Jamaican Food 101: Recipes to Get You Started

An introductory resource for cooking Jamaican food at home.

Collage of Jamaican food
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon, Lorena Masso, Sarah Maiden

The Soul of Jamaican Cuisine

Ask someone, “What exactly is Jamaican food? and the answer will probably include the following: jerk chicken, rice and peas, oxtail and broad beans, beef patties, curried goat—all delicious and all equally perceived as heavy, fattening, and heavy on the meat and starch. While not incorrect, this is a severely limited perspective of our cuisine. Jamaican food is certainly hearty, but at its core it is also very wholesome, with vibrant flavor profiles that easily suit a more balanced diet. Dishes are often prepared al fresco over an open fire, and even the most simple, rustic meals are replete with a diverse range of fresh produce, as befits the heritage and traditions of a multicultural society. 

The best cooks in Jamaica are self-taught, and many learned their craft and inherited their culinary prowess from their forebears. Sadly, as we lose our elders, we are also losing the knowledge and wisdom they harbor because their techniques and traditions are passed along orally and manually, rather than being documented. With this in mind, the question of how we can define and preserve Jamaican food traditions for a modern marketplace is a relevant one. The real key to finding the soul of Jamaican food lies in an exploration of our past to reveal the culinary surprises that dwell there.

After the formal abolition of slavery in Jamaica, the country underwent a long and arduous process that ultimately resulted in freedom for the formerly enslaved in 1838. This set in motion the most significant and far-reaching social and economic revolution in the history of Jamaica. According to Jamaican historian Sir Philip Sherlock, people who had been enslaved were determined, however humble their circumstance and no matter how difficult the struggle, to build their own homes, form new communities, and most importantly, remain outside of the plantation system. 

Many families turned to subsistence farming for survival. They raised a range of crops and animals to feed and clothe their families; any surplus produce was sold at local markets by family members themselves (often the women). Many of the ingredients that have become the staples of the daily Jamaican diet (like ackee, breadfruit, yams, sweet potatoes, green bananas, coconuts, and plantains) were born from and produced under this system. Interestingly, most of the ingredients that we currently view as quintessentially Jamaican actually originated off the island. Breadfruit came from Tahiti; salt cod from the Atlantic; yam and ackee from Africa. These were and still are the foods most consumed and highly favored by Jamaicans of all walks of life.

Taking a step back, an understanding of Jamaican cuisine requires a sense of just how many cultures have contributed to Jamaican society and influenced our food preparation. 

  • Tainos were the indigenous people of the island; they cultivated chile peppers, cassava, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, yampi, corn, arrowroot, guavas, star apples, pineapples, and cashews. Bammy, or cassava bread, was a staple of the Tainos. 
  • Spaniards were the first Europeans to inhabit the island, arriving in 1494 with Christopher Columbus. They introduced citrus, tamarind, coconuts, bananas, sugar cane, ginger, pomegranates, and plantains. Escovitche fish and bammy is the result of the merging of these two early cultures—escovitche fish from the Spaniards and bammy from the Tainos. 
  • The British captured Jamaica in 1655 from the Spaniards and controlled the land until 1962. They built their kingdom on sugar cultivated by enslaved African labor. They exported rum, sugar, molasses, cocoa, and coffee, which they traded for flour, pork, and pickled fish. Those imports became staples in the local diet and are still favorites today. The British also introduced breadfruit, otaheite apples, mangoes, turmeric, black pepper, and coffee. The British Cornish pasty is the forerunner to the beef patty, and the Jamaican fondness for porridge is a legacy of the Scots.
  • Africans were initially brought to the island as enslaved laborers under Spanish rule. It was under British rule, however, that their numbers were greatly increased. They brought their own methods of food preparation along with certain prized foods like yams, coco (taro), and okra; they have the largest influence on the cuisine of the island.
  • Chinese indentured laborers came to the island post-emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century. Jamaican Chinese recipes were initially limited, as many of the ingredients they were accustomed to cooking with could not withstand the long journey and high temperatures. Soy sauce, dried noodles, and five spice powder were available by the end of the century, and vegetables like pak choy (also referred to as “pat choi” or “papchow”) have since become extremely popular.
  • East Indians came to Jamaica between 1838 and 1917, also as indentured laborers. They are known for the introduction of curried dishes like curried goat; they also introduced roti and eggplant.
  • Throughout the centuries, smaller groups of Portuguese Jews, French Huguenots, Syrians, Lebanese, Germans, Scots, and Irish have also made their way to Jamaica for various reasons (prisoners, exiles, indentured workers), making the landscape far more multicultural and diverse than many realize.

Vibrant and Satisfying to Body and Soul

Common to both traditional and modern Jamaican cooks, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status, is the use of staples such as yam, cassava, sweet potatoes, plantains, pumpkins, tropical fruits, fresh coconut, Scotch bonnets, ginger, and lots of aromatic spices and vegetables. Our food also heavily features simple salted and cured fish and meats. Imported salted cod, mackerel, and red herring were part of weekly food allowances issued to enslaved people on plantations and are still typically consumed daily—in fact, they are often more readily available, preferred, and eaten more frequently than fresh fish in Jamaica. 

Graphic of escovtich fish
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon. Graphic: Sarah Maiden


At its core, Jamaican food is fresh, bold, filling, pure, vibrant, and bursting with vitality. The dishes we prepare and the traditional methods of their preparation are deeply satisfying for both the body and the soul. In fact, many of the commonplace ingredients that we have been eating for centuries are currently trending in the health food industry for hitting all the right buzzwords: "alkalizing" greens (like callaloo), "healthy" fats (like avocado and coconut oil), "hydrating superfoods" (like coconut water), "gluten-free", "high-fiber" (like cassava, sweet potatoes, and yams), and "healing" herbs (like moringa).

Alfresco dining and entertaining is commonplace in Jamaica and it’s customary to see food vendors cooking up a storm in the streets, often alongside impromptu street parties. In Jamaica, the best local food is prepared by home cooks and roadside chefs who specialize in traditional favorites like pan chicken, jerk pork, or roast yam and saltfish. These dishes are always highly seasoned and often slow-cooked on a coal stove or live wood fire. Alongside the abundance of rustic and roadside choices, we also have an array of sophisticated modern restaurants, which make dining out in Jamaica an exciting affair.  

The Lowdown

There are many cultural influences and traditions in Jamaican cuisine, so no introductory set of recipes can acknowledge them all. We chose these Jamaican recipes as our introduction to the cuisine because we felt each quintessentially expressed Jamaican culture, lifestyle, and dining traditions.

There is a pattern to our cuisine and dining habits: a shared set of ingredients, a preferred way of consuming them, and common techniques to prepare them. So we looked for the dishes that made us feel nostalgia and yearn for home; these are the dishes that we dreamed about on cold winter nights at university, that brought us comfort or joy when we were sad, or connected us to our loved ones by memory. We chose recipes because of where and how they are cooked and consumed, like popular street foods cooked over wood flame or coal fire (jerk pork, pan chicken and roast breadfruit).

We also chose hearty soups and stews that are commonly eaten at home for Sunday suppers and Saturday soups (stew peas, rice and peas, curry chicken, oxtail, pepperpot soup). We also paid attention to the delicious varieties of fried nibbles, snacks, and accompaniments that we eat daily in Jamaica (banana fritters, stamp and go, and festival). And finally, we chose to highlight classic Jamaican breakfasts and morning meals, which are often made with some sort of salted or pickled fish (pickled herring, mackerel rundown, escovitch fish) and are equally as often eaten throughout the day.

We learned from a very young age to appreciate the diversity of culinary experiences that our country has to offer. Our food history is rich with the influences of West Africa and the many who came or were brought here over the centuries. Jamaican food is spicy and so are our people. We share, above all, the ability to embrace life in all its colorful glory. From the many incredible home cooks, street cooks, and hosts that we have had the pleasure to break bread with, we have learned to embrace cooking as a way to show love, forge a sense of belonging, welcome strangers, create memories, and celebrate heritage. We hope you enjoy some of our favorite Jamaican dishes.

