Jamaican cuisine is a fragrant mix of flavors. It inventively blends indigenous ingredients with the culinary contributions of the different peoples who have inhabited the island. This delicious fusion has evolved from predominately African, Spanish, English, East Indian and Arawak Indian traditions. These eclectic influences add irresistible gusto to the exotic fruits, pungent spices and ultra-fresh seafood that thrive here.
Can you eat local cuisine while staying at an all-inclusive?
As a curious traveler, it would be a shame not to sample some of the tasty offerings that have emerged from the island’s rich history. But when you travel with kids, the pull towards an all-inclusive vacation is strong. Jamaica pioneered this type of resort several decades ago, and it has perfected the formula.
Today’s family traveler demands a myriad of amenities and activities and the all-inclusive provides this in addition to one-sum pricing. You don’t have to worry about costly add-ons and risk sticker shock when it comes time to settle your bill.
All too often, the palate pays a price for the convenience that these resorts feature. Of course, you will be well nourished on your all-inclusive vacation. One of their trademarks is the buffet, served round-the-clock and laden with kid-friendly options. What they often lack is the authentic taste of the location. Many all-inclusive resorts opt for bland flavors to satisfy the masses as opposed to tantalizing the gourmet. Is it possible to marry the ease that an all-inclusive holiday provides a family with a foodie’s quest to experience locavore-style eating?
The taste of the real Jamaica is possible
When my family and I visit this stunning country, we stay at Jamaican-owned Beaches. They have three resorts on Jamaica that welcome families (Negril, Boscobel and Sandy Bay) and one in Turks and Caicos. Beaches is a Family Travel Forum perennial favorite, having won our Top 10 Getaways for Family Togetherness and Tiny Travelers awards numerous times. FTF has covered many aspects of this chain, from its multi-generational potential to its extensive recreational activities to its terrific selection of off-site tours.
While Beaches caters to basic taste buds serving plain and simple dishes, they also strive to promote fresh and local food, giving adventurous eaters an intoxicating glimpse into the authentic food of the island. Even my picky teens have been tempted to experiment, though they are not leaving their comfort zone too far behind and giving up burgers and fries any time soon.
A Jamaican Food Primer: The low-down on chowing down like locals
Each Beaches resort offers a multitude of dining options that will satisfy the whims of even the most finicky child. For the curious adult gourmand, the opportunity to sample the local cuisine is a tantalizing bonus.
Beaches is part of the Sandals group which has a partnership with chef and food historian Walter Staib. Chef Staib is a respected authority on Jamaican cuisine. His presence as a culinary ambassador has helped to liberally infuse the menu with locally grown products like ginger, allspice (called pimento in Jamaica), jackfruit, and tamarind. He scours the markets for the freshest foods and knows all the out-of-the-way roadside cook shops and open-air jerk barbecue eateries run by unsung cooks, where natives dine when they want a taste of their mother’s kitchen.
Chef Staib is attentive to detail, insisting that his jerk meats and fish be cooked the traditional Jamaican way, grilled over hard wood from the Allspice tree, imparting a unique tang. His house-made jerk marinade sauce is a mélange of ingredients that create a complex taste, highly flavorful but not hot. As you might guess, seafood is prominent here, and it is always the freshest, as Chef has relationships with local fishermen island-wide.
How to get the kids to try Jamaican food
Jamaican food has a straight -forward presentation that appeals to kids. There is no weird cucumber foam or newfangled fruit sculptures. The creativity is in balancing the subtle flavors to produce spice and not necessarily heat.
The national dish of Jamaica is ackee and saltfish, customarily served at breakfast. The mild ackee fruit has the texture and visual of scrambled eggs, so its familiar look got my kids to give it a try. The fruit flesh marries beautifully with the slightly salty bits of fish. It is sometimes served with bacon or dumplings (called spinners), adding even more kid appeal.
Conch fritter is made with a gentle tasting local mollusk, dunked in a light batter and fried golden brown. My kids are not partial to fish, but they like anything fried. They didn’t realize that conch was fish until it was too late. They had already tasted and declared it delicious. Another of my kid’s favorite is festival, a crispy, fresh-out-of-the-fryer cornmeal-laced roll, twisted into a knot, and pleasingly soft-textured on the inside.
I dare your children to resist Jamaican desserts. The gooey treacle, sweet toffee, bread pudding and crunchy crumbles are kid-favorites. These classics are clearly descended from the British kitchen. They mesh delightfully with the sweet tropical fruits of the island, adding extra flavor and boosting vitamin and mineral content. All the baked good are homemade at Beaches resorts so prepare to indulge.
The Rum Diaries (for adults only, of course!)
Kids staying at Beaches enjoy their own swim-up bars that offer fresh fruit juices (my kids couldn’t get enough of the coconut) and other non-alcoholic thirst quenchers. For some grownups, the open bar is the foundation of the all-inclusive resort. Jamaica’s national beer is the celebrated Red Stripe and you will find it served everywhere.
Being in a tropical paradise means that rum-based cocktails are the most popular. You will be drinking rum in your refreshing piña colada or popular Jamaican smile. These young pouring rums are tasty, but it’s the sipping rums, long-aged in whiskey and bourbon casks, that stand out. Sipping rums are best savored neat or with a splash of water. They have a cult-like following in much of the world, and spirit enthusiasts appreciate them as they would a fine single malt whiskey. A variety of fine aged El Dorado sipping rums are available, so you can develop your rum connoisseurship while vacationing at Beaches.
If you want to really explore the country’s culinary scene, get out of your resort.
This may seem daunting, as the pothole-strewn roads are none too hospitable for even the most confident driver. The poverty can be intense, but if you have teens it may serve as a springboard for important conversations. Yes, crime exists in Jamaica and you need to be careful as you do in much of the world. You will be rewarded and warmly welcomed if you do venture out to eat local-style.
One of our favorite family-friendly eateries is Scotchies, an open-air jerk shack. There is a branch on the beach near Montego Bay (MoBay in local speak) and one in Ocho Rios. The jerk is authentic and you will share your experience with local families who are enjoying a day of sun, sand, surf and barbecue. For a more upscale atmosphere, we head to Norma’s. Chef Norma Shirley was known as the "Julia Child of the Caribbean. She passed away recently, but her restaurants live on and prove that Caribbean cuisine is capable of reaching high heights. There are three outposts of Norma’s around the island, so there is likely to be a branch fairly close to your hotel.
We never pass up a meal at Little Ochie, located on an unspoiled section of the wind-swept south coast, not far from Manchester, in Alligator Pond. Fresh-speared lobster, steamed snapper, pepper shrimp and jerk fish are house specialties, caught steps from this super-casual beachside eatery. Everything is cooked to order with the omnipresent owner, Blackie, cheerfully accommodating fish and spice-adverse kids. The fish tea is superior, a light fish broth that cleanses the palate in a delicious way. On weekends there is live reggae music and a magic show that the kids will love.
The simplest way to get to these dining establishments is to hire a professional driver. Speak to your Beaches resort concierge soon after check-in about hiring a licensed taxi to bring you to (and wait for you at) one of these establishments. The locals who work at Beaches will be proud to show off their country’s culinary prowess, and thrilled that you desire an exploratory taste of their island’s local delights.
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