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9 Jamaican Dishes You Need To Know

By Carey Jones
May 28, 2014

The fun thing about Jamaican fare - like that of many Caribbean nations - is the variety. In the meats of choice: goat and beef and chicken, along with the seafood beloved in the island nation. In the variety of spicing, from searing hot Scotch bonnet peppers to the earthier, warmer notes of cumin or allspice. And in the culinary influences from across the globe: due to a long history of colonization, Jamaican cuisine shows evidence of the British and the Spanish, African culinary traditions, and perhaps most prominently, East Indians, who came to the island as migrant laborers.

Today, Jamaican cuisine reflects all of those influences and more, while maintaining its own distinct style; there's a great deal of overlap with other Caribbean nations, but other dishes that are all Jamaica's own. Here are nine to try.

  • Ackee and Saltfish

    Considered the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish may seem an unlikely breakfast combination - fruit and fish together? But the particular texture of this tropical fruit, somewhat porous and creamy, with a mild flavor, means that once it's sautéed up with salt cod, onions and tomatoes, it almost resembles scrambled eggs. 

    Where to try: Miss Ollie's in Oakland, Tropical Choice in Philadelphia

  • Brown Stew Chicken

    The name says it all - well, just about. This rich chicken stew gets its distinctive dark color from brown or demerara sugar, which is first caramelized before the addition of the chicken. Garlic, ginger, shallots, and Jamaica's beloved Scotch bonnet pepper rounds out the flavor, often alongside allspice or other spices.

    Where to try: Natraliart in Los Angeles

  • Curried Goat

    No feast is complete without curried goat, long a staple at celebrations (but served at restaurants as well). While goat can be a tough meat, the long, slow cook of a properly made curry will tenderize it, and curry spices including cumin, coriander, and turmeric lend the goat's gaminess an earthy, rich spice. While versions differ, it's often somewhat restrained, rather than searing-hot as many other Jamaican dishes can be. 

    Where to try: The Islands in Brooklyn, Clive's Cafe in Miami

  • Escovitch fish

    We've talked about goat and chicken - but Jamaica is an island, after all, and escovitch fish is a particularly popular seafood preparation. Its name derives from escabache, the Spanish vinegared fish, influenced by the original Spanish settlers on the island. The whole cooked fish, often red snapper, is doused in vinegar-simmered vegetables including carrots, onions, and peppers, along with Scotch bonnet pepper for that extra wave of heat. 

    Where to try: Caribbean Sunshine in Orlando

  • Saltfish Fritters ("Stamp and Go")

    It's hard to resist the appeal of fresh seafood, but preserved saltfish, another legacy of colonialism, plays an important role in the national cuisine as well - whether with ackee for breakfast, or fried up in saltfish fritters popularly called "Stamp and Go." Garlic and onion flavor the fritters, a little flour and egg bind them together and - if you're not already sensing a trend - Scotch bonnet peppers boost up the heat.   

    Where to try: Jamaica Jerk Hut in Philadelphia, Negril Village in NYC

  • Jerk Chicken

    If you've heard of one Jamaican dish, it's likely to be jerk chicken. But up in the States, you'll find a number of versions that don't do justice to the name. The best jerk chicken starts in a complex marinade that generally includes brown sugar, numerous spices (allspice, ginger and clove likely among them), and Scotch bonnet peppers. Traditionally, it's smoke-grilled over wood from the pimento tree (which also produces allspice berries) until the skin is nice and crisp, adding a distinctive char to the layers of flavor already there. 

    Where to try: Aunt I's in Miami, Clive's Cafe in Miami

  • Photo by: Reid van Renesse

    Oxtail

    Oxtails make for a mighty satisfying meal, about as rich a meat as they come - particularly when slowly stewed the Jamaican way, with garlic and ginger and spice. Like American chili, no two cooks make their oxtails alike: most start with burnt sugar called "browning," some swearing by the addition of beer to the pot, many with their own array of secret spices. Whatever the recipe, stewed oxtails end up succulent and fall-apart tender, with dark, rich layers of flavor. 

    Where to try: Miss Lily's 7A Cafe in NYC, Jamaica Jerk Hut in Philadelphia

  • Photo by: Reid van Renesse

    Jamaican Patties

    Lovers of English pasties or Latin American empanadas will find a friend in Jamaica's ubiquitous patties - flaky handheld snacks generally filled with beef (though other fillings exist as well). Their distinct yellow color comes from the use of egg yolk or turmeric; their distinct beef spicing, from cumin and Scotch bonnet pepper. 

    Where to try: Miss Lily's in NYC, Clare's Korner in Chicago

  • Rice and Peas

    Oxtails, curry goat, jerk chicken - just about all of the above will be served with rice and peas, the country's ever-present side dish. Despite the name, it's not green peas you'll find mixed in with the rice, but red kidney beans. While a simple dish, its distinctive flavor comes from the coconut milk, garlic, and ginger they're cooked with, making for a flavorful accompaniment to just about anything. 

    Where to get it: Just about any Jamaican restaurant out there

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