Culinary Heritage: Jamaican Food History
Our Rich Food Heritage
Jamaican food is known and enjoyed across the world for its exotic flavour. What is now regarded as authentic Jamaican cuisine is an amalgam of foods from different cultures and people including Tainos, Africans, European, Chinese and Indians. As each group of people came to Jamaica, they brought their own way of cooking, leaving their own delectable and indelible contribution to our culinary heritage.
Although in Jamaica we now enjoy modern methods of food preparation, no one can deny that the old-fashioned style of baking in a brick oven, or of cooking on an old time coal stove, produced results that were equally delicious and satisfying.
Our fore-bearers who influenced what we eat today include the Tainos (more popularly known as the Arawaks), the Spaniards, British, Africans, Chinese, Indians and Germans. With each group came the various types of food they ate, preparation methods, and the unique way they incorporated the foods they found here into their own recipe.
The Tainos are said to have feasted on over forty varieties of fish including grouper, parrot fist, sturgeon, shark, lobster, oysters conch, whelk, and crab. They enjoyed the green part of the crab meat in the shell, which they mixed with lime juice making a sauce called tamaulin which they ate with cassava bread.
Besides seafood, the Tainos’ protein diet consisted of small birds such as parrots and waterbirds, iguanas, yellow snakes and conies. They also cultivated chilli pepper, cassava, sweet potato, pumpkin, yampi, corn arrowroot, coco, guava, starapple, pineapple, and cashew.
Bammy or cassava bread was the staple of the Tainos. The cassava was cut into small pieces, and the poisonous juice was then extracted. The ‘thrash’ was moulded into cakes and baked in a griddle. The bammies became an important part of the diet of the Spaniards and the British soldiers as they would remain fresh for months. The Tainos also made intoxicating drinks from cassava as well as from maize. Another of their discoveries was that meat could be made tender if wrapped in papaya (pawpaw) leaves. Today, tenderisers are made from papain, extracted from papaya.
Did you know that the Saturday beef soup and the pepperpot Jamaicans all love so much can be traced back to the Tainos? They are believed to have kept a stock pot in which meat, fish and vegetables were collected for soup.
One of their methods of food preparation was with the ‘barbcoa.’ This is a wooden grate standing on four forked sticks placed over a slow fire. On this they spit-roasted fish and meat. This was the forerunner to the present day barbecue grill.
Another method of cooking was coating freshly caught fish or bird with mud and baking it on charcoal placed in a pit dug in sand. When the cooking was done, the mud was scraped off, taking with it the feathers and scales. A combination of these two methods is used in jerking pork and chicken today. Roasted fish may well be a legacy of the Tainos.
In 1494, the Spaniards, the first Europeans to inhabit the island, arrived with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. Not only did they introduce new crops and foods, but they also exported pimento, naseberry, coco and other favourites to Europe,
Sweet orange, sour orange (Seville and Valencia oranges), lime and lemon, tamarind, coconut, banana, and grapes are some of the plants and trees that the Spaniards brought to Jamaica. They also introduced the sugar cane, ginger, date palm, pomegranate, plantains and figs.
Escovietched fish and bammy is the result of combining the food of two cultures – escoveitched fish from the Spaniards and bammy from the Tainos. We also have the Spaniards to thank for stewed peas with cured meat, oxtail and cow foot, as well frying as a method of cooking.
The Spaniards also left us with hot country-style chocolate made from roasted ground/pounded, spiced cocoa beans; gizzada; the soaking of fruits in wine for wedding cakes and Christmas pudding. They also brought cattle, goats, pigs and horses.
Some of the peas and bean dishes that remain popular today also originated in Spain.
In 1655 the British captured Jamaica from the Spaniards and controlled the land until 1962. They built their kingdom on sugar cultivated by African labour. They also exported rum and molasses that were traded for flour, pork and pickled fish. These became staples in the slave diet and are still favourites today. They also introduced breadfruit, otaheiti apples, mangoes, rose apples tumeric, black pepper and coffee.
Evidence of the influence of the sweet-toothed English remains today in the rich pastries we so love to eat. These include Easter buns, tarts, sponge cakes, jams, pies, Christmas pudding, rice pudding, marmalade and pancakes.
The British Cornish pastry which was a meat and potato filled pastry is the forerunner to the beef patty. All that is missing from today's patty is the potato.
The Jamaican fondness for porridge is also a legacy of the Scots.
In 1514, the Asiento or import licence was granted for the introduction of Africans into the islands under Spanish rule. It was, however, under British rule that their numbers were greatly increased.
The Africans bought with them their own methods of food preparation, using their creativity to blend traditional African foods with what was made available to them by their masters. They came with their prized foods such as yam, coco, and okra. Ground provisions were used to replace part of the imported cereals.
They prepared mostly one-pot meals. Their traditional cooking utensils included the three legged iron pot, grater, mortar and pestle, and wooden turn stick.
The plantation owners, by law, had to supply their slaves with salted meat or fish at least once per year and they were expected to supplement their diet with ground provisions which they grew.
