A Taste of the Tropics

Zesty Jamaican cuisine

Jeff Amberg, Photography styling by Susan Fuller Slack

Visitors to the lush, tropical island of Jamaica are instantly caught up in the pulsating rhythm of daily life. From British royalty and Hollywood stars to privateers, pirates and buccaneers like Sir Henry Morgan — the infamous Lieutenant Governor in 1674 — the rich, the famous and the notorious have made Jamaica their playground and home. 

As the birthplace of reggae, the island nation is defined by the vibe and energy of its music — a tempo that carries over to the culture and cuisine. Jamaicans are a fête-loving people, and the food they prepare is a celebration of their unique birthright and storied past. 

Spanning more than 4,000 square miles, Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and Hispaniola. During Christopher Columbus’ second New World expedition, he visited the island in 1494 and wrote about its breathtaking beauty and cloud-topped “mountains that touch the sky.” The landscape is fashioned by rivers, tropical rain forests, blue lagoons, waterfalls and dramatic coastlines. 

Among Jamaica’s earliest inhabitants were the Taíno (“noble”) Amerindians. Archaeologists suggest they arrived from South America’s Orinoco River region between 650 A.D. and 900 A.D. An inventive people, they smoked and dried meat and fish on wooden spits over fires of aromatic woods and herbs. Reduced to serfdom after the Spanish colonized the island in 1509, the Taíno and their culture were nearly decimated due to disease, overwork and intermarriage. Many of our words come from the Taíno including barbecue (barbacoa), hurricane, maize (mahiz), iguana, guava (wayaba), casaba (cassava or yuca bread), hammock and canoe. Enslaved Africans soon replaced the native workforce, primarily the Akan people of the kingdom of Asante on the Gold Coast (modern Ghana). Of ancient lineage, they were known as Coromantees in Jamaica. 

The inhospitable, mountainous region of Cockpit County became the refuge of the Maroons — descendants of runaway African slaves — who engaged in guerilla warfare to remain free. It was the “Land of Look Behind,” so named because Spanish soldiers traveling through the area rode two to a mount with one facing backwards to guard against attack from behind. The lush, tropical area is a treasure trove of rare medicinal plants, endangered birds, and a limestone karst landscape with underground rivers, streams and caves. A deep reservoir provides water for nearly half the island.

By the mid-17th century, Maroon hunters developed a prototype for the island’s signature jerk barbecue, probably influenced by Taíno and African cooking methods. A wild hog or small boar would be liberally seasoned with fiery Scotch bonnets, salt and berries from the indigenous American pimento tree (Pimenta dioica), a member of the cloves family. Wrapped in the fragrant leaves, the meat was slowly cooked in an earthen pit or grilled over a pimento wood fire. 

The Spanish named the berries pimenta after black pepper; we know them as allspice. The cooking method was eventually adopted throughout the island for domesticated pigs. Originally a street food, jerk is now eaten in homes, restaurants and luxury hotels. It has become a favorite international flavor, with bold, spicy jerk marinades, pastes and rubs to season a variety of foods from meats, poultry, seafood and fish, to vegetables and cocktails. 

In 1655, the Spanish fled after the arrival of the English who established the new colony as a sugar plantation economy. Three centuries of English rule helped shape the civil foundation of Jamaican culture and instilled new culinary traditions.

The ancestral heritage of the Jamaican people covers a wide spectrum and inspired the national motto “Out of Many, One Nation.” Immigration took flight in the 17th century when English planters imported labor from abroad. Modern Jamaicans descend from the Amerindians, European colonists and West African slaves as well as immigrants from China, India, the Middle East and Ireland. 

Jamaica’s diverse cultures and backgrounds formed a national melting pot, much like the island’s cornucopia of foods and mélange of cooking styles. The island country’s motto could as easily be “Out of Many, One Cuisine.” 

Jamaica is one of the few Caribbean islands with rich, fertile fields. The cuisine is a showcase for the island’s harvest of vibrant tropical fruits and vegetables. It all comes together in the fresh, colorful Ital dishes found in vegetarian restaurants run by the Rastafarians, a Jamaican religious sect.

Export crops include sugar, yams, bananas, gingerroot, papayas, allspice, cocoa, Scotch bonnet peppers, coconut and citrus. Grapefruit, a relatively new Caribbean fruit, is a hybrid of the pomelo (Citrus grandis) and an orange. It became popular after being bred in Jamaica in the late 18th century. Its name reflects the way it grows — in grapelike clusters.

