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
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.