican Curry Goat
I was told the Chill Out Hut in Montego Bay has great curry goat, but we didn’t get a chance to try it ourselves. The versions at Seagrape Terrace and Sugar Mill at Half Moon, though, were spectacular! This might not be a popular food in Jamaica for tourists, but try it if you find it.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers – What Makes the Traditional Food of Jamaica So Spicy
Remember the heat that the Jamaican people love in their cuisine? A lot of it comes from Scotch Bonnet Peppers. The peppers take their name from the Scottish-style hats some of the British military wear. They come in green, yellow, and red colors. They may be small, but they pack a punch of heat.
It seems all of the popular foods in Jamaica are spiced with the Scotch Bonnet, and I am okay with that. And, how spicy are the Scotch bonnets? They are significantly more spicy than jalapeños and are more like habanero peppers. So, yeah, that’s hot.
But, they are not generally eaten fresh. Instead, they are made into hot pepper sauce to go with jerk chicken and other Jamaican dishes. Or, they are baked or cooked into other dishes, including shrimp fritters. I tried to eat as many Jamaican dishes with them in it because I just fell in love with the flavor!
Where To Eat Scotch Bonnet Peppers
If looking for a nicer evening out, the Houseboat Grill in Montego Bay offers a few dishes, including peel and eat shrimp and shrimp fritters. They are both served with a spicy hot Scotch Bonnet Pepper beurre blanc.
When wondering what Jamaicans eat, it might not be a fancy French beurre blanc sauce, but this was pretty tasty nonetheless. I don’t recommend eating the peppers on their own, instead, watch for them cooked into all sorts of typical Jamaican food.
Jamaican Side Dishes
Whether it’s curry goat, jerk chicken, or a grilled fish, most meals offer tasty Jamaican side dishes, many of which I had never tried before. Sometimes they can be listed separately on a Jamaican restaurant menu, other times, they just come with the ordered protein.
Rice and Peas
If someone were to ask me “What do Jamaicans eat” I would skip over jerk chicken and say rice and peas. They seemed to be everywhere and are one of the most typical foods in Jamaica.
But, this is not a dish with “peas” as Americans and Brits tend to think of them. Instead, this is more like rice and beans, with red beans that are similar to kidney beans.
They are found on almost every Jamaican lunch or dinner plate on the island. Definitely, typical food of Jamaica, even if it was one I had never heard of before.
In my humble opinion, I did not enjoy rice and peas as much as red beans and rice, a traditional Gulf Coast food. Cajun-style red beans and rice tend to be moister. But, it’s one of the Jamaican staples, so try it!
I ate bammy during our first meal in Jamaica and I fell in love! Bammy is made from cassava or yuca, root vegetables. It is soaked in coconut milk and then deep-fried. But, they can carry a bit of spice. They often are flavored with black pepper, or, of course, Scotch Bonnet peppers.
It’s another example of how traditional Jamaican foods use very humble ingredients. Bammy quickly became one of my favorite Jamaican dishes. And it has one of the best traditional Jamaican food names (although some of the next few Jamaican dishes do too!).
In a similar category to bammy is festival, a deep-fried cornmeal fritter. It is similar to a cruller in the US but less sweet. It’s often served with jerk chicken and other main dishes often during a typical Jamaican dinner.
One of the best we had was at Scotchies along with our jerk chicken and jerk pork.
Dumplings – Fried and Steamed
I love any cuisine that focuses on dumplings and other bread and dough like products. It’s why I love Italian food so much, and constantly crave dim sum in Hong Kong. It’s also why I love Czech food – loads of dumplings! Traditional food in Jamaican includes a lot of dumplings, again made with humble ingredients.
It seemed like a lot of Jamaican food dishes included dumplings. One of my favorites was a steamed dumpling served with stewed chicken our first breakfast in Jamaica.
But, fried dumplings are popular too, and often served alongside ackee and saltfish (see below). This steamed dumpling above included stewed chicken, fried plantains, and callaloo (see below).
After all of this protein and starch, how about a Jamaican dish that includes a vegetable? Callaloo is a green leafy vegetable, similar to kale, that is popular across the Caribbean.
It’s usually served steamed or sautéed with peppers and onions and ends up alongside dumplings, steamed or fried plantains, or other typical Jamaica dishes.
Escovitch is a style of cooking, more than a specific Jamaican dish. It uses vinegar, onions, and spices brought to Jamaica by early immigrants. We had an escovitch fish.
We also had a sauce that included spicy, pickled, shredded carrots to spread onto festival at Sugar Mill Restaurant. It was spicy and cool, and quite refreshing on the festival. Although not technically one of the Jamaican side dishes, I didn’t know where else to put it.
Where to Eat These Jamaican Side Dishes
I would recommend Peppa’s Cool Spot, a Jamaican food restaurant set a little inside the hills over the Montego Bay beaches. They offered each of these side dishes (and more) on their Jamaican menu.
Ackee and Saltfish
When asking what food is Jamaican known for, this one probably doesn’t come to mind for culinary travelers. This is saltfish and ackee.