Blistering-hot Scotch bonnet peppers are the chile of choice, but not every dish is spicy. Chiles are often steeped whole in sauces to extract flavor, but not pungency. They are also pickled with vinegar or turned into hot sauce. Coconut oil and coconut milk add a natural sweetness and rich “coconutty” taste to foods. Recent studies show that coconut’s saturated fat may be beneficial to the body, like the fat in avocados and walnuts. 

Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee® (Arabica Typica) is one of the most sought-after coffees in the world because of its distinctive aroma and flavor. It is scarce and expensive; about 80 percent is exported to Japan (purchased through mail order). The trees are grown within 10 miles of the peak of the Blue Mountains (elevations above 3,000) in the shade of banana palms and ginger plants. The flavor base for the liqueur Tia Maria®, which originated in Jamaica, is Blue Mountain coffee with Jamaican rum and Madagascar vanilla. 

Rum — deeply woven into the fabric of Jamaica’s history — is the distillate of sugar cane products, namely dark, blackstrap molasses. Rum was once called “eau de vie de molasses.” Sugar cane arrived with Columbus, and the Spanish Conquistadors established rum as the foundation of the Caribbean economy. Jamaican rum cake is actually a rich, black cake, dark from rum-soaked, preserved fruits and burnt-sugar water. It is a legacy of the British who are known for their dark, rich, cakelike holiday puddings. 

Most essential ingredients and seasonings for Jamaican cooking can be found in local grocery stores and ethnic markets throughout South Carolina, where Jamaican cuisine has recently begun to flourish. Plantains, okra, dried peas, rice, guavas, coconuts, mangos, annatto, ugli fruits (a grapefruit, orange and tangerine blend) and sorrel — dried hibiscus calyxes used in beverages — are all available, as well as cho-cho (chayote squash), frozen soursop fruit pulp (Guanabana) for smoothies and tropical drinks, and papayas, or paw paws (unrelated to the native North American pawpaw). 

Several stores, including Publix and Whole Foods, occasionally carry dark-skin true yams, calabaza pumpkin, cherimoya, passion fruit and cassava for making bammy — a griddle-fried flatbread. Breadfruit has a potato texture and aroma like freshly baked bread. It’s hard to find fresh, although it also grows in Florida. Captain William Bligh introduced it to Jamaica in 1793. Six years prior, he survived a mutiny on his ship, the H.M.S. Bounty, while on a breadfruit expedition. 

The botanical name of the ackee fruit (Blighia sapida) honors Captain Bligh. Ackee with saltfish, a breakfast favorite, is Jamaica’s beloved national dish. Ackee resembles scrambled eggs when cooked. It is exported to the United States canned and frozen by licensed commercial preparers. The unripe fruit contains the toxin hypoglycin A, which drops to a negligible level when the red pods ripen and spontaneously open on the tree. The sweet, buttery, edible pulp inside requires skillful preparation. Canned ackee is available in South Carolina.

Jamaican restaurants and markets are popping up in coastal South Carolina, Columbia and the Greenville area, in part, due to the influx of Jamaican seasonal labor.  Many dishes have lyrical names like Stamp and Go (fish fritters), Festival (fried cornmeal fritters), Bully Beef (corn beef), Run Down (fish stew), Mannish Water (goat head’s stew for bridegrooms) and Matrimony — a refreshing fruit salad. 

Jamaican beverages to try include ginger beer, Ting (grapefruit soda), Red Stripe beer, coconut water, chilled sorrel tea and chocolate tea — a spiced drink with Jamaican chocolate.

The recipes below will give you an appealing taste of Jamaican cuisine and culture within your own home. As important as the food is though, for Jamaicans, it’s also about the satisfaction received in gathering for social interactions with family and friends. Good relationships and good eating go hand-in-hand. Now turn up the reggae music and start cooking!


Cooked Kidney Beans

Kidney peas, as they are called in Jamaica, are used in dishes like Island Rice & Peas and stew peas — a hearty simmered dish of kidney beans, cubed stew beef, onion, a pig’s tail and seasonings. They are easy to cook and tastier than kidney beans in a can. 

