1 GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean Sea, about 90 miles
south of Cuba. The island is comparable in size to Connecticut (in the
United States) and is made up of coastal lowlands, a limestone plateau,
and the Blue Mountains. Jamaica's size and varied terrain allow for
a diversity of growing conditions that produce a wide variety of crops.
The northeastern part of Jamaica is one of the wettest spots on Earth with
more than 100 inches of annual rainfall. The island is also susceptible to
hurricanes and suffered more than $300 million in damage when Hurricane
Gilbert hit in 1988.
The tropical climate of Jamaica (averaging around 80°F) and its miles
of white beaches make it one of the most alluring islands in the Caribbean
for tourists. Another popular attraction for vacationers is the
island's more than 800 caves, many of which were home to the
2HISTORY AND FOOD
Before Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1492, the original
inhabitants of the island were a Amerindian tribe called the Arawaks. They
grew the spinach-like callaloo, papayas (which they called pawpaws), and
guava. They also produced two crops each per year of maize (corn),
potatoes, peanuts, peppers, and beans.
The Arawaks roasted seafood and meat on a grate suspended on four-forked
sticks called a
which is the origin of Western barbecue.
The closest neighboring Amerindian tribe was the Caribs, who were the most
feared warriors of the Caribbean. They ate more simply than the
Arawaks—mostly fish and peppers.
The Spanish invaded Jamaica, then called Xaymaca ("the land of wood
and water") in the late 1400s. They were responsible for importing
many of the plants for which Jamaica is now known, such as sugar cane,
lemons, limes, and coconuts. They also imported pigs, cattle, and goats.
The Spanish turned to trading slaves from Africa's West Coast for
labor. The slaves brought with them
(a tropical tree with edible fruit, now the national fruit of Jamaica),
okra, peanuts, and a variety of peas and beans, all considered staples in
the modern-day Jamaica.
Jamaica is now an English-speaking country, although it has a Creole
dialect called patois, which is influenced mostly by West African
languages. Ninety-five per cent of the population is of partial or total
African descent. Nearly the whole population is native-born Jamaican.
Rice and Peas
Kidney beans may be substituted for Jamaican peas (usually pidgeon
- 1 cup canned red kidney beans
- 2 cups rice
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 4 cups water
- 1 stalk of fresh thyme, finely chopped (or 2 teaspoons dried)
- 2 green onions, chopped
- ½ cup onion, chopped
- Hot pepper flakes, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Combine beans, water, coconut milk, thyme, green onions, and onions over
medium heat until just boiling.
- Add salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes to taste.
- Add rice, cover, and simmer over low heat for 25 minutes until rice is
tender and liquids have been absorbed. Check after 15 minutes and add
more water if necessary.
- Serve warm.
Serves 8 to 10.
3 FOODS OF THE JAMAICANS
Jamaicans eat foods that are flavored with spices such as ginger, nutmeg,
(pimento). Allspice, the dried berries of the pimento plant, is native to
Jamaica and an important export crop. (This is different from pimiento,
the red pepper used to stuff green olives.) Many meals are accompanied by
, which is a toasted bread-like wafer made from cassava (or yucca,
With the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea surrounding the island, seafood
is plentiful in the Jamaican diet. Lobster, shrimp, and fish such as red
snapper, tuna, mackerel, and jackfish are in abundance.
Ways to Prepare Plantains
- Sliced, pan-fried into chips, and eaten with salsa.
- Baked and seasoned with margarine, lime juice, and a sprinkle of
- Mashed with cooked apples or butternut squash.
- Pureed and added to soups as a thickener.
- Cut in chunks and put into soups and stews.
- Sautéed in long strips and served with chicken or pork.
- Oven-baked with brown sugar, then served with pineapple chunks and
vanilla ice cream as a dessert.
Fruits grow extremely well in Jamaica's tropical climate. Mangoes,
pineapple, papaya, bananas, guava, coconuts, ackee, and plantains are just
a few of the fruits eaten fresh or used in desserts. Ackee is the national
fruit of Jamaica. It is a bright red tropical fruit that bursts open when
ripe, and reveals a soft, mild, creamy yellowish flesh. If the fruit is
forced open before ripe, it gives out a toxic gas poisonous enough to
kill. Plantains look like bananas, may be up to a foot long, and have the
consistency of potatoes when unripe. Unlike bananas, when the skin turns
black, some people think they taste the best.