Jamaican Jerk Pork

For great Jamaican jerk pork at home, start with an intensely spicy and salty marinade then smoke it low and slow on a charcoal grill.

Overhead view of jerk pork on a platter
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Jerk is one of Jamaica’s most celebrated contributions to global cuisine. Nowadays, however, jerk often simply implies a type of seasoning or marinade for meats that are thrown on the grill---but it is so much more. Jerking meat is not like grilling; it’s a slow-smoking and roasting process over an open flame. Good Jamaican jerk meat, such as jerk pork, is salty, spicy, and smokey. Traditionally it is always prepared over a pimento wood fire pit called a jerk pit—a simple concrete flat top barbecue with elevated sides and a section that holds hot coals and is topped with long pimento wood grill grates.

The History of Jamaican Jerk

The original method was created by the Maroons, a group of free Africans who fled slavery to live in the mountains in their own communities, and the Tainos, Jamaica’s indigenous population. The original Jamaican barbecue (or jerk pit) is actually a Taino invention. The word “barbecue” is itself a corruption of the Arawak word barbacoa, meaning “heated sticks.” The barbacoa was made of heated pimento wood on a raised platform and was used to “jerk” wild pigs. The Maroons developed a signature blend of herbs, spices, hot peppers, and pimento leaves, which they used when cooking the wild pigs they captured in the Blue Mountains which perfected the unique jerk flavor. 

Overhead view of ingredient mise en place
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Pimento wood is an essential part of jerk, and without it, it cannot really be called jerk—simply having a jerk marinade is not enough. The meat must be marinated with the pimento berries (or allspice), and the leaves are also used in the cooking process, as is the wood itself; this method is what makes it jerk.

The pimento tree is indigenous to the Caribbean Islands. It was found in Jamaica by early Spanish explorers who were astonished by the powerful taste and aroma of the berries and the leaves. The name pimento originates from the Spanish word "pimienta," for pepper or peppercorn, as the berries were said to resemble them. Pimento berries have the subtle taste of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper, all rolled into one spice—hence the name allspice.

The Traditional Jerk Pit Set-Up

In traditional jerk establishments, this cooking method that relies on pimento wood and open fire is still maintained. A furnace is created, the pimento wood is lit and stoked until charred and a coal bed established, and a low and steady flame burns. The wood sticks are then brought to the concrete pit and laid over the top of burning coals; the meat is put directly on these pimento wood sticks and covered with a lid of galvanized zinc to trap the smoke. 

Close up of jerk pork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The trick to preserving the sticks and allowing the meat to cook slowly is to turn the sticks every three minutes or so, so that they do not get overheated or burn out in one spot. When fat drippings drop into the coals and flames flair up, the pimento sticks are rotated, which prevents them from burning too quickly. The meat on the grill is covered with a large zinc sheet to allow it to smoke. When a stick does eventually burn out or is too brittle, it is removed from the grill and replaced with a fresh one. The fire is maintained at a low and slow temperature throughout the day.

The high levels of smoke and the combination of the coal, pimento wood, and the seasoning of the intensely flavored jerk marinade is what gives you the quintessential jerk flavor—this is what true jerk is. As a result of the dedication and time needed to achieve this, jerk is not something we Jamaicans typically make at home. Traditional jerk is something we go out and buy or eat when we are traveling on a road trip.

How To Cook Jerk Pork at Home

For those who don’t have close access to a traditional Jamaican jerk establishment, good jerk can still be enjoyed at home with the proper cooking set-up. The easiest way to recreate the jerk process at home is to use a charcoal grill in a way that mimics the drum pans that we use in Jamaica for roadside pan chicken. 

The key to cooking any meat with this set-up is to cook over a combination of coal and wood. Here we opt for a large pork shoulder roast with lots of tough and flavorful connective tissue that is ideal for low and slow cooking on the grill. The large pork butt will turn tender, juicy, and incredibly flavorful from the slow smoking process.  It’s important to debone and butterfly the roast to create a flat and large surface area for the salty and spicy jerk marinade to cling. This shape also creates more area for the pork to have direct contact with the open heat while on the grill.

Overhead of flaying open pork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

To mimic the traditional jerk pit with a charcoal grill,  the lit and hot coals are spread out evenly over half of the grill bottom, leaving half of the grill without lit coals. This creates an indirect heat zone for the pork to cook over. If the pork were to cook with too much direct heat the result would be pork with an overcooked and leathery exterior with a still undercooked and tough interior.

To properly jerk pork, you need to go low and slow with indirect heat so there is time to tenderize the larger tough cut of pork while also developing its smokey nuanced signature jerk flavor. It’s key that the temperature on the grill remains low, in the 300°F/150°C or lower range. If the fire flames up too much from the fat drippings while cooking, we usually douse it with a little Red Stripe beer or water to temper the flames down to control the heat. Alternatively, if the coal is burning out and the temperature drops too low, we add more hot coals (usually around 15 to 20 at a time) to the grill.

What To Serve With Jerk Pork

Although not written directly in this recipe, we typically also throw some provisions directly on the coals to roast alongside the meat—ripe plantain, green plantain, breadfruit, sweet potato or yellow yam are great options to roast in their skin while the pork is smoking.

Side view of jerk pork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Jerk is also delicious with festival (a cornmeal based fried dumpling a bit like a hush puppy) or simply with buttered Jamaican hardo bread. Although proper jerk is sufficiently spicy, a homemade pepper sauce is great to serve on the side, but this jerk pork doesn't always need it. We personally like to mix plain old ketchup with some pepper sauce and use that as a dip.

For the Jerk Marinade: In a blender, combine water, Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, ginger, onion, garlic, salt, thyme springs, allspice berries and browning, if using. Blend into a smooth puree, (in batches if needed), about 1 minute. (see notes)

Two image collage of ingredients in a blender before and after
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a medium saucepan, bring jerk marinade to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced to a paste-like consistency and measures about 3 1/2 cups, about 20 minutes.

Marinade bubbling on stovetop
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove from heat and let cool, about 1 hour at room temperature, then refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.

Overhead view of marinade in a container
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the Jerk Pork: Using a sharp paring knife, Cut through one side of the pork shoulder to the bone, following the length of the bone. Cut around the bone and keep cutting to within an inch of the other side of the shoulder. Open the pork shoulder flat like a book. Cut under the bone and remove it to finish butterflying the roast open. The roast should now be splayed flat and measure about 3-inches thick.

Four image collage of cutting open pork and splaying flat
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

With the pork shoulder butterflied open skin-side up on the cutting board, use a sharp knife to score the skin 1/2 -inch deep and 1- inch apart to create evenly spaced parallel cuts. Flip pork over and repeat on the flesh side.

Two image collage of scoring pork on both sides with a knife
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Season pork lightly all over with salt and pepper. Transfer pork to a large baking dish (9 by 13-inch) or a half-hotel pan. Using gloved hands, rub 2 cups of the jerk marinade all over pork, making sure to get some inside cuts and crevices. Next, rub bruised pimento (or bay or banana) leaves between your hands to release the natural oils, then rub leaves all over the marinated pork on all sides. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 or up to 24 hours.