To cook peas for Rice & Peas dish, measure 3/4 cup light red kidney beans; discard any foreign objects or broken beans then rinse in a colander. Soak in 4 cups water with 2 level teaspoons salt for 8 hours or overnight. Drain and cover in a pot with 5 cups water, 1 level teaspoon salt and one garlic clove, smashed. A hot pepper is optional. Boil 4 minutes then reduce heat and simmer 1 hour or until very tender but not mushy. When water becomes too low, add a cup or two of water to keep beans covered in liquid. 

The traditional belief is that salting beans as they cook affects their ability to soften. The new scientific thinking is that a little salt during the soaking/cooking period actually softens the outer bean walls. This method works for me and is advised for this recipe. 

Don’t eat raw or partially cooked kidney beans since they contain luteins, a toxic substance that is inactivated with overnight soaking, 3 to 4 minutes boiling and thorough cooking. The beans should reach 176 degrees. 


Island Rice & Peas

This staple Jamaican dish is traditionally served on Sundays and celebratory occasions, much like its South Carolina cousin, Hoppin’ John. Both dishes have origins in West Africa. The cooking liquid from the beans tints the rice a pinkish color — a hallmark characteristic of the dish. Jamaican cooks might add a whole, uncut Scotch bonnet for its sweet, smoky flavor. It should be retrieved gingerly with a small spoon to keep the pod and incendiary seeds intact. A similar Jamaican rice dish is made with gungo or pigeon peas at Christmas. 


About 1 1/2 cups home-cooked kidney beans (See Cooked Kidney Beans) or one 15- to 16-ounce ounce can, reserving liquid 

1 cup homemade or canned coconut milk, preferably “lite”

1 generous tablespoon organic coconut oil (like Hain Celestial brand) or olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 cup long-grain rice (like Jasmati or Texmati) 

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 sprigs thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 

Sliced scallions for garnish

Prepare the beans; reserve cooking liquid. Measure 1 cup of the liquid and combine with the coconut milk; set aside. In a medium saucepan, heat coconut oil. Sauté the onion 1 minute; stir in garlic and rice. Pour in the liquid and remaining ingredients except scallion. Cover; reduce heat to low and simmer 20 minutes. Remove from heat; keeping the pot covered 10 minutes more. With a fork, fluff the mixture. Garnish with scallion. Serves 4 to 5. 


Variation: Island Rice & Peas with Plantains

Plantain skins will be nearly black when they are ripe enough to use.

Cut two ripe, peeled plantains into thick diagonal slices. Sauté slices on both sides, over medium heat, in a butter-oil mixture. When tender and golden, drain on paper towels; sprinkle with salt. Serve with rice. 


Jerk Chicken

Spicy-hot and sweet, this is one of the best-loved dishes in Jamaica. Highly seasoned chicken is barbecued on top of the green wood of the pimento tree and its aromatic leaves (called West Indian bay leaves). Mail order the wood and leaves or prepare equally delicious jerk chicken using your favorite soaked wood chips and lightly crushed, dried pimento berries.

No two jerk marinades or rubs are alike; each is an expression of the cook’s taste. Basic ingredients always include allspice (dried pimento berries), so named because it tastes like blended cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Spices taste best freshly ground. Scotch bonnets can turn marinades into incendiary concoctions that are not for the faint of heart! While they are an essential taste for most Jamaicans, you can dial it back, or eliminate these chiles altogether and instead pass a flavorful condiment like Pickapeppa Spicy Mango Sauce or its hotter version. Two more essential ingredients are fresh thyme and “escallions” (scallions or green onions). Jamaican markets tuck thyme sprigs into each scallion bunch because the flavors work in tandem. This textured marinade can be blended into a smooth paste, if desired. 


6 green onions (discard 1/4 of the green stems) 

2 shallots (use 1 if shallot is extra large)

Optional: 1 or 2 seeded, minced chiles, to taste (Scotch bonnet, habanero, serrano or jalapeño) 

1 tablespoon fresh gingerroot, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried leaves

2 to 3 teaspoons ground allspice 

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons brown sugar 

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon black pepper 

2 tablespoons quality soy sauce such as Kikkoman®

1/4 cup grapeseed oil, safflower oil or other oil

Grated zest of 1 lime or lemon

Juice of 1 lime or lemon

1 chicken, cut in half, or into parts (halve large breast pieces), or 6 whole chicken legs and thighs 

Finely chop onion and shallots; combine in a large bowl with remaining marinade ingredients. Add chicken and coat with the mixture, even under the skin. Cover tightly and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight, turning once. Sear both sides of the chicken over a medium-hot backyard barbecue grill using hardwood charcoal, wood or propane. Move to an area of indirect heat; cook about 40 minutes or until done, turning often. The chicken can also be cooked in the oven or on a stovetop grill pan over medium-high heat. Recipe can be increased. Serves 4 to 5.