Plantains look like bananas, may be up to a foot long, and have the
consistency of potatoes when unripe. Unlike bananas, when the skin
turns black they taste the best.
- 1 coconut
- To dry and open the coconut: Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Poke a metal skewer through two of the "eyes" and drain
out the liquid from the coconut. Reserve the liquid for another use or
- Place the coconut in the oven on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes.
- Remove the coconut and wrap in a clean kitchen towel. Carefully crack it
open with a hammer.
- After removing the flesh from the shell, remove the brown skin with a
knife, and cut into thin strips. Wash and drain.
- Turn oven down to 350°F.
- Place the coconut on a greased cookie sheet and bake until lightly
browned (do not over brown).
- Sprinkle with salt. Serve as you would nuts.
The national dish of Jamaica is
and saltfish. Saltfish is dried, salted fish, usually cod, which must be
soaked in water before cooking. The
fruit is fried with onions, sweet and hot peppers, fresh tomatoes, and
boiled saltfish. It is popular to eat for breakfast or as a snack.
Other staples include brown-stewed fish or beef (Jamaicans are fond of
gravy), curried goat, and pepperpot soup, made from callaloo (greens),
okra, and beef or pork.
- 6 fish fillets
- 2 onions
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 green onions
- 1 carrot
- 1 green pepper, cut into chunks and seeds removed
- 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- Fish stock or water
- Heat about 3 Tablespoons of oil over medium to high heat and fry the
fish until golden brown.
- Remove the fish and set aside. Drain nearly all of the oil from the pan.
- In the oil that is left in the pan, sauté the onions, tomatoes,
green onions, and other vegetables.
- Add enough fish stock or water to cover the vegetables.
- Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and add the fish.
- Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the sauce thickens to a
gravy-like consistency. Serve.
"Jerking" is a native Jamaican method of spicing and slowly
cooking meat to preserve the juices and produce a unique, spicy flavor.
First, a seasoning that usually contains hot peppers, onions, garlic,
thyme, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon is rubbed all over the meat. The
jerked meat is then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with wood, usually
from the pimento.
- 1 pound skinless chicken breasts
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
- 3 Tablespoons water
- 2 Tablespoons lime juice
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons allspice
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, chopped
- ½ teaspoon ginger, ground
- ½ teaspoon cumin, ground
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
- Combine all ingredients except the chicken into a blender and blend to a
- Pour into a shallow baking dish or sealable plastic bag.
- Add chicken and turn to coat.
- Cover and place in refrigerator to marinate for at least 2 hours, or
- Remove chicken from marinade and pour marinade into a saucepan. Bring to
- Chicken may now be cooked on a grill or baked in the oven. To grill,
preheat the grill. Remove chicken and place chicken on a grill. (Ask an
adult to help with the grilling.) Cook approximately 7 to 10 minutes per
side until done, basting with boiled marinade.
- To bake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chicken in a baking dish and
bake 20 to 25 minutes. After 15 minutes, baste with remaining marinade.
Serves 4 to 8.
Ludel Gordon prepares ackee to sell in the Papine market in
Kingston, Jamaica. Sauteed like a vegetable, the golden flesh of the
ackee resembles scrambled eggs. When dried and salted codfish is
added, the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish, results.
When served for breakfast, it is accompanied by bammy, a fried
biscuit made from ground cassava and plantains.
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
The majority of Jamaicans, more than 80 percent, are Christian. Most
holidays and celebrations center on this religious theme. Christmas in
Jamaica naturally has a tropical
flavor, ranging from the food to the Christmas carols.
Christmas carols are the same ones popular in the Western world, but their
versions are set to a Reggae style, the syncopated style of music for
which Jamiaica is famous. Christmas dinner is usually a big feast. It
includes the traditional jerked or curried chicken and goat, and rice with
gungo peas (a round white pea, also called pigeon pea).
Gungo peas are a Christmas specialty, where red peas are eaten with rice
the rest of the year. The traditional Christmas drink is called sorrel. It
is made from dried parts of the sorrel (a meadow plant), cinnamon, cloves,
sugar, orange peel, and rum and is usually served over ice.