Four image collage of salting, and rubbing marinade and bay leaves all over the pork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso
  1. For a Charcoal Grill: Light a chimney full of charcoal briquettes (about 6 quarts). When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out an arrange coal on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Cover grill and wait until temperature falls to about 300°F (150°C), adding chunks of wood (or wood briquettes or chips) when at temperature. (Follow here for how to set up a kettle grill with indirect heat as a smoker.) When the wood is ignited and producing smoke, remove pork from marinade, letting excess marinade drip off into pan, then transfer to grill (on cooler side if cooking with indirect heat) skin side up. Cover with the pimento leaves from the marinade, and close the lid. Cook, undisturbed, until the meat begins to caramelize and char on the bottom side, about 1 hour.
Overhead view of pork on charcoal grill
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove the leaves, turn pork skin side down, then reposition on the cooler side of the grill and re-cover with the leaves. Continue to cook, covered, until beginning to char on the now-bottom side of the pork, about 1 hour. (Adjust heat by adding coals and/or adjusting the air vents to maintain grill temperature around 300℉ (150°C).) Add extra wood chunks to coals as needed to maintain smoke.)

Two image collage of pork cooking on grill
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove the leaves, flip pork, keeping on the cooler side of the grill, re-cover with the leaves, and continue to cook until pork is well charred all over and interior reaches 185°F (85°C), 1 to 2 hours longer, flipping pork and repositioning leaves as needed for even charring. 

Overhead view of pork well charred on grill
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Transfer pork to a work surface, discard leaves, and let rest for 30 minutes. Slice pork into thick slices or chop in rough chunks, which is how they serve it in Jamaica.

Overhead view of cutting jerk pork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Serve with festival, pickled Scotch bonnet peppers, and ketchup on the side.

Side view of jerk pork
Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Blender, charcoal- or wood-burning grill, pimento or sweet wood briquettes or wood chips

Notes

Jerk is traditionally very spicy and salty (and it is supposed to be that way) so gauge the level of heat that you want and adjust the quantity of Scotch bonnet peppers and salt that you use accordingly, based on your own palate. If you want it intensely spicy, use 3/4 pound Scotch bonnet peppers; if you want jerk seasoning that is still very hot but not quite as extreme, use 1/2 pound. Similarly, you can reduce the salt to suit your preference.

Pimento wood briquettes and chips are available online in the United States. If you are unable to find pimento wood, use your preferred sweet wood for smoking, such as apple or cherry woods.

Allspice (or pimento, as it's called in Jamaica) leaves are slightly larger than bay leaves and much smaller than banana leaves, making it difficult to give a quantity in this recipe. Allspice leaves will be the hardest to find. The idea is to have enough leaves that you can cover the meat and trap the smoke. Dried bay leaves that are soaked to soften will also work as a substitution. If you can't find any of these leaves, you can use sheets of aluminum foil instead.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The jerk seasoning marinade can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. 

Jamaican Stew Peas

This thick and hearty stew of red kidney beans, coconut milk, aromatics, meats, and doughy dumplings makes for an ideal comfort food.

Overhead view of stew peas
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In true Jamaican manipulation of syntax and the Queen’s English, all beans and pulses are called peas, irrespective of whether they are beans, lentils, or legumes. In the category of bean dishes, Jamaica’s "stew peas" ranks very high on our list of perfect comfort foods. A thick and substantial stew made with red kidney beans and coconut milk, with the addition of fresh beef, salted beef, and pig tail, stew peas is a rich, creamy, and salty stew that develops its unique flavor by simmering for hours on the stovetop. Typical seasonings like scallion, garlic, thyme, and Scotch bonnet enhance flavor, while little flour dumplings called “spinners” finish this hearty dish. Always served with plain steamed white rice and the trusty sides of avocado and fried ripe plantain, this is a truly divine, albeit filling, meal.  

As with many one-pot Jamaican recipes, the origin of dishes like stew peas can be traced back to our colonial legacy as a plantation economy. Enslaved Africans, who brought their methods of food preparation with them, used ingenuity and creativity to blend traditional African culinary techniques with the local ingredients available to them. The merging of African and European colonial traditions gave birth to many delicious foods—stew peas is one example of a truly distinctive dish that is rich in Jamaican culture.

Overhead view of a bite of stew peas
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In African traditions, dishes were mostly prepared as one-pot meals using traditional cooking utensils like a three-legged iron pot, grater, wooden turn stick (spoon), and wooden mortar and pestle (often used for pounding foods like corn, coffee, cassava, and yam). Meals were cooked simply, often over an open flame in a central open kitchen area. Families would gather after a hard day's work to break bread together and share in the community of each other’s company. 

But that was not the only reason that meals were communal. Under British law, plantation owners were obligated to provide the enslaved people with an allowance of salted meat or fish at least once per year. This allowance was so meager that shared meals were more of a necessity than a luxury, and often the only way to stretch insufficient ingredients. For the enslaved, daily fare was scarce, modest and, whenever possible, hearty.

A light breakfast of cornmeal pap or mashed cassava or yam and molasses water, for example, was consumed before dawn. Between the hours of twelve and two, a meal of simple roasted provisions and a piece of roasted salted fish was common, while the main meal of the day, usually supper, consisted of a hearty soup and a side dish of plantains or yams mashed in a mortar and pestle. Rudimentary kitchen facilities, rustic cooking utensils, and lack of time made the preparation of meals a simple and efficient activity that centered around a single (often shared) pot over an open flame.  

In addition to working grueling hours on the estate, the enslaved were also expected to supplement their diets with ingredients they grew for themselves, like ground provisions, pulses, and vegetables. Determined to improve the quality of their lives, many of the enslaved even reared their own pigs and would slaughter and preserve the meat, making corned pork, salt pork, and cured pig's tail. This cured and salted meat was a highly valued commodity and was bartered for other goods, sold to larger plantations, or traded at weekly Sunday markets.  

Overhead view of adding coconut milk into stew peas
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In the post-colonial Jamaica of today, fresh, corned, cured, pickled, smoked, brined, roasted, grilled, or stewed pork is still very popular; it appears regularly in both simple and elaborate forms, at daily meals and bigger feasts and festivities, in both rural and urban areas alike. Almost all stews, soups, or one-pot dishes will include pickled or salted pig tail. When cured in perfectly-spiced brine, it makes a flavorful addition to traditional starch- and vegetable-based stews and soups, giving them a deep smoky and salty flavor. 

It is well known that all Jamaican males over a certain age believe that stew peas is an essential requirement to a “balanced” diet and must be consumed at least once per week. Some years ago, our father and his “compadres” created a group called the ROMEO Club. It’s not what you think—ROMEO is in fact an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out (go figure). They typically meet on Friday afternoons, the prerequisite being that they must eat Jamaican food at a local restaurant and the meal must not cost more than $25 each. Needless to say, stew peas must be on the menu at any of the Jamaican establishments they choose to visit on their weekly jaunts. 

One fateful week a few years ago, the ROMEO club came to lunch at our newly opened restaurant in Kingston. As they say in Jamaica, “What a attaclapse!!!”  ("What a disaster!") It was a great source of uproar, dissent, and contention that we dared to not have stew peas and rice on our Friday lunch menu. It was such a hullabaloo and cause for great discontent that we have always suspected that the only reason they stayed to dine with us that day was because of the “family” connection. Suffice it to say that we have learned our lesson, and if we are ever lucky enough to get a call to host Friday lunch for the local chapter of the ROMEO club again, stew peas will most certainly be on the menu that day!

For the Stew Peas: Place beans in a large bowl and cover by 3 inches with cold water. Cover and set aside overnight. In a separate large bowl, add salt beef and pig tail and cover with cold water. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 12 hours. Drain beans, discarding any debris or shriveled beans. Drain and rinse the salt beef and pig tail.

Overhead view of beans and beef in water
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In a large Dutch oven, combine drained beans, drained salt beef and pig tail, beef chuck, and garlic. Cover with cold water (8 to 10 cups) and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered (adjusting heat as needed to maintain simmer), until peas are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Two image collage of adding water to meat and beans and stew after an hour.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Add coconut milk, allspice, thyme sprigs, scallions, and whole Scotch bonnet and  continue to simmer for 30 minutes before adding spinners. 

