One of the aspects of Jamaica that we experienced in greatest abundance was the food. Our hosts were eager to introduce us to every “national dish” and “traditional meal.” Fionn and Virginia, having gotten a late start, were constantly disappointed that we had already been exposed to some treat they proposed—patties, festival, jerk chicken, etc.—but before the visit was over, we had compiled quite a list of new taste sensations. A wonderful summary of Jamaican cuisine in general can be found at the Worldwide Gourmet site. Glossaries of Jamaican foods and dishes can be found at Jamaicans.com. What follows is a personal view of these foods and dishes, followed by a glossary shamelessly stolen from those and other Web pages.
Exotic tropical fruits were everywhere. In their back yard, our hosts had mango, banana, tamarind, and ackee trees. We sampled tamarinds straight from the tree and had fresh mangos every morning for breakfast. The ackees and bananas were not ripe, but we took some green bananas to Whitfield Hall with us and had them boiled, and we had ackees later at Fern Hill Club and on the flight home. At various other times we had fried plaintains and fresh pawpaw (papaya), and at Whitfield Hall we picked and ate cheeseberries and coffee berries. Coconut turned up everywhere in foods and beverages, but we had fresh coconut water and coconut jelly on the road to Portland.
The new vegetable I liked best was callaloo, but we also sampled yams (not like our sweet potatoes) and pumpkin (a winter squash). Our experience with breadfruit was limited and somewhat disappointing, and we were ambivalent about bammies (made with cassava). Beans and peas of all sorts are common in Jamaica, and “rice and peas” is one of the national dishes.
The biggest hit was “festival.” One Web site describes this as being “similar to hushpuppies.” Well, yeah, except that it is a different shape and color and tastes different…. We also had johnny cakes and coco bread (a light buttery bread containing coconut).
We soon learned that fruit juices and punches are the “sweet tea” of Jamaica. One popular one was ortanique juice, the ortanique being a “a unique, natural cross between the orange and the tangerine.” Among bottled drinks, Ting (a carbonated grapefruit punch made by Pepsi Americas) is popular, as is “kola champagne,” a cream soda–like soft drink bottled as Jamaica Kola by the Jamaican soft drink company Bigga, but also under other brands such as D&G (Desnoes & Geddes, the company that makes Red Stripe, in 1999 sold its soft drink business and licensed the D&G soft drink brands to Pepsi Americas). Barney ordered ginger beer every chance he got (since it is very much like the Buffalo Rock Ginger Ale he’s partial to at home), and Matthew likewise opted for Red Stripe beer. Mixed drinks (cocktails) naturally lean toward rum and coconut (and sometimes coconut rum). Appleton Estate is the native Jamaican rum and (along with J. Wray & Nephew, its owner) sponsor of many grocery store and restaurant signs in Jamaica, much the way Coca-Cola is in the U.S. It is second only to Red Stripe in this regard.
Jerk chicken (and, to a lesser extent, pork and other meats) is quintessentially Jamaican, and we had it in three versions: takeout, home-cooked, and at the Boston Jerk Center in Boston Bay, Portland. We also had curried goat, though it took some perseverance (as detailed above).
Although the concept of “fast food” exists in Jamaica, some of the fast foods were not served very efficiently. Although patties could be obtained very quickly in Kingston, and we were served a variety of foods (almost at closing time) very efficiently in Port Antonio, we waited interminably for terrible burgers at a Burger King in Ocho Rios (thronged with cruise ship tourists), and the “fast food” label at Dragon City was purely a joke. Most of what we ate took time to be served, and in most cases it was worth the wait.