The history of Jamaican food is as varied and eclectic as the people who created it. It is a savory, enticing and oh-so-satisfying culinary experience with origins that date back to the year 650 AD. It is then that the Arawak, Taino & Carib Indians first came to this mountainous island. The indigenous people of Jamaica named it “Xaymaca” or “land of wood and water.” Those early residents lived for centuries in tropical splendor and while the Taino started the process of cooking meat and fish in large clay pots, it is widely believed that the Arawaks were among the first to use barbeque, also called barbacoa – a technique to roast meat on grills made with open woven, green sticks which allowed the meat to take on the slow roasted flavor of the wood.
When the Spanish arrived on the island in the early 16th century, they brought a number of fruit trees and vegetables such as oranges, limes, plantains, figs, dates, grapes. The Spanish Jews brought one very unique dish – Escoveitch fish, a vinegary concoction that’s found on many menus to this day. It has become one of the most popular Jamaican dishes and while the basic recipe has not changed much, it has been subtly enhanced over time with the addition of local fresh produce and varied seafood choices.
At the height of the slave trade, having lost most of their native workforce to over work and violence, the Spanish began importing African slaves. The African diet is the foundation for many Caribbean dishes which includes staples such as cassava, yams, plantains and corn meal. While the slaves from the Americas brought okra, Ackee, fish cakes, salt fish and mangoes, the Coromantee Tribe of West Africa introduced a particularly unique style of food preparation. Known as, Jerk, this is a spicy marinade made up of an usual mixture of lemon juice, onion, brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice (pimento), black pepper, thyme, soy sauce and cayenne pepper. The marinade is poured over different types of meat including chicken, pork, and even some seafood and allowed to marinade and then it is slow- cooked. Jerk has its roots in Jamaica and dishes such as jerk chicken are popular mainstays to our rich cuisine.
In the mid 17th century the Spanish lost part of the Caribbean to the British who brought in further additions to the cuisine and developed many new dishes on the islands. The most famous currently is the Jamaican patty, a turnover filled with spicy meat. It’s sort of the equivalent of an island hamburger and it is common to find chicken, beef, Ackee and vegetable patties not only in the islands but around the globe.
A century later, in about 1834 when the slave trade was finally outlawed, many immigrants began to join the island as indentured laborers coming in from China and East India. The influence these immigrants had on Jamaican cuisine helped to create some of the signature flavors of our food. Chinese contributions to Jamaican cuisine from predominantly the Cantonese region include rice, mustard and Chili peppers which are used widely in Jamaican cooking but almost nowhere else in the Caribbean region.
But it is the delectable spices from the East Indians which have left their mark. Indian spices such as curry became very famous and continue to influence the “spicy taste” in our food to this day. You can find curried dishes on nearly every Jamaican menu using local meats such as goat, pork, chicken, and seafood.
The spices! The very essence of Jamaican cuisine. That savory element which makes a meal memorable. It is the spices grown here that are at the heart of the distinctive flavors of Jamaican cooking. Escallion, annotto, cinnamon and curry, ginger, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric, pepper and pimento are some of the islands most distinct spices and are used in everything from jerk chicken to curried goat to rum punch!
Of all of the spices, one in particular stands out, a spice called Pimento. Also known as Allspice in other parts of the world, pimento is the best known and one of the most used spices in Jamaican cuisine. It was fitting that we named our restaurant after it!
Jamaicans are a diverse people and hail from around the globe. Countries including Spain, West Africa, England, India, Portugal, France and China have each played an influential role in the development and refinement of Jamaican cuisine. It is easy to understand how this diversity inspired the Jamaican motto, “Out of many we are one.”
Armed with the varied cooking techniques, produce, spices and recipes from their homelands these immigrants took what they knew and blended them with the bountiful harvest of this tropical island. The result is some of the most flavorful cuisine in the Caribbean and now you can find it all and more at Pimento!