Vegetable Rundown

Rundown is a special mackerel and vegetable dish “cooked down” in coconut milk. I often prepare it as a vegetable side instead of a saucy stew for rice, but either way is delicious. Cut vegetables into strips of similar size and length. Other veggies to try: fresh, young green beans, sweet potato or cho-cho (chayote). This method can be used for callaloo, a nutritious green leafy vegetable. If unavailable, substitute one bunch of organic Swiss chard or young kale. Chop up the rinsed, dry greens and sauté briefly in coconut oil with onion, garlic and hot pepper. Add a little coconut milk and simmer briefly until cooked down. Season to taste.


1 medium onion, cut in thin wedges

2 teaspoons fresh gingerroot, minced

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 carrots, cut in strips

2 small, trimmed, crookneck squash, cut in strips

1 trimmed zucchini, cut in strips

1 to 2 cups cabbage strips, 1 inch wide

1 cup small broccoli florets

1 seeded red bell pepper, cut in strips

2 tablespoons organic coconut oil (like Hain Celestial brand), safflower or olive oil

About 1/2 cup homemade or canned coconut milk, preferably “lite”

Prepare onion, ginger and garlic; set aside. Prepare vegetables. Heat a large wok over medium heat; add oil. Sauté onion, gingerroot and garlic 30 seconds, stir constantly. Add vegetables and sauté 2 to 3 minutes, continuing to stir. Add coconut milk and thyme. Simmer 3 or 4 minutes, stirring often, until crisp tender and the coconut milk is cooked down. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Serves 4. 


Curry-Beef Patties

The Jamaican patty is reminiscent of England’s Cornish pastry, which is the probable origin. Patties are rectangular or half-moon pastries with ground meat, poultry, seafood or vegetable fillings and distinctive Jamaican seasonings. The pastry’s golden color is from turmeric, palm oil, annatto or even curry power. Large meat patties can serve as a meal; medium patties as snacks; and appetizer-size patties are perfect nibbles for parties. Jamaicans traditionally stuff the hand-held treat inside a hefty, folded yeast bun called coco bread. This delicious “sandwich” is guaranteed to satisfy the heartiest of appetites!


Spiced Dough

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon Jamaican or Indian curry powder 

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder 

1 cup cold, unsalted butter (2 sticks) in 1/4-inch cubes (variation: use part beef suet or vegetable shortening) 

3/4 cup iced water

1 large egg

1 tablespoon vinegar

Curry Meat Filling

2 tablespoons grapeseed, safflower or olive oil

1/2 cup shallots or onion, chopped 

3 scallions, with 1/3 green ends trimmed, chopped 

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tablespoon Jamaican or Indian curry powder

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice 

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 

Optional: 1/2 seeded Scotch Bonnet or other chile, minced

1 pound fresh ground chuck (80 percent lean ground beef)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 1/4 cups beef broth or water

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

 Egg wash: 1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water 

To make dough, whisk dry ingredients together. Cut in butter. Whisk together water, egg and vinegar; drizzle into flour mixture and mix to form a rugged mass. Gently knead dough 3 or 4 times, folding it over on itself. Divide in half; wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill 1 hour or overnight. 

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sauté shallots, scallions, garlic, curry powder, spices and chile 2 minutes. Add beef, salt and pepper; stir until meat is no longer pink. Stir in broth, crumbs and thyme. Simmer 10 minutes or until broth cooks down. Cool completely. Preheat oven to 375 F. To form pastries, cut each chilled dough half into 6 even-size pieces. On a lightly floured surface, pat each piece into a round shape and roll out into a 5- to 6-inch round. Spread 2 tablespoons filling over the bottom half of a dough piece; brush edge with egg wash. Fold dough over to enclose filling. With a fork, seal edge or crimp by hand. Form remaining pastries; brush with egg wash. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm or room temperature. Shaped, unbaked patties freeze well; increase cooking time 5 minutes. Makes 12 medium patties.

