Easily among the top five most interesting culinary scenes in the Caribbean, Jamaica is truly a destination you can get to know via your taste buds.
Its distinct cuisine is influenced by many parts of the world (Africa, China, India and South America). It is ingredient-driven, relying on island-grown produce and fresh seafood. You could have Italian or some other international cuisine in Jamaica, and it would be decent — but the humblest authentic Jamaican meal will surpass any high-end gastronomical experience.
Here are the top 10 things you absolutely must try in Ocho Rios and where to find them.
If you can eat only one meal in Jamaica, try to find a good jerk shack. Jerk is the island’s delicious version of pit barbecue; meats are rubbed in fiery spice mixture (made mainly of Scotch bonnets) and slow-cooked over charcoal fire.
Where: Pretty much every restaurant serves jerk, but Scotchie’s by Drax Hall (a four-minute drive from the cruise terminal or a quick walk from The Jewel Dunn’s River Falls Beach Resort and Spa, depending on which one you’re closer to) and Ocho Rios Village Jerk Center (on DaCosta Drive) have perfected it.
Jamaica’s national dish, salt fish and ackee, is a skillet-fried salt cod and tropical fruit sauté. Seasoned with plentiful Scotch bonnets and onions, it’s a mélange of super-pungent, spicy and tropical flavors. Ackee is a actually a fruit that’s in the same family as the lychee, but when it’s cooked it looks like scrambled eggs, and some say it tastes like it as well. This is a classic weekend-breakfast dish in Jamaica, although people will sometimes have it for other meals.
Where: Mom’s Homestyle Restaurant is a downtown staple with local and cruise ship credibility.
The classic “greens” dish, callaloo, is served in most restaurants. This leafy green vegetable is typically steamed with onions and peppers. Of African origin, it’s comparable to Southern collard greens.
Where: Mom’s Homestyle Restaurant has this on its breakfast menu and suggests you have it with the salt fish and ackee.
Jamaican oxtail is simmered with Scotch bonnets, tomatoes, garlic and onions, then slow cooked for hours until it’s actually a thick stew, with the meat falling off the bones. Oxtail recipes call this “gravy,” although it’s really closer to a homemade Bolognese since there’s no flour. Broad beans are added in the last few minutes.
Oxtail stew is usually poured over rice and peas. This is a ubiquitous side dish, traditionally made with green “pigeon peas,” coconut milk, onions and liberal lashings of hot Scotch bonnets.
Where: Miss T’s Kitchen does traditional dishes like this so expertly that Food Network has featured her. This is a popular stop on culinary excursions.
Curried dishes are very popular in Jamaica, with chicken being the most basic meat. “Curry goat” is the quintessential island dish to try if you’re bold. Jamaican restaurants also serve beef curry, shrimp curry and, occasionally, a veggie curry. Jamaican curry has some things in common with Indian curry, but it uses allspice, mustard powder and Scotch bonnets to give it a distinct flavor.
Where: Mom’s Homestyle Restaurant serves up a half-dozen curries daily.
The most popular midday snack is a Jamaican patty. Often compared to empanadas, this meat-filled pastry is spicier and meatier than its doughy deep-fried Latino cousin. Ground beef is the traditional filling, but chicken, shrimp, pork and veggie versions are also widely available.
Where: Arguably, the best patty maker on the island (and locals argue about it incessantly) is Juici Patties on DaCosta Drive across from the Craft Market Island Grill’s [59 Main Street].
Escovitch fish is a whole fish (ideally snapper), seasoned, pan-fried (often with onion and peppers), and drizzled with vinegar and plenty of pepper sauce. Served fresh, this fish should be crispy on the outside, tender/flaky on the inside, and so vinegar-tart-peppery it puckers your mouth and makes you beg for a Red Stripe. Some people like it better the next day, when the sauce has really soaked into the fish. Get a side of “bammy” (toasted cassava flatbreads) to sop up the juices. This dish and other fresh, flavor-packed complete meals are the island’s idea of quick-service food.
Where: Island Grill on Main Street across from Soni’s Plaza is a revelation.
The name came from “journey cake” because these used to be road snacks. They’re best fresh, because they’re basically deep-fried dumplings, and anything deep-fried is best when served fresh and piping hot.
Where: Captain’s Bakery & Grill (2 Rennie Road) specializes in island treats like johnnycakes, but it also serves main dishes like curry and jerk pork.
Speaking of fried deliciousness, banana fritters are a favorite Jamaican dessert and are quite similar to banana pancakes. And yes, they can also be breakfast. No syrup necessary — just sprinkle with a bit of powdered sugar.
Where: Mama Marley’s (520 Main Street) is in the cruise passenger-frequented part of downtown, but many locals recommend it.
Sorrel is a wonderfully refreshing tart-sweet cold beverage made of long-steeped sorrel petals (Americans know the flower as hibiscus). Some people in the U.S. steep hibiscus tea in the sun all day. In Jamaica, they steep sorrel and ginger in very hot water for an hour minimum, sometimes overnight. During the holidays, people add rum and a splash of lime.
Where: Scotchie’s generally has the drink available.