The best way to experience true Jamaican cuisine is to get out from your resort and dine with the locals. Here are some of the best spots around the island for classic Jamaican fare.
Local Flavors and Specialties
Jamaican cuisine is a melting pot reflecting the various cultures that have influenced the island over the years. But even with all this fusion, there are many local ingredients that stand out in dishes, most notably the hot and spicy Scotch bonnet peppers that are key to any good "jerk." Jerk pork or chicken is Jamaica's national dish. Pork or chicken is seasoned with Scotch Bonnet peppers along with thyme, onions and scallions. Then the meat is wrapped in pimento leaves and cooked slowly for 6-8 hours. Traditional jerk is cooked in a pit with hot coals, however most places take an easier route and prepare the meat on a pimento wood rack over hot coals on a grill or in an oven.
Aside from flavorful jerk chicken or pork, menus at local Jamaican restaurants are dominated by hearty meals that draw on local ingredients. Fish, including red snapper and lobster, are prepared in a variety of ways. Escoveitch fish, or fried fish served with a sauce made of vinegar, onions and hot peppers, is a local hit.
Side dishes rely heavily on big flavored veggies. Callaloo is a leafy green similar to collard greens or spinach. It's often served with pickled mackerel and cod fish or boiled green bananas. Fried plantains and rice stewed with beans are other classic sides.
Despite the warm weather, locals dig hearty hot soups. Pepperpot soup is packed with leafy green callaloo while creamy pumpkin soup has a more delicate taste. Brown chicken stew, conch stew and oxtail soup all offer homey goodness. Finally, no culinary tour of Jamaica is complete without a Red Stripe or coconut water.
Where to Eat
Start your day in Kingston with a savory Jamaican breakfast at Hot Pot. Ackee and saltfish is a classic breakfast combo of salt cod, the Caribbean fruit ackee, peppers, onions, tomatoes, Scotch bonnet peppers and spices topped with bacon. Vegetarians can enjoy their ackee alongside tofu or sample the tofu with okra, callaloo or coconut sauce. Sidle up to the juice bar for a glass of fresh beet root juice or a cold ginger beer or Red Stripe.
Chelsea Jerk Centre at 7 Chelsea Ave near the New Kingston Shopping Centre is the spot in Kingston for jerk chicken or pork. You'll need to visit the different kiosks to collect all of the parts of your perfect meal, including the jerk, the rice and beans, and a cool brew.
Norma's on the Terrace puts a fancy spin on Jamaican food with classic ingredients like conch, lobster and, of course, Scotch bonnet peppers. Restaurateur Norma Shirley's modern Jamaican cuisine put her on the culinary map as one of the best chefs in the Caribbean. The restaurant, on the grounds of the historic Devon house, is one of the more elegant places in town, and its covered veranda is a perfect spot for a romantic dinner.
Don't let its looks scare you away -- the Pork Pit at 27 Gloucester Ave has some of the best jerk around Montego Bay. The jerk pork and chicken are cooked slowly on a big grill over pimento wood and hot coals. Round out the meal with rice, peas and a couple of Red Stripes.
Also on Gloucester Ave, the Pelican serves all of the island's classics in a no-frills setting. Choose between curried goat, conch chowder, oxtail stew or spicy and sour Escoveitch fish. Save room for dessert: The lemon meringue pie and rum bread pudding are both worth the splurge.
The cooking at Sweet Spice at 1 White Hall Road is reminiscent of what many Jamaicans cook for their families at home. Visitors praise the hearty meals and huge portions at this cozy roadside restaurant. Sample oxtail and brown chicken stew or curried goat, conch or even lobster. There's no alcohol, but fresh fruit juice drinks are a decadent treat.
The Hungry Lion on West End Road has plenty of seafood and vegetarian dishes, including Rastafarian-style vegan dishes also referred to as "Ital." The pumpkin soup is thick and creamy and the red snapper is a tasty choice served alongside rice and peas. There's an art gallery on the main floor while the upstairs is reserved for dining.
Rick's Cafe is known for its stellar sunset views and wild bar scene. Locals and visitors alike take the plunge from the 35-foot-high cliff into the clear blue sea below. While you can laze the day away with a liquid lunch sunning by the cliffside pool, the food is worth trying, too. The broiled Jamaican spiny lobster is a seasonal favorite, while jerk chicken, Escoveitch snapper and blackened tuna are great options.
In a hurry? Bypass the American fast-food chains around the island and sample the fare at local fast-food spots. Try Island Grill where the popular grilled jerk chicken is served with plantain chips, green banana fries or cornmeal fritters. Tastee Patties sells miniature flaky patties filled with ground beef, vegetables, chicken or cheese. To grab fast food away from the chains, patronize the local vendors who sell jerk chicken and patties at food carts around town.