Overhead view of adding coconut milk to stew
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

For the Spinners and to Serve: Meanwhile, in small bowl, whisk together flour and a large pinch of salt. Add 1/2 cup (118ml) cold water and knead until a sticky dough ball forms. Cover and let rest 15 minutes.

Overhead view of kneading dough
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Tear off small pieces of dough and roll them into cigarette-sized strips. Stir into stew, season with salt to taste, and let simmer until the stew thickens and spinners are cooked through, 15 to 30 minutes. Remove allspice berries, thyme sprigs, scallions, and Scotch Bonnet pepper.

Four image collage of adding spinners to stew and removing scotch bonnet
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Serve over white rice with sliced avocado, fried ripe plantain, and pickled cucumber on the side.

Overhead view of a bit of Stew Peas
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Large Dutch oven

Notes

Salted beef, also called salt beef and cured beef, is a corned beef–like product sold in Jamaican and Caribbean markets, as are salted pig tail.

We highly recommend including the salted meats—in particular, the pig tail – for an added punch of intense flavor. But this dish can be made into a delightful vegetarian dish by just eliminating the cured salt beef, boneless beef chuck, and pig tail.

We recommend using a meat cleaver for easier cutting of the pig tail.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Salt beef and beans may be soaked ahead of time and held in the refrigerator.

Jamaican Rundown

Sweet coconut milk balances the salty mackerel in this fish-forward breakfast.

Overhead view of rundown
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

One of the more popular Jamaican breakfast dishes, and one of our personal favorites, is salt mackerel rundown. This is a rich and textured meal that is most often enjoyed on Sundays, when there is ample time to prepare it, as well as time to leisurely imbibe and digest. Many childhood Sunday mornings were made memorable with this unusual fish-forward breakfast. When we lived in Trinidad and were longing for a true taste of Jamaica, this recipe would transport us there. Our father, Peter, loved rundown mackerel, so this dish was regularly on the menu. His love for it helped to solidify our love for it, and explains why it came to symbolize home for us during the chapter of our lives when we were not in Jamaica. 

In rundown, the salty mackerel is cooked down in a savory-sweet coconut custard that is created by reducing coconut milk with a medley of classic Jamaican spices and vegetables like tomato, scallion, Scotch bonnet pepper, onion, and thyme. The mackerel is allowed to simmer in the coconut custard for about 20 minutes, which tempers its intense saltiness and leaves you with a creamy, rich, well seasoned, and slightly sweet dish.

Overhead view of mackerel in a bowl
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Rundown is traditionally prepared with fresh coconut milk, which is cooked to a custard consistency, as is part of the process for making homemade coconut oil in days gone by: fresh coconut milk is reduced in a saucepan until it is thick and custardy and the fat separates from the coconut solids, leaving a layer of clear oil on top. Making fresh coconut milk is actually quite simple, but it does require some effort, so while our recipe offers instructions for making it from scratch, you should feel free to use canned coconut milk in its place. 

The boiled green bananas that are served as an accompaniment are also worth mentioning here. On many islands in our region, green bananas are boiled and served as a starch to accompany proteins at any meal of the day. In Jamaica, we add a touch of salt and a pat of butter as soon as they come hot out of the pot; sometimes we mash them, much as one would mash potatoes. The result is insanely delicious.

Overhead view of plated rundown
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

When combined with the spicy and savory mackerel, it is an explosion of flavor and texture that you will not soon forget. Along with boiled green banana, mackerel rundown would typically also be served with ripe plantain, callaloo, and fried breakfast dumplings called Johnny cakes. Mackerel rundown is one of the most unexpected and delicious breakfast dishes you will ever encounter. Like many traditional Jamaican dishes, it is time-consuming to prepare, but it is worth every ounce of the effort and time that it takes to make it.

For the Rundown: In a large bowl, soak mackerel in hot water, changing the water once or twice during soaking, until saltiness has been reduced, 2 to 3 hours (the mackerel should still be noticeably salty, but not painfully so, as it is the only source of salt in the dish). Drain mackerel and carefully remove any remaining fish bones. Cut or tear mackerel into bite-sized pieces (about 1-inch). Set aside.

Two image collage of fish in a bowl of water and shredded into small pieces
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In a Dutch oven, melt coconut oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, tomatoes, scallions, and garlic, then stir in fresh or canned coconut milk. Add Scotch bonnet, allspice berries, and thyme. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to maintain simmer, adjusting heat as needed, and cook until coconut milk has reduced to a creamy, custardy texture, about 10 minutes. This is called rundown sauce.

Overhead view of rundown sauce cooking
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Stir torn mackerel into rundown sauce and cook over medium heat until liquid is further reduced and fish, vegetables, and rundown sauce are combined in a thick and creamy stew, about 15 minutes.

Overhead view of rundown sauce further dissolved
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Meanwhile, for the Boiled Green Bananas (Optional): Fill a large bowl with cold water. Using gloved hands, cut ends off green bananas. Then, using a paring knife and working with one banana at a time, make a lengthwise slit into the skin from top to bottom. Remove skin from banana, then, scrape away any stringy bits from the banana. Transfer to a large bowl of water and repeat with remaining bananas.

Overhead view of peeling bananas
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In a large pot of salted boiling water, boil bananas until fork-tender, about 20 minutes (cooking time will vary depending on the size of the bananas). Drain bananas, transfer to bowl, and season with salt and butter to taste. Use the back of a fork to mash boiled bananas, if desired.

Two image collage of bananas being cooked
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Serve rundown warm, with the boiled green bananas. (see notes)

Finished plate of rundown
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Dutch oven, large pot (for the optional boiled green bananas)

Notes

Two 13.5 ounce cans of coconut milk may be substituted for the fresh coconut milk. 

Pickled mackerel, also often sold as "salt mackerel," is often sold at Jamaican and West Indian markets. When buying pickled mackerel, make sure that the fish is firm to the touch. While any size mackerel can be used, it is easier to remove bones from larger mackerel.

Green bananas are not the same as green plantains; you can often find green bananas at Caribbean markets. These boiled bananas need to be truly green, not just under-ripe as is common for bananas in markets in North America. Make sure the wear gloves while peeling the bananas to avoid purple stained fingers.

Rundown is also greats served with fried yellow plantain, callaloo, and fried breakfast dumplings called Johnny cakes.

Jamaican Pepperpot

This hearty soup, rich with slow-simmered greens, is perfect for laid-back weekend entertaining.

Overhead view of pepperpot stew
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Pepperpot at a Glance

There are two types of pepperpot in the Caribbean. First, there is pepperpot in Guyana, a rich meat stew that is made with cassareep (a syrup made from juice extracted from the bitter cassava) and simmered with seasonings until it has the color and consistency of molasses. This, however, is not to be confused with pepperpot in Jamaica, a dish with West African roots, which is a delicious and highly nutritious green soup made with callaloo, coconut milk, and salted pork and beef. A simple and wholesome meal, Jamaican pepperpot is a classic one-pot dish that is meant to be shared among many.

Side view of Pepperpot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In our version of Jamaican pepperpot, we use a combination of pickled pig tail, cured salt beef, and beef chuck to add an irreplaceable layer of salty, smokey, meaty flavor in the soup, before adding a coarsely pureed green mixture of Callaloo and coco heart. Callaloo is a Caribbean term for leafy greens, often amaranth, but it can refer to different plants. Coco heart refers to the heart-shaped leaves of the taro (dasheen) plant. Yam, coco (taro root), and okra add sustenance to the soup. Typical seasonings like scallion, garlic, thyme, and Scotch bonnet enhance flavor, while little flour dumplings called “spinners” and coconut milk finish the hearty dish.

A Link To History

Pepperpot was such a popular dish that by the late 18th century, it had become well-known beyond Jamaica in the American colonies (particularly in Philadelphia, where a wealth of west Indian migration had taken place.) There is even a recipe for West Indian pepperpot in the New Art of Cookery published in Philadelphia in 1792. This recipe is quite similar to the Jamaican version of pepperpot and calls for a mixture of different meats, vegetables, and greens, along with dumplings made of flour and water. Beyond these staples, this version includes allspice, cloves, and mace, and is seasoned to be very spicy with cayenne pepper. As the name pepperpot indicates, it was traditionally a dish that should bring fire to the mouth. 

