If you’ve been following my account on Instagram, you would be familiar with the food-history tidbits that I have been sharing for a while now 🙂 I have a huge interest in food from a historical & anthropological perspective, and reading up on the subject is something I’ve been doing for the past few years.
While I’ve touched on a number of Jamaican food items, tracing back their possible origins, I felt it would be worthwhile to compile something that was both centralized and covering a much longer list of foods!
Please note that it is very important to keep in mind that most food history is passed down orally (and has been mostly documented as such), which by nature, lends itself to errors. The below is an effort that is based by comparing several recipes, food history sources, general history, agricultural information and correlations with foreign migrations & cuisines that found it’s way to Jamaica.
If you would like to share or use this article, please have the courtesy to contact me first 🙂 This is a long work of labour & love, so I’d appreciate the consideration.
Additionally, as some of you have asked, yes there is thought given to build this further and have it as a book 🙂 So more on that in time…
WITH THAT SAID…
There are six distinct historical chapters/periods to understand the various culinary influences that have shaped Jamaican cuisine as we know it today. Please take the time to read the below 🙂
BEFORE 1492 (pre-European contact)
For this period, it is important to consider the region of Central & South America along with the Caribbean. The tropical climate of this region meant that the soil naturally lent itself to certain indigenous crops namely: maize, beans, tomatoes, vanilla, sweet potatoes, cassava (yuca/manioc), chili peppers, peanuts, squash, guava and cocoa. Note that cassava was not only a main crop, but also a highly spiritual one- associated to various Taino beliefs. During this time, specific cooking techniques were also developed.
- Arawak: the indigenous population that inhabited South America & the Caribbean. The Lokono were in South America while the Taino were in the Caribbean.
- Tainos: the arrival of the Tainos in the Caribbean is based on two theories:
- 1) they emerged from the Andes region of Colombia
- 2) they emerged from the Amazon basin (largely Brazil, Colombia, Peru)
- The Tainos diet was rich in vegetables, fruits, fish and a variety of meats- including lizards, turtles and parrots.
- Mesoamerica: a historical & cultural region from pre-Columbian times that spans most of the Central American region. Its proximity to the Caribbean and the shared contact with the Spanish is important in understanding migration of foods (ex: chili peppers, maize, avocado, beans, etc).
FIRST EUROPEAN CONTACT:
- 1492: Christopher Columbus became the first European to arrive in the region.
SPANISH RULE (1509–1655 = 146 years)
Foreign rule inevitably brings foreign food influence + new cooking methods. Several influences could have came during this period:
- Spices from the East: the Spaniards- who had previously been busy exploring the “Old World”- had been introduced to spices & ingredients from their travels East. They may have brought some of these to their “New World” journeys.
- European/Mediterranean region: the Spaniards would had also introduced specialties from their European/Mediterranean region. Namely, thyme, which is a Mediterranean herb.
- Christian influences: equally important is the role of religion (in this case: Christianity) and the introduction of wheat (and the role wheat played in Christianity).
- African influence: the first Africans arrived in Jamaica in 1513 as servants to the Spanish settlers. As such, early African introduction of recipes & techniques would had happened at this time.
BRITISH RULE (1655–1962 = 307 years)
The British Empire was and remains the largest empire in history, and its 300+ years of rule on Jamaica would have had a profound impact on food in Jamaica as we know it today. Because they brought in so much foreign labour (under the form of slavery from Africa or indentured labourers from Ireland, India, China etc), a significant diversity of culinary influence would had happened during this time. Such as:
- Irish influence foods: ex: cornbeef, porridge (oat variety)
- Indian influence foods: ex: curry, mango, ganja, chutney, etc
- Chinese influence: pakchoy, escallion, hard-dough bread
- British influence: Hot cross buns (impacting easter bun) , jams & jellies
- African influence: with the British expanding the importation of slaves to support their extensive development of sugar-cane plantations, more African influenced foods & cooking techniques would had been introduced.
