Travel Tips

Jamaican Culinary Adventures: Jamaica’s Roadside Food and Recipes

Jamaican EatsWhen you think about the native food of Jamaica, what leaps to mind?

The uninitiated could probably only conjure up jerk chicken and Red Stripe beer.

I have to admit that I was one of those people, until a recent trip to the island.

Most visitors aren’t aware of Jamaican cuisine because they tend to limit themselves to the restaurants in their resort, or if they do venture out, it’s to the nearest Jimmy Buffet “Margaritaville” bar.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but why stay in your comfort zone when you’re on an island brimming with amazing delicacies waiting to be devoured?

Even if you’re non-adventurous when it comes to food (like me)— or are traveling to Jamaica with a couple of children who are picky eaters—you’ll be surprised at how tasty and accessible the home-grown food can be.

Some of the most authentic (and affordable) culinary experiences can be found by heading out to one of the non-descript roadside stands that dot the country’s often-potholed roads. They are roughly equivalent to fast food in Jamaica, but much less fattening.

If your hotel was any distance from the airport, you probably passed at least a dozen of them on the way. But you may not have noticed because the set-up is deceptively simple.

Jamaican Cook at Billy’s Grassy ParkThere’s no sign, no cash register, and no parking lot. There are usually just a few beat-up tables and chairs under a tree or corrugated iron roof, a wooden counter, and a cook stirring a half-dozen pots of strange-looking concoctions simultaneously.

But don’t be put off by the no-frills presentation. These little stands are neither impromptu nor low quality—in fact many of them have operated from the same location for years. And unlike some developing countries, in Jamaica you rarely hear about people getting sick from eating roadside food.

That’s because most of it is extremely fresh, made from just-picked fruit such as ackee and plantains, or just-caught shrimp and lobster. The rest is either jerked or slow-cooked for hours over a low flame, which eliminates the possibility of any microbes surviving. In fact, the capiscum in jerk seasoning is one of nature’s most potent and effective natural preservatives.

One of the best, but most out-of-the-way places I visited was Billy’s Grassy Park in Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth, down in the southwestern corner of the island. If you’re staying at the Sandals Whitehouse resort or any other hotel between Bluefields Beach and Treasure Beach, you’ll be within a short drive of it. If you’re anywhere else on the island, it’s a bit of a trek.

Billy’s Grassy ParkThere’s no street address and no landmarks nearby, so just ask around someone will know how to get there. And once you arrive you won’t find a menu, but for about $5 per plate you’ll get a heaping scoop of each of the six or seven items that are on offer that day.

Run by Bilroy “Billy” Kerr for the last 14 years, many of the dishes feature shrimp, a local specialty, which comes from a freshwater pond just behind the kitchen. Spicy pepper shrimp, curried shrimp, crunchy French-fried shrimp and fiery shrimp soup with potato are just a few of the delicacies that Billy makes.

Also, don’t miss out on the excellent peanut porridge, which is a sweet, nutty oatmeal-type dish served hot, or the peas and rice, a Jamaican staple. Peas and rice are served as a side dish with most Jamaican meals, and are prepared by simmering white rice in coconut milk with either kidney beans or pigeon peas, which give the rice its characteristic reddish color.

If you’re lucky you might find some sugarcane lying around, which kids can enjoy sucking on while getting a lesson in where the sweetness in their favorite candy bars comes from.

Those who are averse to really spicy foods might want to ask Billy about the heat factor of each item before trying it, though I’d recommend at least taking a bite of each dish— you might be pleasantly pleased.

Besides, you can’t really go to Jamaica without having something spicy. Pimento (also known as allspice or Jamaican pepper) is used to flavor of hundreds of dishes and is deeply entwined with both the colonial history and the current economy of the island.

Little Ochi on the beachA few miles away from Billy’s, down on the beach near the village of Alligator Pond, is a seafood joint known as Little Ochie. Run by Evrol “Blackie” Christian (you’re not really Jamaican unless you have a nickname) this is the place to get ultra-fresh seafood. In fact, the restaurant’s motto is “If we don’t catch it, we don’t serve it.”

