Authentic Jamaican food shows the influence of several different cultures. People from Africa, Britain, India, and Spain came to the island, adapting and adding to indigenous Taino cuisine. Together, they developed the distinct flavors of Jamaican cuisine that we enjoy today.
From the Island
Historians believe that the indigenous Taino people were the first to slowly cook meat in an open pit fire. This technique allows meat to pick up the smokey flavor of the wood being burned, giving the jerked meat its distinct taste.
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Another common element in authentic Jamaican food is scotch bonnet peppers. These peppers, which are plentiful on the island, are considerably hotter than jalapeños. They also have a sweet taste distinct from other hot peppers. They give dishes such as jerk chicken most of their heat and tang.
Allspice, another significant flavor in jerk cooking, is also native to Jamaica. Also known as pimento, it combines the flavors of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper. Pickers harvest the fruits when they’re green and unripe, then dry them in the sun.
Cornish immigrants brought pasties to the island, which evolved into Jamaican patties. These savory, semi-circular pastries are a well-known part of Jamaican cuisine and are often seen as a full meal. Cooks will dye the crusts yellow with an egg wash or turmeric, then fill the insides with vegetables or a variety of meats.
Britain also brought the slave trade to Jamaica, which introduced salt fish to the local cuisine. Sailors created salt fish to make sure they had food that would survive long ship journeys. Today, saltfish is the other half of Jamaica’s best-known national dish. To make salt fish, cooks will take a meaty white fish and cure it in salt until it loses all moisture.
The slave trade also brought West African influence to the island. Escaped slaves retreated into the woods and learned cooking from the Taino people, adding their own cultural influences to the cuisine. Specifically, they brought the flavors of jerk pork dishes from their home country, combining them with local seasonings and cooking techniques.
Ackee fruit, half of Jamaica’s national dish, originally came from Ghana. It looks like an apple or pear when it’s growing, and when sautéed looks more like scrambled eggs. People describe the taste as rich and buttery, and it’s now one of the island’s biggest exports.
African influence also appears in callaloo, a mixture of stewed greens. The main ingredient is Taro, a native West African plant, but the seasoning is purely Jamaican. The texture can be thin, like a soup, or thick enough to serve as a side dish.
In addition to the slave trade, the British brought Indian indentured servants to Jamaica. These people brought a variety of new spices with them, particularly cumin and curry powder. These spices are key elements of both the modern Jamaican curry and dishes like curry chicken.
When making Jamaican curry, cooks will often start by sautéing cumin seeds in oil before adding other ingredients. This adds a peppery bite to Jamaican dishes, offering another source of heat in addition to scotch bonnet peppers. Cumin is also a key element in curry powder, a mixture of several different spices.
Gungo peas, an important Jamaican staple, also originated in India. Sometimes known as pigeon peas, these are often served with seasoned rice. There is also a special soup with meat, pigtails, and yellow yams.
Jamaica was first colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century. Spanish Jews left their mark on local cuisine with escovitch fish, a vinegary dish often found on breakfast tables. The name is a derivation of the Spanish word “escabeche,” which means a pickled dish. In the days before refrigeration, pickling was a common method of preservation.
Taste Authentic Jamaican Food
To experience these culinary influences firsthand, visit a restaurant that serves authentic Jamaican food. They have jerk chicken, ackee and saltfish, escovitch fish, Jamaican patties, and a wide variety of other authentic Jamaican food you’re sure to enjoy!