Preparations for the Christmas feast start days, even months ahead by
baking cakes like the traditional Black Jamaican Cake. To make this cake,
fruits are soaked in bottles of rum for at least two weeks. After the cake
is baked, allowing it to sit for up to four weeks is common to improve its
Jamaican Christmas Cake
This is an easy version of the traditional cake.
- 1½ cups flour
- 1 cup (2 sticks) margarine or butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt ½ cup cherries
- 1 cup prunes, chopped
- 1 cup wine (or substitute water)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 lemon or lime rind, finely grated
- 2 Tablespoons browning (see below)
- Preheat oven to 350° F. and grease a 9-inch round cake pan.
- To make browning: in a saucepan, add ½ Tablespoon water to brown
sugar and heat over medium to high heat until the sugar is burnt. Let
- With a beater, beat butter, sugar and browning until soft and fluffy.
- Add eggs, one at a time, to butter mixture. Add wine or water and mix
well. Add fruits.
- Add dry ingredients, stirring just to comine. Do not over-beat when
mixing. Pour batter into a greased 9-inch round cake pan.
- Bake for 1½ hours, checking after one hour. Cake is done when it
begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Serves 12 (or more).
Independence Day, celebrated on the first Monday in August, commemorates
Jamaica's independence from Great Britain in 1962. During
Independence Day festivities, Jamaicans celebrate their island culture and
cuisine, with dancing, feasting, and exhibitions of artists'work.
Local street vendors showcase native foods such as sweet sugar cane,
boiled corn, jerked chicken and pork, and roast fish. Ice cream vendors
with pushcarts offer ice-cold jellies, fruit smoothies, and ice cream to
Jamaican Fruit Drink
- 2 cups orange juice
- 1 ripe banana
- 1 ripe mango
- 1 apple
- 1 peach
- 2 slices pineapple
- 1 pint vanilla ice cream
- 1 slice ripe papaya
- Peel and dice all of the fruits into small pieces.
- Place into a blender and blend in until smooth.
5 MEALTIME CUSTOMS
A Jamaican meal is usually a relaxing, social time. The dishes of food are
set on the table at once, and everyone takes whatever they like. Table
manners are considered less important than enjoying the food and the
company. In rural areas families usually eat dinner together each day
after 4 p.m., while families in urban areas might not have a chance to eat
together except on weekends. A prayer is often said before and after
meals. Eating outdoors to enjoy the warm weather is popular, especially in
gardens and on patios. Jamaicans usually eat three meals a day with snacks
in between. Breakfast and dinner are considered the most important meals.
A popular breakfast dish is the national one: ackee and saltfish. While it
looks similar to scrambled eggs, the taste is quite different. It is
usually served with callaloo, boiled green bananas, a piece of hard-dough
bread (a slightly sweet-tasting white loaf) or a sweet bread called
. Other popular morning dishes include cornmeal, plantain or peanut
porridge, steamed fish, or
make with smoked mackerel.
is flaked fish boiled with coconut milk, onion, and seasoning.
Roadside vendors are very popular in Jamaica and sell a variety of foods
and drinks that can be eaten on the go, which is typical for a lunch in
Jamaica. Fish tea (a broth), pepperpot soup, and buttered roast yams with
saltfish are just a few examples. "Bun and cheese," which is
a sweet bun sold with a slice of processed cheese, can be a quick lunch.
Ackee with saltfish is a common snack sold at a stand, but the best-known
snack are patties. Patties are flaky pastries filled with spicy minced
meat or seafood.
Native rum and beer are popular, but there are a variety of non-alcoholic
drinks as well. Refreshing fruit juices are also available. A roadside
stand may have what is called ice-cold jelly. The vendor opens a coconut
with a machete (a large, heavy knife) and the milk is drunk straight from
the nut. The vendor will then split the shell and offer a piece of it so
you can eat the soft coconut meat inside. Sky juice (cones of shaved ice
flavored with fruit syrup) is also popular along with Ting, a sparkling
grapefruit juice drink.
