If I had to summarize the culinary reality of Jamaica in a single sentence, or indeed any of the Caribbean islands, I’d say this: It’s a kaleidoscopic synthesis of colonial, enslaved, native, and diasporic culinary traditions as bold and eclectic as anything from Singapore or Sicily.
We have a staggering variety of starches; we have street food that demands deep inquiry into proper crumb-to-meat-to-sauce-to-spice ratios; and we have an entire under-the-radar vegan diet called "ital," courtesy of the Rastafari Movement.
And yet, minus a few breakout stars, such as Christmas black cake and jerk chicken, Caribbean cuisine has remained largely sidelined, even as Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and other cuisines have shouldered aside French dominance to assert themselves upon the North American food imagination. Well, this Jamaican thinks it's high time the overlooked cuisines of the Western hemisphere start doing some shouldering and asserting of our own. (In Patois: A fi we turn now!)
Whether you're trying to reproduce that mad good curried goat that's been haunting your memory like a fiery first kiss, or you have the nearly impossible task of pleasing Jamaican in-laws, or you're expecting a visit from Usain Bolt in the immediate future, this piece is for you.
From coconut milk to thyme, from Scotch bonnets to scallions, you’ll learn what you need to reproduce the flavors that anchor a diaspora and be able to conjure “Yard” wherever the storms of nature or life may find you.
Yes, We Can!
Jamaicans use a lot of cans. Between the outsize influence of the British—our most dogged colonizers, and still the tinniest people that ever did tin—and the storm-prone, bug-blessed reality of tropical living, canned goods have emerged as the understated, unglamorous backbone of Jamaican cuisine. Here are a few essentials.
Canned Coconut Milk
Where European cuisines default to cream for its enriching power in dishes across the savory-sweet spectrum, Jamaicans are very firmly on Team Coconut Milk, an affiliation perhaps adopted from the Indian laborers forcibly repatriated to the island by Her Majesty's inimitable navy. (Yay for cultural diffusion?) In this era of DIY and everything from scratch, there’s much ado about homemade coconut milk, but this is a clear instance where working smarter beats working harder. The can has the convenience of being a precise, pre-measured quasi-unit (homemade yields are so dependably variable that qualifiers are written into most recipes), is generally more flavor-consistent than homemade, and is an absolute tropical breeze to store, particularly in bulk. Just shake the cans vigorously before opening to ensure even distribution of the fat solids and store leftovers well-wrapped in a cooler part of the fridge. Some of the iconic Jamaican dishes that incorporate coconut milk include:
- Rice and peas: Routinely confused with Latin American rice and beans, or otherwise entirely mislabelled as “peas and rice,” this omnipresent accompaniment to Caribbean savory dishes depends on the silken richness of coconut milk to meld the bright flavors of thyme, Scotch bonnet pepper, and scallions with the earthiness of squeaky-firm parboiled rice, long-simmered garlic, and butter-luscious peas. (Note: the distinction between rice and peas and rice and beans is a matter of emphasis and ratios: the rice is indisputably the focus in the Jamaican preparation.)
- Coco bread: Essentially an extra pillowy pita pocket with the fat content of a croissant, this trusty trencher and mopper-upper incorporates coconut milk for added density and unctuousness, although there are versions that use other fats effectively.
- Porridge: Typically consumed at breakfast or lunch, this isn’t the blank canvass of your continental breakfast “hot cereal.” Rather, Jamaican porridge tends to be long-simmered and spice-infused, with coconut milk serving the essential function again of melding flavors that would otherwise wander off in their own gustatory directions. It also tends to boast more than one starch, such as my all-time favorite, which incorporates a thick slurry of green bananas and plantains with chewy pearls of bulgur wheat.
Condensed (Tin) Milk
Anyone who's had the pleasure of Thai or Vietnamese iced coffee can attest that this thick, syrupy milk derivative supplies a richer, fuller sweetness than any number of sugar packets. Not that Jamaicans are averse to sugar—white or brown cane sugar is kind of our raison d'être, after all—but when we want a robust pot or cup of something-something to be sweetened, it's our tin milk that we turn to. Once opened, tin milk should be stored, covered, in the fridge, and should ideally be used up within the week. Typical dishes incorporating tin milk:
- Chocolate tea: Our riff on hot chocolate, made by grating unadulterated Jamaican cocoa balls and mulling it with spices in boiling water. Only tin milk has the necessary heft and richness to tame the raw dark power of the chocolate balls, which are essentially just cocoa beans ground to a gritty paste, formed, and dried.