- Maroon influence: African slaves who escaped previous Spanish owned plantations forming independent communities as free men and women in the mountain areas. Their major contribution to Jamaican cuisine would be jerk- specifically, as a way of preparing meat for storage and without creating smoke which could be seen by the British military. They also used little fat and therefore boiled their foods (aka ground provisions).
- Polynesian/Asian foods: because the British had access to almost every part of the world, they would had introduced seedlings of staples such as breadfruit or Otaheite Apples (which come from South East Asia & Polynesia).
- German influence: a small amount of Germans arrived to Jamaica post-Emancipation, as a result of labour shortage. The first group of indentured labourers -63 Germans from Bremen- arrived in 1834.
JAMAICA AS A REFUGE:
Other important culinary influences would had come from communities who were persecuted back home, and found refuge in Jamaica. This would had been:
- Portuguese Jews & Spanish Jews in the 1660s
- Lebanese & Syrians in the 1890s.
AMERICAN INFLUENCE: 1970s-present
In 1975, the American brand KFC entered Jamaica as a franchise business. It has since, become the most popular fast food chain on the island- and sells the most chicken per capita.
In 1985, Burger King came to Jamaica and opened its first restaurant in Ocho Rios.
Ever since the 1970s, a plethora of American brand products (drinks, snacks, fast food) have formed an important part of the food landscape in Jamaica.
AND HERE IS THE LIST OF FOODS & THEIR PRESUMED ORIGINS!
- Gizzada: introduced in the 1500s via Portuguese Jews (“guizada” in Portuguese). Note the use of coconut in Jewish faith can be traced back with Coconut Macaroons (an Italian-Jewish specialty). Coconut macaroons are kosher for Passover, and eventually became a popular, year-round treat. (Note that Gizzada contains wheat however).
- Coconut Drops: while very little is documented around this, a plausible hypothesis may be that it comes from Africa given that there is a quasi-identical dessert in Ghana called “kube cake”. The Jamaican version however contains ginger.
- Peanut Drops: same as above. See Ghanian “Nkati Cake”
- Grater Cake: introduced via Indian indentured laborers. It stems from Indian Coconut Barfi (which is often also coloured with a top layer of pink). Similar cousins of Coconut Barfi exist in regions where indentured Indian labourers settled, namely T&T, Guyana (both with sugar cake) and South Africa (coconut ice).
- Hard-dough bread: introduced by the Chinese communities in JA. Although, there could also be influence from European/French style “pain-de-mie” (and this would had been brought over from European influence).
- Porridge: in itself, porridge is a very global dish with several variations around the world. In the case of introduction to Jamaica, some claim that it may have come with the British influence (specifically from Scotland where oat porridge was popular). Cornmeal porridge could stem from indigenous Central American cultures. Root vegetable type porridges are likely to come from Africa.
- Duckanoo/Blue Drawers: is a variation on the dish “ducana” which originated in Africa. It was brought over to the Caribbean by slaves from Africa.
- Bulla: made of molasses and spiced with ginger and nutmeg, Bulla is very likely a Jamaican invention.
- Coco Bread: this type of bread exists in Jamaica but also variations of it across the Caribbean. It could be assumed that, like hard-dough bread, it is influenced by the Chinese, specifically Chinese Coconut Buns. Both recipes are very similar.
- Easter Bun: from British Hot Cross Buns.
- Jamaican Fruit Cake (Christmas Cake/Black Cake): dense fruit cakes are popular across the Caribbean, and are thought to have originated in the 18th century under British rule. Important to note is the use of both sugar and rum as a natural preservative- allowing the cake to have a longer shelf life and always remain tasty 🙂 Keep in mind however, that the concept of a dense fruit cake (in some form or another) has been around since as Ancient Egypt (prepared as offerings and placed on the tombs of loved ones). Fruit cakes however became a common sweet speciality in Roman times.
- Water Crackers: originally produced in the 19th century, water crackers (sometimes called a water biscuit) were popular in Ireland and the UK. Today, versions of water crackers exist throughout ex-British colonies, namely Jamaica.