This is a mostly locals-only place, though it is slowly becoming more popular with tourists since it opened 20 years ago. Thatched-roof seating huts, some of which are made from the hulls of fishing boats, dot the dark volcanic sand. Local fishermen ply their trade on the windy beach, offering just-caught lobster for sale straight out of the net.

Jamaican lobster—otherwise known as spiny lobster or crawfish—is not the same as the lobster that North Americans are used to. It’s a little smaller and somewhat different in color, but just as tasty. Blackie cooks it up a million different ways, including jerked, curried, stewed, fried, and roasted.

At “Likkle” Ochie (as it’s pronounced in Jamaica) you’ll also find fresh conch, snapper, turbot, doctor fish, parrot fish, mullet, moon shine, and kingfish, plus side dishes such as bammies (deep-fried cassava flatbread), and festivals (sweet, crispy Jamaican cornmeal fritters).

Little Ochie MenuIf you want to try something a little spicy but unusual, ask for escoveitch fish. Introduced by Sephardic (Spanish) Jews who were some of the original colonizers of Jamaica, escoveitch involves marinating the fish for 24 hours in a cold, spicy, vinegar-laden sauce before cooking it. There is a fair amount of allspice and habañero pepper involved too, so make sure you have a tall Red Stripe handy before you dig in.

On the other side of the island, not far from Ocho Rios, you’ll find Miss Wissy’s (aka Belinda’s Riverside Canteen). Miss Wissy’s is not technically a roadside stand, as it’s only accessible by rafting down the Rio Grande River from Port Antonio.

Though this may sound daunting, don’t worry, you won’t have to paddle there yourself. River rides are a popular tourist activity among those staying in and around Ocho Rios, and your hotel or resort can arrange a trip for you.

Want recipes for these dishes? Click here.

Formerly known as Miss Betty’s, this ultra low-key food stand used to be run by Miss Betty herself, but the cooking is now handled mainly by her daughter Belinda (aka Wissy, hence the name change.) Whatever you want to call the place, the food is heavenly, and it’s worth the trek.

The menu changes daily, but on any given day you’ll be likely to find curried goat, pepperpot soup, mannish water, chicken fricassee, stewed beef, fried dumplings, gizadas, and plantain tarts.

Red stripe beerThough the smell might be a little off-putting, newlywed husbands won’t want to skip the mannish water— it’s a soupy concoction of vegetables, green bananas and goat offal (including the testicles) that is said to have Viagra-like properties.

The pepperpot soup is also worth a taste. Every cook makes it slightly differently, but the three ingredients you’ll always find are some kind of meat (either beef, pork or chicken), the melodiously named callaloo (a native vegetable that is similar to spinach) and Scotch bonnet peppers. Coconut milk, sweet potatoes and okra are other common add-ins.

Gizadas (coconut tarts) and plantain tarts (banana flavor) are traditional Jamaican dessert items that come in bite-size pastry shells. Their sweetness offers a welcome counterpoint to the intense savoriness of the main dishes.


Spiny Jamaican treatFood snobs often disdain Jamaica’s food for its purported lack of sophistication, but I would beg to differ.

Sure the food is real traditional down-home fare and the recipes are rarely written down, but the complex blend of ingredients and spices combined with the elaborate cooking process adds up to some very heady stuff—  even if you are eating off a paper plate while sitting on a log by the highway instead of off fine china in a fancy dining room.

So even if you’re a non-foodie like me, drive – or float – on up to one of Jamaica’s roadside or riverside stands, and don’t be afraid to try some of these delicacies.

And if you’re not near Billy’s, Little Ochie or Miss Wissy’s, just ask any local (taxi drivers and waiters are good sources) the name of their favorite out-of-the-way spots. I can assure you, they’ll have no problem coming up with half a dozen.

By Karen Elowitt for

For recipes of dishes in this article (those highlighted in bold) can be found here.

For a glossary of Jamaican foods, check out this page on

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