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A visit to Jamaica doesn't mean a diet of just local cuisine. The island's eating establishments employ some of the best chefs in the Caribbean, hailing from the United States and Europe, and they can prepare a sumptuous meal of elegant French, Continental, and American dishes.

When dining in Jamaica, try some fish, which is often delectable, especially dolphin (the game fish, not the mammal), wahoo, yellowtail, grouper, and red snapper. These fish, when broiled with hot lime sauce as an accompaniment, may represent your most memorable island meals. Sweet-tasting Caribbean lobster is different from the Maine variety.

Elaborate buffets are often a feature at the major resort hotels. These buffets display a variety of local dishes along with other, more-standard fare, and they are almost always reasonably priced. Entertainment is often a reggae band. Even if you are not staying at a particular hotel, you can call on any given night and make a reservation to partake of a buffet.

Before booking a hotel, it's wise to have a clear understanding of what is included in the various meal plans offered.

To save money, many visitors prefer the Modified American Plan (MAP), which includes room, breakfast, and one main meal per day, nearly always dinner. The visitor is then free to take lunch somewhere else. If the hotel has a beach, guests often will order a light a la carte lunch at their hotel, which is added to the bill. The American Plan (AP), on the other hand, includes all three meals per day. Drinks, including wine, are usually extra.

If you want to eat your main meals outside the hotel, book a Continental Plan (CP), which includes only breakfast. To go one step further, choose the European Plan (EP), which includes no meals.

Appetizers

Except for soup, appetizers don't loom large in the Jamaican kitchen. The most popular appetizer is stamp and go, or salt-fish cakes. Solomon Gundy is made with pickled shad, herring, and mackerel, and seasoned with onions, hot peppers, and pimento berries. Many Jamaicans begin their meal by enjoying plantain and banana chips with their drinks.

The most famous soup, pepper pot, is an old Arawak recipe. It is often made with callaloo, okra, kale, pig's tail (or salt beef), coconut meat, yams, scallions, and hot peppers. Another favorite, ackee soup, is made from ackee (usually from a dozen ripe open pods), flavored with a shin of beef or a salted pig's tail. Pumpkin soup is seasoned with salted beef or a salted pig's tail. Red-pea soup is also delicious (note that it's actually made with red beans).

Tea in Jamaica can mean any nonalcoholic drink, and fish tea, a legacy of plantation days, is made with fish heads or bony fish, along with green bananas, tomatoes, scallions, hot peppers, and other spices.

Main Courses & Side Dishes

Because Jamaica is an island, there is great emphasis on seafood, but many other tasty dishes are also offered. Rock lobster is a regular dish on every menu, presented grilled, thermidor, cold, or hot. Salt fish and ackee is the national dish, a mixture of salt cod and a brightly colored vegetable-like fruit that tastes something like scrambled eggs. Escoveitch (marinated fish) is usually fried and then simmered in vinegar with onions and peppers.

Among meat dishes, curried mutton and goat are popular, each highly seasoned and likely to affect your body temperature. Jerk pork is characteristic of rural areas, where it is barbecued slowly over wood fires until crisp and brown.

Apart from rice and peas (usually red beans), usually served as a sort of risotto with added onions, spices, and salt pork, some vegetables may be new to you. They include breadfruit, imported by Captain Bligh in 1723 when he arrived aboard HMS Bounty; callaloo, rather like spinach, used in pepper-pot soup (not to be confused with the stew of the same name); cho-cho, served boiled and buttered or stuffed; and green bananas and plantains, fried or boiled and served with almost everything. Then there is pumpkin, which goes into soup, as mentioned, or is served on the side, boiled and mashed with butter. Sweet potatoes are part of main courses, and there is also a sweet-potato pudding made with sugar and coconut milk, flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.

You'll also come across intriguing dip and fall back, a salty stew with bananas and dumplings, and rundown, mackerel cooked in coconut milk and often eaten for breakfast. The really adventurous can try manish water, a soup made from goat offal and tripe said to increase virility. Patties (meat pies) are a staple snack; the best are sold in Montego Bay. Boiled corn, roast yams, roast salt fish, fried fish, soups, and fruits are available at roadside stands.

The Java of Kings

One of the world's most sought-after coffees, Blue Mountain Coffee is the drink of connoisseurs, favored from Tokyo to New York. The coffee is known for its good acidity, refined taste, particular sweetness, exquisite flavor, and an intense aroma.

The Blue Mountains north of Kingston reach a peak of some 2,220m (7,400 ft.), making the coffee bean here one of the highest-elevation-grown coffees in the world. Introduced to Jamaica in 1728, the coffee is handpicked, and every stage of its production from hulling to sorting and grading is carefully supervised.

In Jamaica a ground 57-gram (2-oz.) gift pack usually retails for about US$8 to US$10 (£4-£5), but it's probably far more expensive in your hometown if it's available at all. (Blue Mountain coffee beans in Japan, for example, sell for more than US$60 per lb.)

The coffee is sold in most upscale gift shops in Jamaica, and makes an aromatic souvenir of your visit. We prefer to buy our supply while trekking through the Blue Mountains themselves.

Drinks

Tea, as mentioned above, is a word used in Jamaica to describe any nonalcoholic drink, a tradition dating back to plantation days. Fish tea is often consumed as a refreshing pick-me-up and is sometimes sold along the side of the road. Skyjuice is a favorite Jamaican treat for a hot afternoon. It's sold by street vendors from not-always-sanitary carts. It consists of shaved ice with sugar-laden fruit syrup and is offered in small plastic bags with a straw. Coconut water is refreshing, especially when a roadside vendor chops the top off a fruit straight from a tree.

Rum punches are available everywhere, and the local beer is Red Stripe. The island produces many liqueurs, the most famous being Tía María, made from coffee beans. Rumona is another good one to bring back home with you. Bellywash, the local name for limeade, will supply the extra liquid you may need to counteract the tropical heat. Blue Mountain coffee is considered among the world's best coffees -- it's also very expensive. Tea, cocoa, and milk are also usually available.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.