For us, pepperpot is a perfect example of the crossroads and linkages of pan-African culture throughout the world. Dishes, ingredients, flavors, and techniques moved with the people who cooked them, which is why so many of our most popular Jamaican ingredients and dishes have such strong similarities to American soul food.

Perfect for Entertaining

Jamaican soups are always rich, nourishing, and filling, and make for an affordable, easy, and laid-back way to entertain, especially on the weekends. In Jamaica, we have a weekly tradition called Saturday Soup, which is a kind of impromptu open house. The host typically makes a big pot or two of traditional soup and tells friends and family to drop in at some point in the day for an early or late lunch. Pepperpot, along with classics like red pea soup and pumpkin soup, is a regular on Saturday Soup menus.

Once made, the soup stays hot on the stove and is served directly from the kitchen with thick, moist slabs of well-buttered hardo bread, liberal splashes of Pickapeppa-brand pepper sauce or homemade pepper sauce, and copious glasses of rum punch. These gatherings always run into the late afternoon or early evening and are accompanied by lots of noise, laughter, and good humored debate about island life—there is truly nothing more quintessentially Jamaican than this.

For the Soup: Place pig tail and cured salt beef in a large bowl and cover with ample cold water. Cover, transfer to refrigerator, and let soak for at least 2 hours or up to 12 hours. Drain and rinse.

Overhead view of meat soaking in a bowl
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In a large stock pot or Dutch oven, combine pickled pig tail, cured salt beef, and beef chuck, (if using). Cover meat with 3 1/2 quarts (910g) cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer (adjusting heat as needed to maintain simmer) until meat is tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Overhead view of meat in pot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Meanwhile, cut any woody stems from callaloo leaves and separate leaves from stalks; discard stalks. Transfer leaves to a medium bowl, add 1 teaspoon salt, then fill bowl with cold water and stir vigorously to wash well of all debris or sand. Drain well, then repeat rinsing steps if needed until water is clear. 

Two image collage of leaves before and after stem being cut off
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Once meat is tender, add callaloo and coco heart to Dutch oven and simmer until greens are wilted and tender, about 15 minutes. Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, remove cooked callaloo and coco heart and transfer to a blender jar along with 1 cup (237 ml) cooking liquid. Pulse mixture in blender to a coarse (but not fully smooth) puree. Set aside.

Four image collage of making the caloo leaf puree
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Add yam, coco, okra, and green pepper to Dutch oven and continue to simmer, adjusting heat as needed.

Two image collage of adding yam, coco, okra, and green pepper t
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

For the Spinners (Dumplings): Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together flour and a large pinch of salt. Add 1/2 cup (118ml) cold water and knead until a dough ball forms. Let rest 15 minutes. Tear off small pieces of dough and roll into cigarette-sized strips. Stir shaped spinners (dumplings) into Dutch oven with Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, thyme, and garlic. Return to simmer.

Overhead view of spinnners
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Once simmering, add pureed greens to Dutch oven and continue to cook for 30 minutes. Stir in coconut milk and cook until warmed through and soup has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Stir in janga or shrimp, if using, and simmer until opaque and just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Season pepperpot with salt and pepper to taste.

Two image collage of added puree greens and coconut milke
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

For Serving: Remove Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, and thyme sprigs. Serve pepperpot with buttered sliced hardo bread, coco bread, or thin cassava wafers (which can be found in Caribbean grocery stores), and Pickapeppa sauce.

Side view of Pepperpot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Large stock pot or Dutch oven with lid, blender

Notes

A pressure cooker may be used in place of the Dutch oven in this recipe. If using a pressure cooker, in Step 2, cover pot, bring to high pressure, and cook under pressure for 30 minutes. Carefully release pressure, and continue with Step 3.

Cured salt beef, is a corned beef–like product sold in Jamaican and Caribbean markets, as are salt pork and salted pig tail.

Callaloo is a Caribbean term for some types of leafy greens, but it can refer to different plants depending on the context. In Jamaica, amaranth leaves are often used, but taro (dasheen) leaves can also work. In a pinch, you can substitute kale or collard greens as well.

Coco heart are the heart-shaped leaves of the coco (taro) plant.

Coco is the Jamaican name for taro root. You can also use eddoes, a relative of taro. 

Yellow yams are available at Caribbean and some African grocers. To cut yellow yams, rinse well under running water to remove any dirt. Rub 1 teaspoon oil on hands (to form a light protective barrier from the slimy yam flesh) and peel. Immediately transfer to a bowl of salted cold water to prevent oxidation. Working with one yam at a time, dice, then return to salted water until ready to use.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Pepperpot can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Jamaican Escovitch Fish

The combination of the savory fried fish and a tart and aromatic pickle makes for a quick and satisfying meal.

Side view of Escovitch Fish
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

While escovitch fish is recognized as a classic breakfast dish in Jamaica, it is actually eaten all day long—for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a tasty cocktail party snack. While the traditional preparation is made with smaller, whole fish, like snapper, almost any fish can be treated in the same manner. The preparation is simple: The fish is first dusted in flour and fried, then the fish is covered in a brine-like sauce or pickle called escovitch. The pickle is made of cane vinegar, Scotch bonnet pepper, pimento (the Jamaican term for allspice berries), onion, chayote, and carrot. The preparation's origins are tied to Spanish influences on the island, in this case the Spanish pickled fish dish known as escabeche. The final result is a deeply satisfying savory fried fish with a tart and aromatic pickle poured over top.

Side view of escovitch fish plated
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Most of our memories of escovitch fish are centered around the Easter holidays and our maternal grandfather, Gampi. On Good Friday in Jamaica, as in many countries in the world, there is a strong tradition of consuming only fish. On this day, escovitch whole fish is extremely popular. Gampi loved escovitch fish so much that he made this Friday fish a weekly tradition in his home. As per Gampi’s request, every Friday, our grandmother, Ma Ma, would make escovitch fish. She would prepare it during the day and leave it out at room temperature on the stovetop, awaiting Gampi’s return home. Our grandfather relished Friday afternoons, which signaled for him the end of a hard work week and an opportunity to unwind. While he nursed his after-work rum and water, my grandmother would prepare his early supper of escovitch fish and hardo bread spread with Anchor butter. For Gampi, this meal that centered around escovitch fish was the joyous experience that got him in a festive and happy mood for a weekend ahead with family and friends.

The best part of this Friday tradition and meal for Gampi was always the fish head. The fish head is the most cherished part of the fish for most red-blooded Jamaicans, and is usually saved for last. As young girls, we never quite got over seeing him suck out the eyes of the fish. Whenever we refused to eat ours, because we found them too “icky,” he was quite happy to take the extra fish heads off our hands.

Overhead view of escovitch fish
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

While our memories of this recipe are tied to a traditional “old time” preparation for escovitch, where it was always served at room temperature, the recipe has since evolved. What is typically called escovitch fish on modern restaurant menus is served hot. With our recipe here, we lean into the modern interpretation of the recipe; fried hot fish that is covered with the tart and aromatic escovitch pickle just before serving, while still offering the option to serve at room temperature, as we remember with MaMa’s preparation for Gampi. Whether served hot or room temperature, this escovitch fish is sure to be enjoyed.

For the Fried Fish: Wash fish well and rub all over with cut surface of lime halves, including inside cavity if using whole fish. Pat dry. Using a sharp knife, score the skin side of the fish by cutting a series of diagonal slashes through the skin. Rub garlic all over, then season lightly with salt and pepper, including inside the fish cavity if using whole fish.

