Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Click here to read her column about Ethiopian cuisine, here to read her column about Ghanaian cuisine, and here to read her column about Nigerian cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Jamaican Cuisine

Jamaican cuisine is a wonderful blend of the cooking styles and practices of Africans, Native Americans, Europeans, East Asians, Indians, and Middle Eastern people. This is heavily due to historical events such as the transatlantic slave trade, colonization, and indentured labor after slavery, as well as, adopted religious practices.

Jamaican cuisine is so varied heavily due to historical events such as the transatlantic slave trade, colonization, and indentured labor after slavery, as well as adopted religious practices.

These multicultural influences are visible in the forms of spicing/flavoring techniques and Jamaican versions of dishes which are presented in the same way, or similarly to, that of their source of inspiration. It is also visible in what the people choose to eat or abstain from. However, this is more due to religion.

Plant-based Influences

The average Jamaican cuisine consists of a vast amount of meat dishes. However, communities of people, such as the Rastafarians have influenced aspects of the general cuisine making them more plant-based. This is because their religious practices encourage pescetarianism, vegetarianism, and veganism all in the form ital – Rastafari food practices believed to promote livity (righteous ever-living living and increase liveliness. 

Ital practices/cuisine strictly involves natural foods, cooking utensils, and crockery sourced from the Earth (with minimal manipulation). It excludes man-made additives such as food coloring, preservatives, and artificial flavor enhancers as well as GMO foods, foods grown using fertilizers and/or pesticides, meat, canned foods, dried foods and, for some, salt, especially those fortified with iodine, added sugar, and animal by-products such as dairy, eggs, and lard. The inspiration for these cooking practices comes from Hinduism (practiced by indentured laborers from India), as well as interpretation of Bible verses such as those urging meat-eaters to abstain from eating certain animals in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Genesis 1:29, which states, “Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for food.”

As veganism has spread across the globe, some of those who do not identify as Rastafarians or follow ital food practices have adopted veganism and therefore recreated traditional Jamaican dishes in vegan ways that fit their dietary preferences and requirements.

As veganism has spread across the globe, some of those who do not identify as Rastafarians or follow ital food practices have adopted veganism and therefore recreated traditional Jamaican dishes in vegan ways that fit their dietary preferences and requirements. This has brought along dishes such as jerk tofu, jackfruit brown stew, jerk lentils, patties containing just vegetables, and salt fish dishes replicated using the heart of palm in place of actual fish.

An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine: Marinated & Grilled Shroom 'Ribs' with Spicy Curry Sauce
Marinated & Grilled Shroom ‘Ribs’ with Spicy Curry Sauce. Image credit: @sedjedo. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Jerk

Jerk is one of the most popular and internationally known Jamaican cooking styles. However, what is more popular is the jerk seasoning itself. Technique-wise, jerk is the process of seasoning food, usually meat (meat-substitutes, for vegans), with a dry-rub or wet marinade of jerk spice prior to cooking by grilling, roasting, or frying. Jerk seasoning/spice is a hot spice mixture consisting of scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, as well as a range of other ingredients that vary with the cook. These other ingredients include cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, spring onions (green onions/scallions), thyme, brown sugar, and salt.

Jerk is one of the most popular and internationally known Jamaican cooking styles. However, what is more popular is the jerk seasoning itself. 

Historically, jerk was developed as a collaboration between the Kormantine Africans (one of the first Jamaican Maroons) and Tainos. The Jamaican Maroons were people who escaped from enslavement when the British invaded Jamaica and drove out the slave-owning Spanish colonizers to avoid re-enslavement while the Tainos are a tribe of indigenous/native Caribbean people. The Kormantine Africans developed the seasoning and marinade recipes as a result of adapting to using the ingredients available to them in Jamaica as opposed to those they were more familiar with in the Akan region of Ghana (their place of origin). However, it was the Tainos who developed the traditional cooking technique of jerking.

