ackee The ackee fruit is bright red. When ripe, it bursts opens to reveal three large black seeds and bright yellow flesh. The flesh of the ackee is popular as a breakfast food throughout Jamaica; when cooked it looks and tastes much like scrambled eggs and is usually served with “saltfish.” Ackee’s scientific name, blighia sapida, comes from Captain Bligh, who introduced the plant to Jamaica. Ackee is poisonous before it is fully mature, and an ackee pod should never be forced open; it will open itself when it ceases to be deadly. A handful of islands grow ackee as an ornamental tree, but only Jamaica regards the fruit as an edible crop; in fact, it is the Jamaican national fruit.
bammy A fried (or toasted) cake made from flour or meal produced from the cassava, a tuber also known as manioc or yucca. Served with fried fish. We found these “interesting.”
breadfruit Breadfruit was also introduced to Jamaica from its native Tahiti in 1793 by the infamous Captain Bligh. Breadfruits are not edible until they are cooked, and they can be used in place of any starchy vegetable, rice, or pasta. Breadfruit is picked and eaten before it ripens and is typically served like squash—baked, grilled, fried, boiled, or roasted after being stuffed with meat. The breadfruit we had at Whitfield Hall had been roasted and frozen, then thawed and fried, and we were advised that we should not judge breadfruit from that example. We had an opportunity to sample “real” breadfruit at Faiths Pen, but I can’t say I liked it much better. It was indeed bready but rather flavorless and dry; perhaps if it had been served with meat (soaking up the juices) or with a dollop of syrup or other sauce…
bun A favorite Easter dish, bun is a spicy bread eaten with cheese. The hikers stopped at a small grocery store for bun and cheese on their way to Whitfield Hall.
callaloo Spelled half a dozen different ways, this colorful word turns up in Jamaican records as early as 1696. This leafy, spinach-like vegetable is typically prepared as one would prepare turnip or collard greens.
cheeseberry This orange berry, much sought after by those in residence at Whitfield Hall, turns out to be almost certainly the golden raspberry. Although there is such a thing as a cheeseberry, it grows in Tasmania and looks like a miniature Edam cheese.
coconut This member of the palm family, which is native to Malaysia, yields fruit all year long. Coconut is edible in both its green and mature forms. Both the water and the “jelly” of the green coconut find their way into island drinks, and meat from the mature coconut gives desserts a Caribbean identity. What we had on our way to Portland was green coconut. The vendor whacks the top off the coconut to make an opening and provides a straw for drinking the water. When the water is exhausted, he plies his machete again to cleave the coconut in two and supplies a curved section of coconut husk to serve as a spoon for scooping out the jelly. Roadside signs advertising “Ice Cold Jelly” refer to coconut jelly.
escovich/escovitch/escoveitch/escabeche The Spanish word for “pickled.” It usually refers to fresh fish (and sometimes poultry) that is fried and then pickled in vinegar, spices, hot peppers, and oil. I didn’t get to try this, but others at the table at Captain Morgan’s Harbour did, and it looked really good.
festival This delicious bread is really indescribable. It is made from a dough not unlike biscuit dough (but containing corn meal) and rolled into an elongated shape and deep-fat fried (though at Whitfield Hall it was pan-fried because of the limited amount of oil available). Festival was created by a fisherman from Braeton, St. Catherine, Jamaica. His delicious Jamaican-style fried pastry was inspired by a combination of Indian roti and Jamaican johnny cake. He tested his creation at Hellshire Beach, a popular haunt for most Kingston-area dwellers. It is said that this fisherman named his discovery “Festival” because “Festival nice, just like Festival”. He was right. Festival served Hellshire-style with fried fish has become a delicious and legendary combination.
gizzada A coconut tart. Although you can buy these packaged, the one I had was purchased from a bakery, freshly made, and it was heavenly.
goat Goat meat is eaten with enthusiasm in only a few places in the world, and Jamaica is assuredly one of those places. Some credit immigrants from India who searched in vain for lamb to prepare their beloved curry. Finding no lambs, they latched onto the next best thing—and curried goat became a Caribbean classic. We liked it!
johnny cake Sometimes called “journey cakes” (since you could carry them along on your journey), these cakes are actually fried or baked breads. They’re a favorite accompaniment to saltfish. If anything could be compared to hushpuppies, this would be it.
patties The patty is to Jamaicans what the hamburger is to Americans. Ask any Jamaican and he’ll tell you his favorite patty stand; these include Tastee, Juicí, and Mother’s. This fried pie is filled with either spicy meat or, occasionally, vegetables. We had beef, beef-and-cheese, and vegetable (callaloo) patties, as well as patties with coco bread.
peas Jamaicans refer to nearly all beans as “peas.” Kidney beans are probably the most popular. Gungo (pigeon) peas have also been a hit since their introduction from West Africa by the Spanish, as have cowpeas, black-eyed peas, and butter, lima, and broad (also called fava) beans. They are the island’s primary source of protein—even more than meat. Smaller peas are used in Rice and Peas, while larger-sized peas often appear in savory stews and side dishes.
plaintain Technically a banana-family fruit, but generally regarded as a vegetable. Inedible raw, cooked plaintains are served as appetizers or starchy side dishes. The unripe (green), ripe (yellow), and very ripe (dark) plaintains are used in Caribbean cooking. They become slightly sweet as they ripen. We had them often sliced and fried and once in a delectable plaintain tart.
pumpkin Also called calabaza or winter squash (or tamalayota, ayote, auyama, zapallo, or yoko), this large squash is different from the pumpkin we use for jack o’lanterns in the States.
rice and peas This dish is found on just about every lunch and dinner plate and is sometimes nicknamed the Coat of Arms. It features rice and either peas or beans cooked in coconut milk and spices (in Jamaica the preferred “pea” is the red kidney bean).
saltfish Saltfish is any fried, salted fish, but most often cod. Ackee and Saltfish is the preferred breakfast of Jamaicans.
tamarind This decorative tree produces brown pods containing a sweet and tangy pulp that’s used for flavoring everything from beverages to curries and sauces—including Angostura bitters and Pickapeppa sauce. It is also an important ingredient in Jamaican folk medicine.
wedding cake The traditional Jamaican wedding cake is dark and rich like a Christmas pudding, made with dried fruits such as prunes, raisins, dates, currants, cherries, etc. These fruits are finely chopped and marinated in wine and rum for weeks. This wonderful blend forms the base of the cake mixture. A crisp white frosting and fresh flowers complete the picture. The cake can have one, two, or three tiers. (Leftovers will last. Traditionally small pieces of the cake would be mailed in little boxes to friends and relatives who could not attend the wedding, and the top tier of the cake would be packed away and kept for use as the first child’s christening cake.)
yam Similar in size and color to the potato, but nuttier in flavor, it is not to be confused with the Southern sweet yam or sweet potato. Caribbean yams are served boiled, mashed, or baked.