A variety of foods emerged from this combination. The most popular being the ‘national’ dish ackee and saltfish. There is also the tasty mackerel rundown, also known as ‘Dip an Fall Back’ and ‘Stamp and Go’, the unusual name given to what we now know as saltfish fritters. ‘Blue drawer’s, ‘tie a leaf’ or ‘duckunoo (dukunu) and fou-fou, are of African origin and are still prepared in Jamaican country villages. In Africa, they made fou-fou from plantain or cassava; in Jamaica it is made from yam or breadfruit.
Some soups, made of peas, beans and ground provisions were so thick that a spoon stuck in them would stand up. It was not surprising therefore that they were given the names ‘jam an stan’ up’ or ‘poon tan up’. These were hearty one pot meals. Meals were ‘washed down’ with crude or wet sugar and water with or without fruit juice, and called ‘black wash’ or ‘brebich (beverage).
The popular method known as jerk can be traced to pre-slavery Coronamtee hunters of West African. These hunters would roast pork over hot coals in earthen pots that were covered with patas-stands made of green pimento or other branches. The jerk pork would then be cooled, stored and re-heated when needed.
Did you know that enslaved Coromantees heavily populated the north-eastern area of Jamaica known today as Boston Beach famous for jerked pork? Nowadays, Jamaicans and tourists alike are regular visitors to this spot where they can enjoy delicious ‘jerk pork’, ‘jerk chicken’, roasted fish, roasted yam or breadfruit.
Importation of Chinese indentured labourers had first been proposed to the British government by the Governor of Trinidad.
Initially, the number of Caribbean Chinese recipes was limited because of a lack of basic ingredients, as few of the necessary spices and flavourings that could have been transported would have survived the length of the journey or the heat.
However, soya sauce, dried noodles and five star powder were available by the end of the century but sweet and sour plums, fermented black beans and many other such ingredients only made their appearance recently.
From necessity, the Chinese followed the Africans’ traditional way with the coal pots as did other groups. They cleverly adapted its use to their own food and dishes. They would scale, wash and dry fish, especially the angelfish which they were particularly fond of, then score the flesh deeply, rubbing salt and hanging it in the sun for weeks to dry.
Today the Chinese are famous for their stir fried, deep fried, steamed, and sweet and sour foods which are skilfully cut and garnished and may be salty, gingered, hot, pungent, or a combination of these. Some Chinese vegetables, such as pak choy (pat choi/papchow) and mustard have become extremely popular.
THE EAST INDIANS
The East Indians who came to Jamaica between 1838 and 1917 were also indentured labourers.
The East Indian cuisine is well known for the curried dishes and the vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, green beans and scallion which they introduced. They also introduced roti, wheat flour, eggplant and ginger. Cooking equipment was simple – a cast iron pot called ‘karahi’ and a short handled flat iron griddle called a ‘tawa’. They baked in a brick oven.
The I-tal food of the Rastafarians is the natural cooking of products from the earth without adding salt or preservatives. Rasta food, except for the occasional small fish, is mostly vegetarian. The rich variety of local produce is used in stir fries and vegetable stews, which are often thickened and flavoured with coconut milk, lime juice and hot pepper.
HISTORICAL FACTS ABOUT SOME OF OUR FOODS
It is believed tat the ackee ‘Blighia sapida’ (named in honour of Captain Bligh) was brought to the island by enslaved West Africans. By 1798 it was to be found as an exotic plant in homes on St. Andrew.
The fleshy part or aril that we eat was never consumed in its native land. It is said that the seeds were beaten to a pulp and used as an aid in fishing. The pulp would be thrown in the river where it had the effect of a narcotic on the fish.
When preparing ackee for cooking, be sure to remove the pink membrane found in the crack of the yellow edible part, as well as the seed. Discard the water in which the ackee was boiled.
Captain Bligh arrived in Jamaica in 1793 via the H.M.S. Providence. It was his second voyage to the West Indies. He brought with him 374 healthy breadfruit plants. Breadfruit was a cheap source of food for the slaves. It was not until a generation later however, that the slaves touched the fruit.
Curry was possibly first introduced here by the English who knew it through their colonisation of India and then by the East Indian who came to the island in the 19th century.
Curried goat is the most famous or our curry dishes. It was introduced to Jamaica by the East Indian and its popularity spread throughout all the Caribbean islands.
The ginger plant (zingiber officinale), originally from the Orient, was introduced by the Spaniards in 1527.
Jamaica is reputed to produce the finest quality in the world. It is used mainly to flavour puddings, cakes, sweets, sorrel drink and to make ginger beer. Ginger tea is said to relieve stomach aches and spasms.
How did Jamaica’s favourite hard liquor come to be named rum? There are about six different theories, but the most convincing one was advanced by the British who said that rum is the shortened form of the obsolete word ‘rumbullion’.
Some believe that the word rum is an imitation of the roaring noise which the drink seemed to set off inside the drinker’s head, like wheels rumbling on flagstone, or the rumtity-tum of drums. Still others believe that the word comes from the ‘Saccharum Officinarum, the botanical name for sugarcane.
Jamaica’s rum was the first to be commercially produced by the distillation process, introduced by the British shortly after their conquest of the island in 1655. Over the years, rum’s initial notorious reputation as a drink for the poor has changed and today, it graces tables in formal settings all over the world, both as a beverage in its own right or as added flavour to other drinks and dishes.