Two image collage of rubbing fish with lime and covering with garlic
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Spread flour in a wide, shallow dish. Dredge fish lightly by dipping both sides into flour and then shaking off excess.

Overhead view of dredging fish in flour
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In a large cast iron skillet or stainless-steel sautè pan, heat 1/2 inch oil over medium heat until melted and shimmering. Gently add fish, skin side down, and fry until golden brown on first side, 3 to 4 minutes.

Two image collage of fish frying in shallow pan
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Carefully flip fish and cook until second side is golden brown and flesh is opaque and flaky, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted fish spatula, carefully lift fish from oil and transfer to paper towel-lined plate to drain. 

Overhead view of crispy fish in oil
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

For the Escovitch Sauce: In a 2-quart saucepan, bring vinegar, 1 cup (237ml) water, sugar, and salt  to a boil over medium heat. Add chayote, carrots, onions, Scotch bonnet, and allspice berries, then return to simmer and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from heat. 

Two image collage of escovitch sauce boiling
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Transfer fried fish to a rimmed heatproof platter or serving dish. Pour hot escovitch sauce over fried fish. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature before serving. 

Overhead view of pouring sauce over fish
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Large cast iron skillet or stainless-steel sautè pan

Notes

Chayote is a type of squash that is native to Mexico, but popular in Jamaican cuisine. The fruit is a member of the gourd family and it looks like a large pear, with a more wrinkly bottom. Look for a chayote squash that is even in color, firm, free of blemishes, and on the smaller side. 

Nowadays, Escovitch fish is often served with fried bammy, a local cassava flatbread inherited from our Taino heritage.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The escovitch pickle can be stored for up to 7 days in the fridge. 

Salt Fish Fritters (Stamp and Go)

A winning combination of salt cod, thyme, Scotch bonnet pepper, and scallion makes these crisp, savory fritters irresistible.

Savory fritters served with herbs and peppers.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Salt fish fritters are a staple of the Caribbean islands. Typically made by mixing salt cod with a flour-based batter that is deep-fried until golden, these savory snacks are a popular part of the daily diet. Salty and spicy with Scotch bonnet pepper, it’s easy to see why these fritters are enjoyed by so many.

Salt cod became a local staple in the eighteenth century at the height of the sugar trade. “West India cure,” a cheaper form of salt cod, was sold to plantation owners as affordable nourishment for enslaved workers in exchange for sugar, molasses, rum, and other goods that were traded on the global market. The trans-Atlantic trade was so robust that the Bank of Nova Scotia, which opened for business in Halifax in 1832, expanded to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1889 to specifically support the volume of trade in rum, sugar, and salt fish coming out of the islands, becoming the first branch of a Canadian bank to expand outside of its region. One can see how the popular consumption of salt fish is deeply rooted in the region’s history and the Triangular Trade.

In Jamaica, we enjoy all kinds of fritters, but the ones made with salt fish are by far the most popular. Paired with a dipping sauce, salt fish fritters are a delicious and satisfying way to take the edge off intense hunger, whether before a meal, when looking for a quick nosh on the go, or as a simple passed hors d’oeuvre. In Jamaica, there are two distinct versions of salt fish fritters. The first are more like a beignet, and mirror the style of fritters typical to other islands; these are fluffy, doughy, and light, with the texture and density of a fried dumpling. 

Slotted spatula removing fritters from a frying pan.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon


This recipe is inspired by the second type of fritter, a popular homemade snack called “stamp and go.” These are flat, crispy, and portable, which may be somewhat obvious from its tongue-in-cheek name. The flatness of the fritter makes it more like a blini, but the winning combination of salt fish and the requisite Jamaican spice trifecta of thyme, Scotch bonnet, and scallion is what makes it so good. 

Shallow-fried until the edges are crisp and the centers are chewy, these snacks are served piping hot, though they are also wonderful served at room temperature when properly prepared. The key to achieving their signature golden brown exterior and chewy middles is to ensure that the oil in the pan is shallow (only a half-inch deep) and hot enough that the fritters cook quickly.

In Jamaica, stamp and go are often served with a spicy sweet ketchup or tomato-based cocktail sauce. To balance the flavors, however, we prefer to serve them with a cool and creamy dipping sauce, like a spiced aïoli or classic remoulade.

In a large bowl, cover salt cod completely with cold water, transfer to refrigerator, and let soak for at least 8 or up to 12 hours. Drain and rinse salt cod with cold water, then transfer to cutting board.

Sliced cod in a glass bowl.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Using 2 forks or your hands, flake salt cod into pieces, making sure to remove any lingering bones (the exact size of the pieces is flexible, from very fine to bigger chunks, depending on preference). Return to large bowl.

Flaked cod on a cutting board.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Stir in onion, tomato, scallions, Scotch bonnet, thyme leaves, salt, and a generous grinding of black pepper. Fold in flour.

Aromatics and cod stirred into dry ingredients.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Stir in 2/3 cup (160ml) water, until a thick and chunky batter is reached. (Add more water if needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, to achieve proper consistency.)

Water added to flaked cod and dry ingredients to form batter.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

In a large cast iron skillet or stainless steel sauté pan, heat oil (oil should measure 1/2-inch deep in skillet) over medium heat until oil registers 375F (190°C). Working in batches to avoid crowding the oil, carefully drop heaping 1-tablespoon-size dollops of batter into oil; make sure to release them close to the surface to avoid splashing. Fry fritters until edges turn golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip fritters and fry until second side is golden, about 2 minutes longer (adjusting heat as needed to maintain oil temperature between 350 and 375°F (177 to 190°C). Using a spider skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer fritters to paper towel-lined sheet tray to drain. Return oil to 375°F (190°C) and repeat with remaining batter; top up oil as needed.

Salt fish fritters frying and flipping in a pan.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Serve hot with dipping sauce of choice.

Fritters served with dipping sauce.
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Make-Ahead and Storage

The salt cod can be soaked and flaked, then frozen in a sealed bag with the air pressed out for up to 2 weeks. When ready to use, transfer to refrigerator to defrost for about 24 hours.

Special Equipment

Large cast iron skillet or stainless-steel sauté pan, spider or slotted spoon

Jamaican Oxtail

This deeply flavorful Jamaican stew is loaded with tender oxtail, butter beans, and broth-thickening dumplings.

Overhead view of Oxtail on a platter
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

A deeply satisfying stew with an incredibly rich and flavorful gravy, oxtail with broad beans has become a rare treat for many as the price of oxtail has gone up over time. Though it was once a weekly staple for weekend lunch or dinner, nowadays the lament is often that “the oxtail is too dear,” which essentially means that the cut of meat is far too expensive to buy regularly anymore. We fondly remember enjoying bowls of this stew when we were younger that were filled to the brim with butter beans, spinners, and, most importantly, big, thick, juicy oxtails with lots of meat. Sucking the gravy from the bone marrow is probably one of life’s most pleasurable activities. Served over white rice (it may be controversial, but we personally prefer it with rice and peas) with a side of avocado, ripe plantain, and salad or coleslaw, this is a meal that one wants to relish slowly and deliberately.

The History and Tradition of Jamaican Oxtail

The origin of stews like oxtail can be traced back to our colonial heritage. Enslaved Africans on plantations were given very meager amounts of protein and often had to make do with cheaper cuts of meat or ends of slaughtered animals to add protein to their diets. This is why so many Jamaican dishes have ingredients like pig’s tail, cow foot, chicken foot, tongue, and organs, like liver, tripe, etc. Jamaica does not have an extensive cattle-farming past; we have always had a stronger tradition of pig farming, which means that beef of any kind, and in particular fresh beef, would have been viewed as a rare treat indeed. The island was not known for its high quality meats; the intense heat and tropical climate meant that everything spoiled very quickly, and therefore, everything had to be cured, pickled, preserved, or stewed in brine. When an animal was slaughtered fresh, the tail, skin, hooves, and all the other parts that were of little use to wealthy plantation owners became delicacies for the workers who would preserve as much of the meat as possible for storage or sale, then prepare a shared feast with the rest.