- Pudding: A sliceable snack/dessert of baked (or steamed) starches that’s often finished off with a coating of caramelized condensed milk.
- Sundry tropical shakes and smoothies: Including papaya, custard apple, and mango preparations.
Corned Beef (Bully Beef)
Research has assured me that this canned product is, in fact, an iteration of the meat found in Reubens; this is good because I really couldn't tell. What it resembles more than anything is a coarser, saltier, less-savory beef chorizo, compacted into a dense, greasy block. Or, you can go with my partner's description: "Cat food."
Once liberated from its distinctive, paper-wrapped rectangular cans with finicky key attachments, the meat is broken up and browned in fat, then seasoned to within an inch of its afterlife with garlic, thyme, Scotch bonnet, other aromatics, black pepper, oxtail seasoning, and other condiments, loosened up with a little water, then used in preparations such as the dinnertime classic cabbage and bully beef, sandwiches (sorry, Ron Weasley!), or a brunch hash of meat and onions.
Assorted Canned Fishes
Historically, tinned fish like sardines, tuna, mackerel, and salmon (particularly water-packed), were affordable sources of flavorful protein even when meat or fresh seafood was out of reach. But then gentrification hit the canned seafood aisles like a plague of high prices, the bourgeois influx abuzz with PSAs about omega so-and-so's benefits for people, their dogs, and their cats. Nonetheless, their popularity persists in the Jamaican kitchen, where it's used in expected quick-and-dirty combos—soda crackers and sardines, sardines or cooked tuna on toast—as well as composed dishes like:
- Run-Down: A hearty, spicy, coconut milk-enriched, fish-and-veggie stew, typically featuring the fattier mackerel (served for lunch and dinner, but great as a savory breakfast, too).
- Seasoned rice: The fish, typically mackerel or salmon, is drained, flaked, and added to pumpkin-enriched rice near the end of cooking to serve as an umami agent and added bit of protein.
Another preserved fish worth mentioning here, though it isn’t canned, is the salted and dried cod fillet known as “saltfish,” which features most prominently in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish, though it can be found in fritters and pescetarian-friendly Jamaican patties as well. Weighing about one to one-and-a-half pounds, the fillets are soaked in cold water anywhere from one hour to overnight, then boiled in fresh water to tenderize them and remove most of the salt (my mother swears by using sugary water at this point in the process). De-boned and broken into flakes, it can be incorporated into a savory batter of flour and eggs to make handy fritters, mixed in with crisp, steamed cabbage for a vegetarian patty filling, or flaked into the creamy hash of ackee, onions, and tomatoes to make the quintessential ackee and saltfish breakfast.
Salt cod can be purchased at most well-stocked fish markets, grocery stores, and online. When selecting for quality fillets (best done in person), look for ones that retain enough concentrated moisture to feel hefty for their size; though a dried fish, saltfish shouldn’t feel desiccated. The smell should be brightly salty and a little earthy, with barely a hint of fish.
Beans and Peas in Variety
We do use a fair amount of dried beans, lentils, and chickpeas, but, as with coconut milk, the ease, consistency of quality, and storability of canned legumes renders them the favorite option. I mean, have you ever tried to measure out exactly how many cups of dried beans you need to hydrate for a 20-pound pot of rice and peas? Neither have I. Just throw in however many cans you remember putting in last time you got the most praise for the rice and call it a day. Among our favorites are broad, oval butter beans, which figure prominently in our oxtail gravy (the marrow-infused reduction that comes from simmering browned oxtails), pert, crisp-skinned pigeon or “gungo” peas (most often used for rice and peas and in soups), and melt-in-your-rice kidney beans.
Most noted for its co-starring role in the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish, this fruit shines in other preparations as well: as a creamy filler for seasoned rice, as a rich, aromatic filling for coco bread and patties, or as a lightly nutty, avocado-esque spread for hard dough toast.
Growing primarily in the Caribbean and Southern Florida, ackee starts out dangerously toxic, sequestered inside leathery green pods that cluster high aboveground like an imminent arboreal beatdown of clenched fists. As the fruit matures, the pods turn from green to red, their lobes unclenching and splaying open to reveal the three to five fingers of pale yellow or cream-colored ackee flesh within (called arelli), each tipped with a hard, shiny black seed. Once the pods open, the concentration of toxic hypoglycin molecules in the ackee flesh rapidly diminishes, rendering it safe for immediate cooking, freezing for later use, or canning in a light brine for wider commercial distribution.