- Rock Cake: originated in Britain, rock cakes were introduced during WWII at a time of strict rationing (as it doesnt call for as much sugar or eggs as a regular cake would). It would had been introduced to Jamaica under British rule.
- Festival: based on indigenous use of maize in the region (similar cornmeal fried doughs in Hispanic Caribbean especially FYI, see Sorrullitos in Puerto Rico or Arepitas de Maiz in Dominican Republic).
- Bammy: a true indigenous food, the Tainos were the first to make a flatbread made of Cassava. It’s what I like to call the “original gluten-free bread” 🙂 Cassava (Manioc/Yuca) is a tremendously important indigenous crop in Central, South America & the Caribbean, and many cousins of Bammy exist in the Caribbean (ex: see “Casabe” in the Dominican Republic).
- Mannish water: Jamaican and part of Maroon celebrations for 300+ years
- Red Peas Soup: so many variations of this exist across the world, that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin. Each country adapts and creates its own version- and the use of seasonings such as scotch bonnet pepper, pimento seeds- etc- would make Red Peas Soup a Jamaican one.
- Dumplings: like porridge, dumplings are one of those foods that exist all over the world- especially when fried. However dropping balls of this dough into a bubbling pot of stew or soup, or into a casserole is British & Irish. See British classic “Beef Stew with Dumplings”.
- Escovitch: this specific culinary style comes from the Spaniards (and eventually became a staple in other countries where the Spanish were present, see Escabeche in the Philippines).
- Fried ripe plantains: this way of preparing plantains stems from Africa (across various regions). With slavery, it travelled to most South America & the Caribbean where it has become a popular favourite in the region today. However, plantains as a crope were introduced to the Caribbean through Santa Domingo by a Portuguese Monk (the Portuguese had already encountered plantains in their previous travels).
- Jerk Chicken/Pork/Other: this style of cooking – of cooking meat over an open flame and pimento wood- originates from the Tainos and adapted by the Maroons. The Maroons introduced Jerk Pork and developed a blend of herbs, spices, hot peppers, and pimento leaves which they used when cooking the animals that they captured.
- Curry goat: from Indians.
- Curry chicken: from Indians.
- Ackee & Saltfish: while neither Ackee or Saltfish are native to Jamaica, the dish is said to be a Jamaican invention 🙂
- Stew Peas: the recipe started to appear in cookbooks in the 1940s/1970s and it is unknown where this dish originally comes from- albeit similar variations exist across the Caribbean and Latin America. By extension, this would imply that the origins of the dish may come from Africa where “one pot dishes” were common.
- Patty: from British cornish pasty mixed with cumin and curry seasonings of Indian indentured servants in Jamaica and cayenne pepper from African slaves. The inclusion of indigenous scotch bonnet seals the deal 🙂
- Meals with oxtail, cow foot, pig’s tail, tripe and chicken foot: date back to slavery, where the slaves would get the “unwanted” pieces (and turn it into something new).
- Corned beef: from the British & Irish. Interestingly enough, corned beef played a huge role in “negotiating” Caribbean sugar plantations between the British + the French FYI. Due to its non-perishable nature, it was also commonly consumed by British naval fleets.
- Saltfish: comes from North Atlantic region and came to Jamaica by way of Canada. It got imported into Jamaica as it was a cheap food supply used for slaves. It is also said that saltfish was merely any white fish that was doused in salt that slave owners did not want. As such, it was used to feed their slaves.
- Rice & peas: from Ghanian dish “waakye”.
- Run-down: is purely Jamaican. In the 19th century, it was introduced via Afro-Jamaican immigrant works to neighbouring Latin countries where it is known as “Rondón”.