This recipe makes a drink very similar to the popular Jamaican soft
- 1 bottle grapefruit juice
- 1 bottle lemon-lime soft drink (such as 7-Up or Slice)
- Crushed ice or ice cubes
- Fill a drinking glass with crushed ice or ice cubes.
- Pour in equal parts of grapefruit juice and lemon-lime soda.
It is customary for all Jamaican hot drinks to be called
"tea." Jamaican coffee is popular. One particular Jamaican
brand is among the best and most expensive in the world and is one of the
country's main exports. Hot chocolate is usually drunk with
breakfast, but is more complicated to prepare than the Western version. It
is made from balls of locally grown cocoa spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg
and boiled with water and condensed milk.
Dinner is usually peas and rice with chicken, fish, or sometimes pork.
Chicken is usually jerked or curried (flavored with curry spice). Fish can
be grilled, steamed with okra and allspice, or served in a spicy sauce of
onions, hot peppers, and vinegar.
, which is a sweet, lightly fried dumpling, is another native dish.
- 1 to 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken
- 2 Tablespoons curry powder
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 to 4 Tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 cups cooked white rice, with peas added if desired
- Dash each of onion powder, thyme, garlic powder, pepper, and salt
- Cut chicken into small pieces and let sit in lemon juice for at least 1
- Remove chicken and season with spices and seasonings.
- Let rest for 5 minutes.
- Heat cooking oil in a frying pan on medium to high heat.
- Add chicken and cook about 7 to 10 minutes per side, or until thoroughly
A fresh piece of tropical fruit may be the perfect refresher to top off a
spicy meal. Many Jamaican dessert recipes are centered on fruit as the
main ingredient. A simple sauce is sometimes its only accompaniment.
Baked Ripe Banana
- 4 large ripe bananas
- ¼ cup butter or margarine
- 1 to 2 Tablespoons honey
- 4 Tablespoons lime or orange juice
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- Preheat oven to 200°F.
- Peel the bananas and slice into two pieces, length-wise.
- Grease a shallow baking dish with a little of the butter or margarine.
Arrange the bananas in the dish.
- In a mixing bowl, mix together the honey and lime or orange juice.
- Pour the mixture over the bananas slices and sprinkle with the allspice.
- Place dots of the remaining butter or margarine on top. Bake for 15 to
- Serve warm.
Serves 4 to 5.
This dessert is also called "Pinch-Me-Rounds" because the
edges of the pastry are pinched together.
Ingredients for pastry
- 1 cup flour
- 6 Tablespoons butter
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 2 Tablespoons milk
- Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl and mix to form dough.
- Roll out dough on floured surface with a rolling pin into a thin sheet.
- Cut into rounds (with knife or cookie cutter) and fit them into greased
Ingredients for filling
- 1 cup grated coconut, fresh or packaged
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 teaspoons water
- ½ teaspoon lime juice
- Mix all ingredients in a mixing bowl.
- Fill the pastry bases half full, and pinch the dough together at the
- Bake for 15 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.
Serves 8 to 12.
6 POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
About 11 percent of the population of Jamaica is classified as
undernourished by the World Bank. This means they do not receive adequate
nutrition in their diet. Of children under the age of five, about 10
percent are underweight, and more than 10 percent are stunted (short for
Children's rights are protected by the 1951 Juvenile Act. This law
restricts children under 12 from being employed, except in domestic or
agricultural work, and provides protective care for abused children.
However, a lack of resources prevents this law from being fully applied.
Children under 12 can be seen peddling goods or services on city streets.
7 FURTHER STUDY
The Food of Jamaica: Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean
. Boston, MA: Periplus Editions, 1998.
The Real Taste of Jamaica
. Kingston, Jamaica: Randle Publishers, 1993.
Pearl’s Delicious Jamaican Dishes: Recipes from Pearl Bell’s Repertoire.
New York: Island Trading, 1992.
Walsh, Robb & Jay McCarthy.
Traveling Jamaica with Knife, Fork & Spoon: A Righteous Guide to
. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1995.
Jerk: Barbeque from Jamaica
. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1990.
About.com. [Online] Available
(accessed April 4, 2001).
Bella Online. [Online] Available
(accessed April 4, 2001).
The Global Gourmet. [Online] Available
(accessed April 4, 2001).