For more Jamaican recipes, visit ColumbiaMetro.com


Coconut Milk

Milk made from grated fresh coconut adds a lovely flavor to dishes, although the convenience of canned coconut milk is undeniable. Steep 1 heaping cup shredded, unsweetened, frozen or desiccated coconut meat in 2 1/2 cups water brought to the boiling point. (You can process the mixture briefly in a blender for even more flavor.) Steep 5 minutes; strain through a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a large bowl. Gather up the cheesecloth; squeeze remaining milk from the coconut. Thick coconut cream that rises to the top can be blended back into the milk or skimmed off for another use.

If you don’t want full-fat coconut milk, buy the “lite” version, which is fine for some recipes. You can also dilute regular canned coconut milk with a little water. Use fresh or canned coconut milk within three days or freeze for two months. Don’t use canned coconut milk after its expiration date. Shake the can well before opening.

Recommended brands: A Taste of Thai, Trader Joe’s, Native Forest and Thai Kitchen. Two popular brands from Thailand are Chaokoh and Mae Ploy. Choose organic, if possible. 


Coconut Bread Pudding

Jamaica became an English colony in 1655, and that’s the influence for this irresistible dessert. There, it is often made with the popular “hard dough” bread (hardo), which is actually soft and moist. You can substitute diced, fresh, drained pineapple or mango for the raisins or guava paste cubes. I often brush the baked pudding with warm guava fruit spread and sprinkle with toasted coconut. Serve pudding with chilled custard and fruit. A big scoop of Häagen-Dazs Rum Raisin Ice Cream or Pineapple Coconut Ice Cream would be spectacular too.


Susan’s Butter-Rum Custard (recipe included)

2/3 cup golden or dark raisins, soaked in 2 tablespoons dark rum (like Myers) or orange juice

8 ounces day-old crusty bread, cut in 1-inch cubes (Cuban, French, Italian)

One 13-14-ounce can coconut milk, regular or “lite”

1 cup milk

3/4 to 1 cup sugar, to taste

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Prepare custard and refrigerate. Soak raisins several hours. If bread is fresh, toast cubes lightly, about 5 minutes, at 350 F, turning 1 or 2 times. Add to a large bowl. Whisk remaining ingredients together (except custard) and stir into bread. Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour mixture into a buttered 8-inch or 9-inch glass baking dish; let sit 10 minutes. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until the top puffs slightly. Cool 30 minutes; cut and serve with custard.

Variation: Pudding mixture can be baked in greased, nonstick jumbo muffin tins for individual portions. Spoon warm custard over each serving.


Susan’s Butter-Rum Custard

This spirited, stirred custard can be served warm or chilled with bread pudding. The chilled custard is also heavenly with sliced coconut cake. Cornstarch in the recipe helps prevent curdling, but if your sauce isn’t quite smooth, press it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl.


3 1/4 cups whole milk

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 large eggs

2 to 3 tablespoons dark Jamaican rum like Myers or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla

In a medium, heavy saucepan, heat milk and butter to scalding, just before it simmers. In a medium bowl, whisk sugar, salt and cornstarch. Add eggs; whisk until slightly thick and smooth. Drizzle in half of the hot milk, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. Pour mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Cook and stir over low heat 4 to 5 minutes or until sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Do not boil. Custard should register 160 F on an instant-read thermometer. Add rum, to taste. Serve warm or chilled. To quickly cool custard, pour into a medium bowl then set into a larger bowl of ice and water, stirring occasionally. When cool, refrigerate. Tip: To prevent a skin from forming on the custard top, cover directly with plastic wrap. Whisk custard before serving. Makes about 5 cups.


Chile Survival Guide  

The Scotch bonnet, Jamaica’s favorite chile pepper, resembles a tam o’shanter — the Scottish hat. This “ball-of-fire pepper” adds a fruity-floral sweetness to foods as well as raw heat. If hard to locate, substitute a close Mexican cousin, the habanero. These chiles register 150,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale; jalapeños range 2,500-7,500 SHU. To remove much of the capsaicinoids where the heat resides, use a small spoon and scrape out membranes and seeds. This is a serious irritant; wear disposable latex gloves when cutting the chiles or rubbing seasonings on poultry or meat. Never touch your eyes or sensitive body parts after handling them. Thoroughly wash your hands, cutting board, knife and spoon. Work in an area with good ventilation. Yogurt, sour cream and milk are the best coolants for chile-hot foods, not water since capsaicin is fat soluble. These recipes call for smaller amounts of hot pepper than Jamaican cooks might use. Adjust to your own taste. [MC1]