History of Jamaican Foods

Menu at Little Ochi, Alligator Pond

Jamaica's motto is "Out of Many, One People" and it's a saying that could equally be applied to the island's food. Residents have come from around the globe, bringing with them the cooking techniques, flavors, spices, and recipes of their homelands and blending them with the bountiful harvest of this tropical island. The result is some of the most flavorful cuisine in the Caribbean.

The diversity and rich history of Jamaica is especially notable because of its size. Spanning 4,400 square miles (about the size of Connecticut), this island was first the home of the Arawak Indians, who named it Xaymaca or "land of wood and water." Those early residents came to this mountainous island around 650 A.D. and lived peacefully here on the land and the sea's bounty.

After the Spanish arrived in 1509, the Arawaks soon died out, killed or dying from disease and overwork. With the native workforce gone, the Spanish began importing African slaves who brought with them many cooking techniques, ones that live on to this day.

Many Spanish Jews also arrived on the island during Spanish rule, contributing dishes such as escoveitch fish, a vinegary concoction that's found on many homestyle menus.

In 1655, the Spanish lost Jamaica to England. The English turned much of the land into sugar plantations, creating many fortunes in the process. "As wealthy as a West Indian planter" came to be a common phrase in England, a hint at the fortunes sugar brought.

During that century, English influences developed the Jamaican pattie, a turnover filled with spicy meat that's a favorite lunch snack with locals. It's the equivalent of an island hamburger.

A century later, Chinese and East Indian influences made their way to Jamaica, when indentured laborers who replaced slaves after emancipation also brought their own culinary talents. Today curried dishes grace nearly every Jamaican menu, using local meats such as goat, chicken, and seafood.


One of the most interesting groups in Jamaica are the Maroons, a name derived from "cimarron" or "wild" in Spanish. These people are descendants of the escaped slaves of the Spanish, fierce fighters who took to the hills and stayed there, never to again be recaptured. They settled in a remote region south of what is now Montego Bay called Cockpit Country, a land of steep hills, impenetrable vegetation and pocked with sinkholes and caves.

When the British took over the island, they called Cockpit Country the "land of look behind." Soldiers rode two to a horse, one facing front and one back, to guard against ambushes.

Today the Maroons are self-governing, with their own elected officials. The most visited community in Cockpit Country is named Accompong and tours are available to this unique region. (See Montego Bay, Between Meals.) The Maroons, who for so long lived a completely self-sustained existence off the land, are still known as the island's greatest herbalists.