Jamaican Pepper Crawfish

In this easy version of the popular Jamaican street food, whole crayfish are steeped in a spicy mixture of water infused with fruity Scotch bonnet chiles.

Jamaican Pepper Crayfish

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Active Time:
15 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs 5 mins
4 servings

The summer I turned nine years old was the first time I visited Jamaica, a place my family still calls home more than 50 years after moving to the U.S. When I arrived, the island hadn’t changed much from when my parents left. The streetlight was a brand-new addition to the hilly parish of Hanover (where my great-grandparents lived), and even with that lone lamp, the skies were more full of stars than anything my New York City-born-and-raised eyes had ever seen.

One of my strongest memories from that first trip was being introduced to crawfish and peppa shrimp, packed into clear plastic bags and inevitably devoured in the car as we careened along the bumpy roads with my grandfather behind the wheel. As he seemingly tapped into ancestral memories of the curves, turns, and switchbacks of the roads, our faces dripped sweat and mouths tingled from the fiery Scotch bonnet peppers the shellfish were cooked with.

The trip was the first chance I had to connect the food and accents I grew up with to a place, a cuisine, and a larger identity than just the people in my family or neighborhood. The collective culinary experience of eating spicy shellfish sold from the side of the road made an indelible impression on my young mind.

Despite all the shops and family friends in NYC that made Jamaican food an everyday occurrence in our lives, crawfish and peppa shrimp was one dish that, at least in the mid-’80s, wasn’t particularly represented. In fact, in the years following that first visit of mine, my aunts and mother spent quite a bit of time working on their own approximations of those roadside snacks.

In 2019, I returned to Jamaica for the first time in decades. My aunt Andrea hosted us in her part-time home and took us on her ritual trip across the island to seek out her favorite roadside food. The trip encompassed sellers offering whole green coconuts, hacked with a machete to be drained with a straw; vendors showing off whole platters of spicy, vinegary escovitch fish, decorated with pickled onions and bright yellow peppers; a vast variety of sweet and tangy fruits, from mangoes to soursop; and, of course, crawfish and peppa shrimp.

As a photographer, my eyes were drawn to the drama, colors, and vibrancy of the vendors and their wares, but particularly to how they cooked the crawfish and shrimp. I made a plan to return in 2020 to document the making of the dish I had loved since childhood. But then, international travel became extremely fraught, and even if you made it to Jamaica, the road trips were less reliable. Vendors came and went on new, less predictable schedules.

So I reached out to the women who have always been there for me to figure out how best to make my own version at home, to bring the flavors of my childhood back into vivid relief through the sweetness of the poached shellfish and the burn of Scotch bonnet chiles. And if I really want to take myself back, I might try to eat those crawfish in the back seat of a car while someone else navigates the potholes of Brooklyn.


  • 1 pound live crawfish (see Note)

  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided

  • 20 cups cold water, divided

  • 5 large fresh Scotch bonnet chiles (preferably red and orange), stemmed

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt


  1. Rinse crawfish thoroughly in a colander under cold running water. Transfer crawfish to a large bowl. Pour 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice and 8 cups cold water over crawfish. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir and drain crawfish in colander. Rinse and repeat soaking process with 8 cups water and remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice.

  2. Meanwhile, process chiles in a food processor until very finely chopped, stopping to scrape down sides as needed, about 20 seconds. Combine chopped chiles, salt, and remaining 4 cups water in a deep 6-quart pot. Cover pot, and bring to a boil over high. Reduce heat to low, and simmer, undisturbed, 10 minutes.

  3. Drain crawfish, and add to chile mixture in pot. Cover and return to a boil over high. Immediately reduce heat to low, and simmer 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat, and let crawfish stand 20 minutes. Strain crawfish, and serve warm or at room temperature.


Crawfish can be locally sourced, depending on your region, or found online at lacrawfish.com. A variation of this dish can be made with shrimp. Soak 1 pound unpeeled raw jumbo shrimp in 4 cups water and 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, and refrigerate 30 minutes. Drain shrimp. Finely chop 5 Scotch bonnet chiles in a food processor. Transfer drained shrimp and chopped chiles to a 6-quart pot; add 3 cups water and 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and simmer 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and let shrimp stand 20 minutes. Strain shrimp, and serve at room temperature.

Suggested pairing

Beer Classic Jamaican beer: Red Stripe

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