The canned lobes are a passable substitute, and good brands to look for are Linstead Market and Grace; just take extra care not to jostle the cans or expose them to drastic temperature changes, as the creamy yellow lobes of flesh are prone to disintegrate into mush. You can purchase canned ackee online from Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace (or Amazon); it can also be purchased wherever Jamaican specialty products are sold.
Starches and Grains
If you've ever looked at our dancehall or our sprinters and wondered, “What makes them go?” This section is your answer.
All-purpose, self-rising, whole wheat...in a cuisine that pops chile flavor and drips hot sauces, the heat-suppressant and gravy-sopping properties of fried, baked, grilled, and boiled dough are indispensable.
Standard preparations include our dense, unfilled dumplings (boiled or fried), fried bake (a larger, more tender oxymoron of a fried dumpling that we borrowed from Trinidad), festivals (large hush puppies that have picked up a sugar habit and a few kinks), coco bread, and meat patties. Sweeter applications include rum cake, black cake, Easter spice buns, and plantain tarts, among an abundance of desserts and snacks.
Rice in Variety
Jasmine, health nut-brown, plain white, pre-seasoned, saffron-tinted yellow, parboiled Iberian—Jamaicans eat a lot of rice, to the point where I was stunned to discover as a moved-out college student that rice comes in smaller-than-20-pound bags, and even single-serving boxes. The variety is key here, as the rice used changes according to the dish: yellow rice is most often paired with fried snapper and other fish or used for seasoned rice; parboiled or jasmine is primarily used for rice and peas; plain brown and white serve as foils for the more savory curried goat, curried chicken, and cow foot (a cool-weather dinnertime favorite of melty, pressure-cooked cows’ feet, beans, and potatoes).
This broader sub-category includes hominy, barley, oats, bulgur (cracked wheat), and cornmeal. They’re cooked singly or in combination, enriched with spices, fats, sweeteners, and secret additions of the cook's choosing. These grains have the added benefit of versatility: bulgur is often seasoned and used as a rice replacement, barley and hominy occasionally lend their heft to soups, and cornmeal shows up in everything from sweet corn pudding to savory "Turn Cornmeal" (Jamaican polenta) to the dough of fried festivals and dumplings. (We also use cornmeal to slick down the domino table so we get that nice, fast shuffle.)
Plantains (Green and Ripe), Bananas (Green)
We share the Latin American penchant for frying or steaming ripe and near-ripe plantains to use as a side, equivalent in ubiquity to the American dinner roll or biscuit. Beyond that application, we also use both fruits when still completely unripe, woody, and fibrous, due to the starch not having catalyzed into sugar yet. They’re either peeled and puréed fresh with water for addition to porridge, or dehydrated, powdered, and reserved to be used to the same end. Green bananas also get the potato treatment: served boiled to tenderness, either whole in their skins or mashed coarsely with a little butter and salt.
Roots in Variety
These include carrots, white potatoes, the American sweet potato, the red-skinned sweet potato called batata, cassava, and yams (the hulking, bark-skinned West African tuber you couldn't candy with a candy shop). All of these find their way into soups, stews, and hearty side mashes, with batatas and cassava making the jump from savory to sweet to bulk out dessert puddings. Cassava is also the key ingredient in bammy, a porous, round "cake" that's either fried to crispy elasticity or steamed to butter-sopping sponginess as an accompaniment for fish dishes.
Spices, Herbs, and Essential Miscellany
To arrive at the unapologetic, bold flavor of Jamaican cuisine, you've got to inconvenience a fair number of plants, unscrew a Macy's parade of bottle caps, and, generally, own the hell out of the apron-mantle of mad scientist. You’ve also got to dispense with the idea that you season just at the beginning or end of the cooking process: Jamaican cuisine is the art of seasoning as you go.
Scotch Bonnet Pepper
This hot, fragrant chile with its waxy, crumpled skin and yellow, orange, or bright red coloring, measures around 1.5 inches in diameter and clocks in on the Scoville heat scale at about 445,000 SHUs (which means it’s hot; a jalapeño measures 2,500-8,000 on the scale).
It is most famous for its starring role in jerk sauce and escovitch (a chutney-like sauce of pickled carrots, Scotch bonnets, and onions), but also shows up as a key flavor component in the omnipresent rice and peas, Jamaican beef patty (meat pie), and mannish water (goat head soup), to name but a few. Contrary to what most online recipe writers and cookbook authors say, the habanero is not the best substitute; that would be dried ghost chiles, which are hotter but convey a similar fruity note to the Scotch bonnet.