Close up of oxtail
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

And so became the tradition of combining cheap cuts of bone-in protein with some vegetables, lots of aromatics and Scotch bonnet pepper, starch in the form of either spinners (dumplings), provisions, or root vegetables, and beans, pulses, or greens. Just like that, you had a one-pot, hearty meat stew like oxtail. In fact, it could almost be argued that while everyone thinks of curry goat as Jamaica's number one specialty, we believe oxtail actually outranks curry goat in popularity—it's just served in fewer places and more often found at home. 

Technique: Transforming a Tough Cut of Meat

The key to transforming naturally tough and chewy oxtail into soft morsels of meat that readily slide off the bone is to braise it low and slow. This allows the vast amounts of collagen and connective tissue to slowly break down, rendering the oxtail tender and resulting in a broth thick with gelatin. We first sear the oxtail to create roasted depth of flavor via the Maillard reaction for our braise. It's important to brown the oxtail in batches to prevent overcrowding in the Dutch oven, which would cause the meat to steam instead of sear.

Oxtail browned in pot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

It's also crucial to remove excess marinade from the meat before searing, and to closely monitor and adjust the heat level while browning to prevent scorching. Deglazing with a small amount of water is essential for releasing all the flavorful browned bits from the Dutch oven so it can be incorporated into the braising liquid. Next, we gently simmer the aromatics and meat with the remaining water for close to three hours. All you have to do is monitor the pot from time to time to ensure that the temperature and the quantity of liquid is as it should be, just barely covering the meat.

A short aside here: while we use a fairly conventional braising method in our recipe here, we were taught a fascinating technique by a lovely lady who worked with us for a number of years that’s worth sharing. She had learned it from an elderly lady she once worked with. It is as follows: once the meat is in the pot, instead of adding water to cover (as we have in our recipe), one would cover the meat with a layer of ice. As the ice melts, becomes liquid in the pot, and steams away, more ice is gradually added throughout the cooking process. While the science behind this is not totally clear to us, we assume that if cooking over a live fire or high, hard-to-regulate heat source, which was more common in the past, the ice serves as a clever way to lower and regulate the cooking temperature in the pot, ensuring a simmer and not the vigorous boil that would make the meat tough and dry. In a sense, this re-creates the technique of braising at a well regulated temperature even if the heat source isn't easy to regulate.

Finishing Steps for a Perfect Final Texture

With the oxtail tender and the broth rich in flavor, we turn our focus to the spinners (dumplings) and beans. Do not undervalue these final components. While the spinners are optional, they add hearty sustenance and release starch to help further thicken and add body to the stew.  The key to successfully shaping the dumplings—made of a simple mixture of flour, water, and salt—is to rest the dough for a short period of time after kneading. After vigorous mixing, the gluten in the dough needs time to relax so it can be rolled easily and hold its thin cylindrical shape before being added to the stew. As for the beans, we add them, along with the dumplings, during the final 30 minutes of cooking so they can cook up tender in the stew without turning to mush.

With a deliciously thick and rich gravy, well-prepared oxtail is a truly soul-satisfying meal that is well worth the effort and long hours required to make it.

  1. For the Marinated Oxtail: In a blender, combine onion, scallion, garlic, and Scotch bonnet with 1/2 cup (120ml) water and blend until thoroughly pureed. Rub oxtail all over with soy sauce, salt, pepper, and thyme. Transfer oxtail to a large bowl or large zipper-lock bag and pour blended aromatics on top. Mix well to coat, then cover bowl or seal bag, pushing out air as you go. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
Four image collage of prepping oxtail
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Remove oxtail from marinade and scrape off excess marinade. Reserve marinade for later use.

Oxtail cleaned of marinade
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

For the Stew: In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pot, add oxtail and cook until browned all over, about 5 minutes per side (oxtail will brown more quickly and deeply due to the marinade, but turn down heat if it threatens to burn). Transfer oxtail to a platter and repeat with remaining oxtail, adding more oil to the pot if necessary.

Two image collage of oxtail browning in pot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Add 1 cup (240ml) water to Dutch oven and bring to a simmer, scraping bottom of pot to remove any browned bits. Return oxtail and any juices to the pot.

Scraping up brown bits
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Add onions, scallion, garlic, thyme, Scotch bonnet pepper, and browning or soy sauce to oxtail. Add just enough water to cover meat, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for 40 minutes.

Overhead view of adding water to pot
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add reserved oxtail marinade to pot and stir to combine. Continue to gently simmer, uncovered, adding a little water from time to time to ensure oxtail remains just barely covered, until oxtail is tender, about 2 hours.

Overhead view of adding more marinade
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

For the Spinners (Optional) and to Finish: If making spinners: In a small bowl, whisk together flour and a large pinch of salt. Add 1/2 cup (118ml) cold water and knead until a sticky dough ball forms. Cover and let rest 15 minutes. Tear off small pieces of dough and roll them into cigarette-sized strips. Stir into oxtail.

Two image collage of making spinners and adding to pot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Stir in butter or broad beans and let simmer until stew is thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove thyme sprigs.

Butter beans added to pot
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Add black pepper, season with salt, and serve with white rice or rice and peas, plantain, sliced avocado, and a nice fresh green salad.

overhead view of finished oxtail
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Dutch oven

Notes

Browning, the Jamaican kitchen pantry staple, is a sauce made of caramelized sugar and is used to lend color and scorchy-sweet-umami flavor to this recipe. You can use a bottled version of browning in this recipe, such as Grace brand. In a pinch, soy sauce may be substituted.

In Jamaica, the oxtails are small and the meat is not very thick on the bone. It can be quite tough, so many prefer to use a pressure cooker to prepare it. While our recipe does not require that, it is an option. If using a pressure cooker, reduce cooking time of oxtail by about 1 hour; seal the pressure cooker after adding marinade in Step 6 and bring to high pressure, then cook for 1 hour. Once pressure is released, oxtail should be tender and you can proceed with recipe as written.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The finished oxtail can be frozen for up to 2 months. To freeze, separate meat from liquid, then seal in an airtight container and freeze separately; to reheat, bring liquid to a boil and add frozen meat as needed. Adjust sauce with more liquid if necessary.

Jamaican Pickled Herring

A vibrant, spicy, and savory snack, this classic Jamaican dish of salted herring and thinly slivered vegetables pairs beautifully with crackers, creamy avocado, and a glass of dark rum.

Overhead view of pickled herring
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Pickled and salted herring has been a well known staple in the Northern European diet since medieval times. It is a lesser known fact, however, that herring has also been a common staple in the Caribbean diet since the late 18th century. During the height of the sugar trade, salted or brined herrings, packed in barrels for easy storage and transportation, were regularly sent across the sea from the north to our warmer island climes as a supplement to the local diet.

In Jamaica, we typically consume herring one of three ways: as “pick-up” herring, aptly named because the herring is roughly shredded or “picked” with the fingers and then cooked with Scotch bonnet pepper, vinegar, onion, and vegetables; as a spread called Solomon Gundy that's akin to taramasalata; or as a pickled fish snack made with similar vegetables to pick-up herring, but not cooked, which is what this recipe is.

Side angle view of pickled herring on wafer
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Our paternal grandmother Enid always had this delicious pickled herring sitting in her fridge as a handy snack for drop-in visitors, a tradition that started during my father’s childhood in 1940s Jamaica, when our country was ripe for change and bursting with ideas of nationhood and independence. Every weekend, my grandfather, Hopi, would host Sunday sessions on his home verandah, inviting the intellectuals, writers, artists, and politicians of the day for an afternoon of rowdy debate on the future of the nation. As the rum flowed and conversations heated up, Enid, our grandmother, always tempered the intellectual fire with a snack tray of her famous pickled herring and water crackers.

