Festival (Jamaican Fried Cornmeal Dumplings)

Overhead view of festivals with jerk chicken
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Festival is a uniquely Jamaican fried dumpling, completely different in texture and flavor to a Johnny cake, another Jamaican fried dumpling. Festival (always in the singular) are defined by their long oval shape and crisp golden crust, while Johnny cakes are round and do not have the sweetness and crumbly texture of a festival. The addition of cornmeal and sugar to the festival dough is what makes them unique and adds a layer of density, texture, and sweetness.

Festival are simply delicious; the crunchy, fried exterior is balanced by the moist, slightly sweet dough, making them very hard to stay away from and a great companion to spicy, savory dishes. They can be eaten as a snack, but are more commonly served as a side or accompaniment to a variety of Jamaican street foods.

Overhead view of festivals on a black plate and wicker mat
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Festival are similar to hush puppies, the popular side dish in the American South. And, as in the American South, cornmeal was an important part of the early Jamaican diet and shows up often in traditional country-style Jamaican cooking. Cornmeal’s popularity originates from the 18th century when enslaved workers were provisioned with a weekly allotment of cornmeal and salted fish from plantation owners. Naturally, this resulted in a variety of popular cornmeal dishes that range all the way from savory to sweet. Some other examples of how cornmeal has been incorporated into Jamaican cooking include: duckunoo, a sweet cornmeal and coconut pastry that is wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed; cornmeal porridge, a classic hearty, creamy, and sweet breakfast dish; cornmeal pone, a sweet and dense steamed pudding made from a combination of cornmeal, vanilla, coconut, nutmeg, and brown sugar; and tun cornmeal, a savory polenta-type dish made with salt fish, coconut, okra, thyme, vegetables, and spices. 

Among the many ways that one can enjoy festival, none is better than a meal of fried fish and festival at Hellshire Beach, in Kingston. Hellshire is a fishing village on the outskirts of Kingston, famous for its superior take on rustic beachside fare. Weekends are always most popular, with crowds lining up to have their weekly fix, but on any given day of the week you will find Jamaicans willing to take the 40-minute trek out to Hellshire to devour a plate of fried fish or fried lobster with festival.

Close up of festivals on a plate
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Festival is also served occasionally with jerk pork and jerk chicken. Many of the jerk centers around the island will offer a variety of sides, like roast breadfruit, roast yam, roast sweet potato, or fried green plantains, to go with the jerk, and festival is always a favorite choice here. The crisp, sweet, slightly dense starch of the festival is a great balance to temper the heat, spice, and saltiness of jerked meat or chicken. Festival also appears as a regular side at the breakfast table accompanying Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish, along with steamed callaloo, Johnny cakes, and fried plantain.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt.

Two image collage of dry ingredients in a bowl before and after being mixed
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Add melted butter and vanilla, if using, along with 2 1/2 cups (590ml) water. Mix with a clean hand until a firm yet elastic dough ball is formed that is neither wet nor sticky; add additional water, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, if needed. Wrap dough ball in plastic wrap and let rest for 10 minutes.

Four image collage of adding vanilla, egg, water and forming into a dough
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into eighteen 4-ounce pieces for large festival or twenty-four 3-ounce pieces for smaller festival.

Dough formed into 18 balls
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Lightly flour works surface and hands. Working with one dough piece at a time, roll each dough piece into the shape of a long, fat cigar (about 6 to 8 inches long), dusting surfaces and hands with flour as needed.

Dough rolled into a log
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Set an oven to keep warm or its lowest setting. In a large Dutch oven or flat-bottomed wok, heat oil over medium-high heat until it registers 350°F (175°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Working in batches of about 3 at a time to avoid crowding oil, fry dough cigars until golden on first side, about 2 minutes. Turn festival and fry until second side is golden, about 2 minutes longer.

Side angle view of adding dough to oil
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Transfer to a paper-towel-lined platter; transfer platter to oven to keep festival warm. Repeat with remaining dough cigars. Serve festival with jerk pork, pan chicken, fried fish, and other savory dishes.

Overhead view of festivals served with jerk chicken
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Large Dutch oven or flat-bottomed wok

Make-Ahead and Storage

The dough can be refrigerated wrapped in plastic wrap after Step 2 for up to 24 hours.