Generally found in powdered form, Jamaicans use cayenne as both a base and finishing seasoning when we want more of an understated heat, the way other cuisines might employ black pepper.
Pimento (Jamaican Allspice)
Along with vanilla, this dried fruit of the Jamaican bayberry has the distinction of being one of two spices native to the Americas. There is a Guatemalan variety, but the Jamaican species has a higher volatile oil content, making it much more potent. Though the ground spice shows up as expected in applications like the Jamaican Easter spice bun—(the spicy, fruit-studded wild child of the English hot cross bun)—or jerk marinade (see below), it’s the whole or lightly crushed berries that actually run the show, infusing long-simmering stews or fermented drinks such as Christmas sorrel (a cocktail of rum, wine, puréed red sorrel flowers, and ginger) in much the same way that Indian cuisine uses cardamom, though the peppery, clovesy, nutmeggy bite of pimento is unabashedly itself.
Parties will be postponed and planned meals canceled if it’s discovered that a house is out of fresh thyme. No self-respecting fish head or chicken foot soup would be complete without it, and rice and peas without the occasional stem in it is highly suspect. Thyme is heartier than most cut herbs, but can benefit from being wrapped in paper towel and secured in a ziptop plastic bag in the fridge.
Scallions (Patois: Scellion, Escallion)
These alliums serve as base and finishing aromatics and are particularly important in filling out the flavor of pan sauces, as in the spicy, thin-sliced steak and bell peppers dish called pepperpot steak, and the Jamaican version of pot roast.
Jamaican Curry Powder
With standard ingredients including turmeric, salt, coriander, fenugreek, red pepper, cumin, allspice, mustard seeds, star anise, and garlic, this is not, nor should it be used as, an Indian spice mix; the flavors are much too brash and uncomplicated for blooming or toasting. Especially for meat dishes, we like to apply curry as we go: first in the marination, and again (in more judicious amounts) at various points of the dish’s simmer-down. It should also be layered in with other seasonings and spices, rather than applied as an all-in-one, stand-alone seasoning.
With a sturdy backbone of concentrated alliums (onion and garlic), a bright flash of herbal celery, and a sharp punch of salt and MSG with a lingering chile smart, think of this as a seasoning salt on steroids. It’s our all-purpose seasoning, good on everything from the expected oxtail to fried fish to eggs to avocado toast. I like to use Grace brand oxtail seasoning, which is readily available online, but if you can’t get your hands on oxtail seasoning, any decent seasoning salt with a bit of heat and herbaceous character will do, including World Spice Merchants’ Voodoo seasoning.
All bright heat, woody spice, and assertive aromatics, jerk is the flavor profile most commonly associated with Jamaica cuisine by the rest of the world.
Pre-made jerk seasonings can be found in powdered, dry rub form, as a pourable, liquid sauce, or as a chunky, spreadable paste reminiscent of Thai red curry paste. They’re an excellent jumpstart to marinades, with the better ones being sufficiently nuanced to incorporate into glazes and pan sauces as well. I highly recommend Grace’s hot jerk seasoning marinade, which contains Scotch bonnet, scallion, salt, sugar, pimento, garlic, black pepper, thyme, vinegar, and various “undisclosed” spices.
Vinegars in Variety
Whether cane, apple cider, red wine, or white, the Jamaican cook and vinegar are inseparable. It provides the tangy tongue-kick in the escovitch sauce that accompanies fried fish, a convenient and tasty way to preserve fast-spoiling Scotch bonnets, and is essential for cutting the fat in some of our meatier dishes.
This sauce of charred sugar is used to lend color and darkling-scorchy-sweet-umami flavor to both savory dishes like brown stew chicken—pan-fried chicken quarters cooked down in a sweet, schmaltzy sauce)—and sweet treats like the aforementioned spice bun. Typically I buy Kitchen Bouquet’s prepared browning sauce, but it can be manufactured at home easily enough—it’s essentially a salted caramel sauce—and in savory contexts can be effectively replaced with a high-quality dark soy sauce. Here’s a good example of a basic browning recipe.
As we end this whirlwind tour, you might wonder why I haven’t mentioned rum. Some truths, dear reader, are too self-evident to state. Now, grab your bottle, get in that kitchen, and thro’ down like the champion I know you can be.