In modern terms, jerk dishes, especially those which are classified as vegan, are not confined to dishes consisting of marinated/seasoned grilled meat substitutes, but everyday dishes which have been seasoned using jerk seasoning and/or jerk sauce to impart a unique Caribbean flavor in them. These dishes include jerk stews, dumplings, or tacos filled with ingredients seasoned with jerk spice and vegetables cooked in/with jerk seasoning.

Vegan BBQ Jerk Tacos
Vegan BBQ Jerk Tacos by @rachelama_. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

The Famous Rice and Peas

Rice and peas is a common Jamaican meal believed to have been derived from the Ghanaian and Hausa (Nigerian tribe) dish, waakye, and introduced to Jamaica by enslaved West Africans. It consists, predominantly, of rice and pigeon peas. However, in more recent times, the pigeon peas are often substituted with other legumes such as kidney beans, cowpeas, and black-eyed peas forming a meal that is a complete protein. To make rice and peas, the legumes are usually cooked in boiling water containing garlic and pimento seeds until almost cooked through then combined with rice, scotch bonnet chilies, ginger, onions, spring onions (green onions/scallions), thyme, and coconut milk, and cooked further until the rice is cooked. It tends to be served either as a meal, on its own, or with sides such as fresh raw vegetables, sauteed vegetables, and/or a meat substitute.

Callaloo and “Codfish” with Rice and Peas
Callaloo and “Codfish” with Rice and Peas. Image credit: @jam.delish. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Patty

Jamaican patties are flaky pastries baked with a savory spiced filling of vegetables and, sometimes meat substitutes (to retain as vegan) and ackee (a fruit indigenous to Jamaica). It was influenced by the Cornish pasty which was introduced to Jamaica during the colonial era. However, the more subtle flavors of the Cornish pasty are replaced with bolder and more pronounced flavors from seasonings (such as curry seasoning introduced by Indian indentured laborers) as well as the heat of scotch bonnets to make the Jamaican patty. It is usually eaten as a main meal, especially when served with coco bread – a slightly sweet, yeasted bread made with coconut milk. However, smaller versions are often available for snacking purposes.

An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine: Ackee Patties
Ackee Patties. Image credit: @amazingackee. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Curry

Curries are popular dishes in Jamaica that were introduced by Indian indentured laborers. It is often not vegan. However, there are traditionally vegan versions made from potatoes, vegetables, or legumes. Although Jamaica’s curry dishes were inspired by the Indians, unlike Indian curries, they are always made using a premade curry powder which is more akin to the British-style of making curries. The Jamaican curry powder usually consists of a mixture of allspice, garlic, turmeric, paprika, cumin, cardamom, and fenugreek. Allspice is what gives it its unique Jamaican flavor as well as the heat of scotch bonnet chilies commonly added to the curries for flavor and heat purposes.

An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine: Jamaican Curry
Curried lentils and spicy roasted Thai red curry mushrooms, served with quinoa and sliced cucumbers. Image credit: @sedjedo. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Recipe: Jackfruit Brown Stew

Brown stew is an accompanying stew in Jamaican cuisine usually served with a carbohydrate of choice and, sometimes, vegetables too. It is referred to as “brown stew” solely because of its distinct brown color which is traditionally attained by browning the protein source of the dish in brown sugar prior to cooking it with onions, garlic, and vegetables of choice. However, for those who follow the ital practices or prefer to consume as little sugar as possible, it can be made with ingredients that naturally impart a dark or brownish color on the stew such as black beans.

Here is a recipe for sugar-free delicious jackfruit brown stew developed by Rachel Ama (@rachelama_ on Instagram).

Jamaican Jackfruit Brown Stew by Rachel Ama

An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine: Jackfruit Brown Stew

Click here for the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

If this article on vegan Jamaican cuisine inspired you to learn more, you might also like:

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Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Jamaican Cuisine

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