Saving this one for (almost) last, a traditional Jamaican dish found on a Jamaican breakfast menu. Saltfish is just what it sounds like, salted fish.
It’s along the lines of a Spanish or Portuguese salted cod. It’s a fish that is salted and dried and then reconstituted later, to help it last longer. I ate a good amount of saltfish while in Jamaica, and I found it a little more salty and a little more dry than its European counterparts.
And, yes, I was eating it as one of the top Jamaican breakfast foods, where it is served with ackee, something I had never heard of before landing in Jamaica.
Ackee is a fruit that looks a little like jackfruit, native to Western Africa. When cooked it looks a little like scrambled eggs. I didn’t find the ackee to have its own unique flavor. It more takes on the flavor of the dish it is cooked into, much like tofu.
Where To Eat Ackee And Saltfish In Jamaica
It’s pretty common to find on hotel buffets, but some hotels will use canned instead of fresh ackee. It’s worth it to try this at least once during a trip to Jamaica.
Jamaican Rum Cake
I’m not a big one for desserts, and we didn’t eat a lot on our Jamaican holiday. But, we tried a Jamaican rum cake just before we left.
Rum cake is also known as a fruitcake, or even Christmas cake, in Jamaica. Essentially fruit is soaked in wine and white rum overnight and then baked into the cake.
Just a note, when I opened this package, the rum smell was pungent. I felt like I got a little buzz off of just the smell. But, it’s totally moist and juicy too.
Other Jamaican Dishes
What do Jamaican people eat? There were some other good Jamaican foods that we ate during our trip to Montego Bay. Try to track down some of these Jamaican dishes. These might be a little harder to track down, or might not be as appetizing to an American palate.
We ate most of these dishes at Peppas’s, which I would wholeheartedly recommend for good Jamaican food. They had a nice outdoor garden, cold beer, and some of the best selection of traditional foods in Jamaica that we saw.
We love oxtail, and I tend to associate it more with Italian cuisine. In Jamaica, stewed oxtail is braised in a spicy sauce until the meat is tender.
With larger pieces of oxtail, try to dig out some of the juicy bone marrow. For some reason, many Americans are hesitant to eat oxtail. If it helps, if you’ve ever eaten osso bucco in an Italian restaurant, you’ve eaten oxtail.
Run Down, or Run-Dun, is a traditional fish stew made with garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and fish. It’s all slow-cooked in coconut milk.
This fish stew is often served with dumplings. It’s called run down because it is slow-cooked for so long that the fish breaks apart and starts to look almost runny.
Another dish that many Americans might be hesitant to try is mutton, which is lamb. In Jamaica, they slow cook the mutton, which can be a less than tender cut of meat, in a curry sauce until it is tender.
Grilled Fish With Curry
I often don’t end up ordering grilled fish when traveling, mostly because I don’t like having to fight with bones. But, the grilled fish with curry in Jamaica had such a lovely sauce, it was worth the work and the mess.
This is probably a little less traditional of a dish but was made truly Jamaican with the addition of the scotch pepper sauce that came with the fritters. If you see this on a menu, order it!
What To Drink In Jamaica
Blue Mountain Coffee
When talking about popular Jamaican drinks two things come to mind – rum and coffee. And, we took advantage of both of them on our visit to Montego Bay. But, the coffee was particularly interesting.
We learned all about coffee production in Jamaica during our visit to Croydon Plantation. And, we drank a good amount of it too!
Red Stripe Beer
I feel like this is almost all I drank during our first trip to Jamaica. This time we knocked back a few. Red Stripe is certainly a must-drink beer in Jamaica. It’s easy to drink, and when served cold on a warm day, it’s the perfect match to spicy Jamaican dishes.
Where there is Red Stripe, there is also rum. Again, it’s not hard to find rum in Jamaica, particularly when staying at an all-inclusive resort. Of course, the most famous rum is from Appleton Estates.
But try to track down some of the more high-quality rums, including Blackwell and Wray & Nephew.
Some of their aged rums can be pretty pricey, but tasty and totally different than the rum used in a typical rum punch. And, speaking of, don’t limit yourself to a rum punch or rum and coke.
Ask the bartender or mixologist at your hotel what their specialty drink is. Chances are it will be bright, tasty, and perfect for Instagram! As an alternative, try Sangster’s Rum Cream too!
FAQs – Traditional Jamaican Food Guide
For true food travelers, there’s no better place to learn about local food than at a grocery store. It’s possible to purchase all sorts of jerk seasoning and jerk sauces at the airport, and most duty-free shops across the Jamaica island. But, a real Jamaican food store offers the brands the locals use at the prices the locals pay!
It’s true that certain types of Jamaican food can be a little heavy. I mean, even the bammy is soaked in coconut milk, which is probably why I loved it so much. Try some of the seafood restaurants in Jamaica to keep things lighter.
I am admittedly not the best source for Jamaican food facts, as I am still (happily) learning. Check out how to make your own Jamaican food recipes from a Jamaican cookbook, available on Amazon.