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How to Cook Like a Jamaican

by
Mar 12th, 2021

Jamaica’s cuisine reflects its people: vibrant, bold and with influence from all over the world. 

Sure, you may have heard of jerk chicken and plantains, but did you know that Jamaican food has its roots in nearly a dozen different regions around the world?

Jamaica is a nation shaped by a multitude of languages, cultures, religions and, of course, cuisines. In fact, Jamaica’s motto is “Out of Many, One People,” acknowledging that despite having come from different origins, the Jamaican people today share a strong love for the beautiful island. 

A bit about Jamaica

Jamaica is a Caribbean island located just south of Cuba. According to archaeological evidence, the first inhabitants of the island were likely migrants from other islands to the east who arrived around 600 A.D. When Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494, there were about 2 million indigenous people thriving in the Caribbean and in Jamaica. They utilized a complex agricultural system to grow yams, cassava, corn, peanuts, beans and peppers on the island, and incorporated plenty of fish and shellfish into their diets.

Unfortunately, the indigenous culture was all but wiped out following the European conquest of the Caribbean during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the people’s food, practices and lifestyles lived on as the influence of European, African, and Asian peoples also settled into Jamaican life. 

Jamaica’s vibrant cuisine and culture have spread throughout the Caribbean region, but there’s nothing quite like some true, authentic Jamaican cuisine to bring all the flavors of the world together!

Here are a few of the most popular Jamaican dishes, the history behind them and how you can make them at home! Trust us, your mouth will be watering by the end of this.

(On an unrelated note, I’m now going to go make some curry…)

Popular Jamaican dishes

Jerk chicken and pork

Arguably one of the more popular features of Jamaican cuisine, both locally and internationally, jerk cooking is a form of meat preparation that’s native to Jamaica. 

The word “jerk” is derived from the word “charqui” in Quechua, an indigenous language spoken mainly in the Andes region and picked up on by Spanish explorers. Quechan people referred to spiced, dried meat as “charqui,” and eventually that term evolved into the word “jerky” we use today. 

In jerk cooking, the meat is wet marinated or dry-rubbed with a blend of allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. Additional spices may include ground cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, scallions, brown sugar, garlic, salt and ginger. 

Jerk meats are usually smoked in smoking barrels or grilled on steel drums known as jerk pans. Although the most popular meats of choice have been pork and chicken, jerk spice and jerk cooking techniques also work well with beef, tofu, vegetables, lamb, shrimp, fish and shellfish. 

Here’s a recipe for some authentic jerk chicken that you can make at home!

Ackee and saltfish

For a real taste of Jamaica, look no further than the island’s unofficial national dish featuring the national fruit: ackee!

The ackee fruit is native to Ghana and is named after the Akyem people of that region. The exact date on which the fruit was first introduced to the Caribbean is unknown, but it was likely sometime between 1672 and 1725 at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

Ackee fruit is toxic to humans and can only be eaten after the fruit has had a chance to open up on the tree. Once the fruit has opened, it can be deseeded and prepared for consumption. Saute some veggies, add some salted, dried fish and voila! The final product looks a little like a scrambled eggs breakfast, but it can be eaten at any time during the day.

Here’s a recipe for ackee and saltfish that you can make at home!

Curry goat

This dish has its roots in the Indian subcontinent where it is popular in kitchens of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

The Jamaican version of curry goat is a little spicier than the versions found in south Asia, incorporating Scotch bonnet peppers and fried plantains into the rich curry. This flavorful dish is commonly found across the island, but it is also a favorite for special occasions. Goat meat is a little more gamey than mutton chicken or beef, so the richness of the meal makes it popular for Christmas meals, weddings, birthdays and funerals. 

Here’s how you can make this mouth-watering Jamaican-style goat curry at home!

Stew peas

This hearty stew is a protein powerhouse thanks to the kidney beans and salted meats. 

While stew beans is a popular dish all over the Caribbean, Jamaican cooks have truly perfected this flavorful stew. It’s the type of dish where every family has their own special concoction of ingredients and meats, but it’s a meal you can get wherever you go. 

Stew beans can be served alone or with rice or dumplings. 

Here’s how you can make stew peas at home!

Callaloo

Callaloo is a vegetable dish made using local greens like amaranth, taro or Xanthosoma. The leaves are steamed and sautéed, then can be served as-is or alongside saltfish, vegetables or dumplings. 

Versions of callaloo exist all over the world in some form or another as locals steam and sauté their regional greens. In other regions of the Caribbean, water spinach and okra are popular choices. 

Here’s how you can make Jamaican callaloo at home!

These Jamaican dishes are sure to bring a burst of flavor to your next meal, so why not give them a go? The island’s cuisine is some of the most famous in the world, so bring this little slice of paradise into your home, wherever you may be. 

If you're interested in trying some other global cuisines, then check out our blogs on cooking like a South African, cooking like a Nepali, cooking like a Belgian, cooking like a Sicilian and cooking like a Moroccan!

Enjoy!

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Featured photo courtesy Unsplash/@eliteinception

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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