The young boys, like my father and his brothers, were allowed to sit on the verandah steps to listen and learn, but, as our father recently shared, while they relished these days for the exposure it afforded them to some of Jamaica’s greatest minds, they equally anticipated the fact that they were allowed to freely indulge in Enid’s coveted pickled herring and crackers. Even in our own childhood some 40 years later, every visit to “Manga’s”  house (as we called her) always began with the greatly anticipated treat of cold, salty, perfectly spicy herring paired with water crackers, avocado when in season, and a glass of brown-sugar lemonade. 

Overhead view of herring
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Herring is a dark fish which naturally has an intense, almost smoky flavor. When combined with the aromatic heat of Scotch bonnet pepper and the bright brine of cane vinegar, it awakens the palate and invites the taste buds out to play. If available, the addition of creamy, slightly sweet, sliced avocado makes for an unforgettable pairing. It also goes incredibly well with any kind of an aged, oaked Caribbean rum or rum cocktail, as the intense salt and spice of the herring is tempered and balanced by the subtle sweetness of aged West Indian rum, making it the perfect snack for drinking with friends.

Our updated version includes the unconventional addition of cilantro, olive oil, and a little red rum; it is equally delicious, however, without these modern twists, so feel free to leave them out. Similarly, you can adapt the recipe to what you have. No chayote? Just leave it out and use a bit more onion and carrot instead.

In a large pot or heatproof bowl, cover herring fillets with boiling water and let stand 15 minutes. (This process helps remove some salt and makes fish tender enough to shred.) Taste a piece of herring to gauge saltiness; if fish is still too salty for your taste, drain water and replace with fresh cold water; then allow to soak for 15 to 30 minutes longer. Repeat with additional changes of cold water, if necessary, but bear in mind that some level of saltiness is required for the dish to have the proper flavor. (The finished dish should be on the salty side, meant to be eaten in small bites with a drink and crackers.) Drain fillets and rinse under cool running water.

Two image collage of pouring boiling water over fish and rinsing it in sink
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Pat fillets dry, then, using your hands, shred meat by breaking fish into bite-sized bits, removing any prickly tiny bones as you go; note that you will likely not be able to remove all the bones, which is okay as the smallest ones are so fine that they don't really pose a threat.

Overhead view of a hand picking fish
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Transfer picked fish to a large bowl and mix with chayote, carrot, and onion. Add vinegar, olive oil (if using), rum (if using), cilantro (if using), and Scotch bonnet pepper and stir to combine. Season with salt only if necessary; the dish should be quite salty already given the amount of salted herring, so only add more salt if it falls short of its desirably salty flavor. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Four image collage of making pickled herring
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Serve with hearty Jamaican water crackers or cream crackers and avocado, if desired.

Side angle view of pickled herring on wafer
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Notes

Salted herring fillets (also sometimes called smoked herring fillets) are sold at Jamaican and Caribbean markets. Use more herring if you want a more intensely salty pickle, and less if you want a little more vegetable relative to the herring to cut some of the intensity.

Rum, olive oil, and cilantro are ingredients we like to add to our version for more flavor, though they aren't traditional. Feel free to leave them out for a more standard version.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Pickled herring can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container.

Jamaican Banana Fritters

Use overripe fruit to make Jamaican banana fritters that are tender yet slightly chewy—and even simpler than basic pancakes.

Overhead view of banana fritters
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Banana fritters are an easy, quick, and delicious way to make use of very ripe bananas. The recipe calls for just a few ingredients that everyone should readily have on hand—bananas, flour, sugar, milk (or water), vanilla, and cinnamon—so these fritters are easy to prepare, cook, and eat! They're a great way to use up overripe bananas before they become compost, and are an appetizing snack for kids and adults alike.  

In Jamaica, and in the wider Caribbean, fritters are made out of every kind of ingredient: Salt fish, conch, cocoa, pumpkin, and corn are among some of the common savory fritters enjoyed across many islands. Savory fritters are typically enjoyed as a snack, or as breakfast with one’s morning “tea”—which in Jamaican lingo refers to any hot beverage consumed in the morning, even if it’s coffee or hot cocoa. Banana fritters, by comparison, are sweet, often dusted with granulated or powdered sugar after frying. With roots in West Africa, the banana fritter takes various forms across most islands of the Caribbean. They exemplify the ingenuity and talent of the cooks of our island, who often made use of the limited ingredients they had access to in their kitchens to create delectable and comforting dishes that satisfy both the palate and the soul.

Side view of banana fritter
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

While the recipe below offers mass and volume to help new cooks who are unfamiliar with the preparation, the truth is that this is a recipe meant to be whipped together quickly with whatever you have. If you only have two overripe bananas, you make just a few fritters; if you have a dozen about to go bad, you make a batch large enough to feed a crowd. Similarly, quantities are almost always eyeballed—there's no real "should" here in terms of exact ratios of bananas to flour to liquid, nor is there an "ideal" batter consistency. It depends on the cook, and what they have on hand. (Our bananas in Jamaica, for example, tend to be smaller than the ones most often sold in the United States, and they tend to be less starchy as well, which all has an effect on batter ratios.)

As a general rule of thumb, you want to add roughly the same amount of flour by volume as you have mashed banana, and then enough liquid (whether milk or water) to thin it into a batter. We often aim for a banana fritter batter with a consistency that's lumpy and thicker than pancake batter, something that can be dolloped from a spoon into the hot oil in the skillet and spread around to make a thick but flat fritter shape.

Overhead view of banana fritter batter
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

It's also worth noting that the texture of fritters is different from pancakes. For starters, the fritters have no baking soda or baking powder to leaven them. That, combined with a large quantity of mashed bananas, is going to result in a fritter that is more dense than a pancake, with an enjoyably chewy texture. Light and fluffy these are not.

Banana fritters remind us of our maternal grandmother, Mavis (who we called MaMa), as she always served them as a side dish with her main meal of the day, which was lunch. They were then, and still are now, our favorite part of a meal. During our years at university, we often sent messages home long before we landed at Norman Manley International airport, telling our grandmother to make sure she had lunch ready for us, and to make sure she had plenty of banana fritters.

Like savory fritters, banana fritters are often consumed as breakfast or as a snack. They are also wonderful to serve for dessert, on their own, or topped with a scoop of coconut or vanilla ice cream and a dusting of cinnamon sugar. They are also commonly served, as our grandmother Mavis served them, as a side dish, in much the same way we would serve fried ripe plantains.

Imagine Sunday lunch with the family all gathered around a table laden with roast beef with gravy, rice and peas, a bright green salad, callaloo gratin, avocado, and a platter of piping hot banana fritters. This, to us, is heaven—the sweet fritters a perfect balance and accompaniment to the savory and spicy dishes on the table.

In a medium bowl, mash bananas, vanilla extract, and nutmeg with a fork until fully pureed; you should have about 1 1/2 cups mashed banana.

Overhead view of mashing bananas
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Stir in flour followed by the milk (or water) until a thick and slightly lumpy batter forms (exactly how thick varies from cook to cook, but a general goal is a batter that's thicker than pancake batter, spreadable, but not free-flowing); add additional liquid 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed, to achieve the desired texture.

Four image collage of making batter for banana fritters
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Heat oil in a medium sauté or frying pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, carefully add roughly 2-tablespoon-sized spoonfuls of banana batter to oil, making sure to release them close to oil to prevent splashing, and fry until golden on first side, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and fry until golden on second side side, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Transfer to paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining batter.

Four image collage of frying banana fritters
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a small bowl, stir together sugar and cinnamon. Transfer fritters to a serving dish and sprinkle cinnamon-sugar all over hot fritters. Serve hot or at room temperature as a side dish with a meal or as a quick and tasty snack.

Overhead view of sprinkling sugar on banana fritters
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Make-Ahead and Storage

The banana fritters are best eaten immediately.