- Brown stew (fish or chicken) : stews in themselves are nothing new and exist in some variation all around the world. It became popular particularly for tougher, cheaper meat cuts- as the long hours of cooking softened the meat. But a BROWN stew chicken in particular is regional (Caribbean). Its distinct colour is made by browning brown sugar (although today, most people seem to use conventional “browning” liquid). Brown stew only became particularly popular in the 20th century, and was said to make common appearance at cricket games, and the chicken commonly alongside rice & peas.
- Ital diet: Indians, who are largely vegetarian Hindus, introduced the concept of vegetarianism in Jamaica when they first arrived as indentured labourers. The Ital diet warped into a more disciplined form of vegetarianism.
FRESH PRODUCE (fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs):
- Curry spice blend: from Indians. The Jamaican curry blend however has a few tweaks to it, namely the use of pimento and stronger presence of Turmeric.
- Rice: was introduced by Spaniards, but only extensively cultivated with the arrival of Indian + Chinese indentured laborers.
- Breadfruit: comes from Polynesia, via the British (as a food to feed the slaves in their colonies)
- Ackee: introduced from West Africa- where it is known as “Akye fufo”. It may have precisely came from Ghana on a slave ship in 1778.
- Otaheite Apple: from Malaysia
- Callaloo: this one requires more research, but the actual vegetable (amaranth greens) grows in A=at least fifty tropical countries. However, it is said to be endemic to the humid lowlands of Asia and Africa- in this case, it would have come with the Indian, Chinese or Africans.
- Mango: Mangoes are native to India and most likely came with the migration of indentured Jamaican labourers. The Bombay Mango specifically, was imported in 1869 by Sir John Peter Grant, then Governor of Jamaica.
- Wheat: originally, the indigenous population were relying on starchy vegetables like cassava to produce breads/flatbreads (i.e: bammy). It is only with the arrival of the Spanish that wheat was introduced. For starters, the Spanish did not like the taste of cassava. And from a Christian/religious perspective, wheat also played a crucial role. Bread, made from wheat, is seen as the body of Christ. Additionally, priests could only use wheat bread and wine for the Holy Eucharist.
- Ganja/Marijuana: came from India on the first boat that arrived to Old Harbour Bay in 1845. In India, ganja was consumed for for spiritual and medicinal purposes, mystical religious practices- and it was introduced in JA as such. It was adopted for religious use in the 1930s by Leonard P Howell and other elders in the Rastafarian faith.
- Bitter melon/Cerasee: came from both Indians + Chinese. The plant is endemic to India, and was introduced to China in the 14th century.
- Plantains: introduced to the Caribbean through Santa Domingo by a Portuguese Monk (the Portuguese had already encountered plantains in their previous travels).
- Jackfruit: from India
- Tamarind: from India
- Scotch Bonnet: native to the Caribbean islands and Central America. Capsicums, at large, are native to MesoAmerica and were were completely unknown to most of the world until Christopher Columbus made his way to the New World in 1492.
- Ginger: was introduced to Jamaica in the early 1500s, first planted by the Spanish. Between the 1930’s and 1960’s, Jamaica was listed as one of the three largest producers of ginger in the world (this is no longer the case today FYI).
- Peanuts: is an indigenous Arawak Indian crop
- Beans: is an indigenous Arawak Indian crop
- Cassava: is an important indigenous Arawak Indian crop
- Pear/Avocado: endemic to MesoAmerica (a pre-Hispanic historical term that refers to a section of Central America before the arrival of the Spanish). It is said that the Spanish liked the avocado so much that they distributed it to their other colonies in the Americas. Of note: Jamaica mostly grows the “Florida Avocado” – which has a less fatty content vs the Hass Avocado.
- Sugarcane: the crop is said to be endemic to either New Guinea or India. It was introduced to Jamaica by Christopher Columbus. But it is in the 18th century, however, that demand for sugar increased significantly as it was considered a luxury at the time. Consequently, sugar plantations in the Caribbean (and other regions) became new sources of sugarcane for Europe.
- Bananas: native to South Asia, the banana has been introduced on this side of the world on numerous occasions (not specifically Jamaica- but in the region). The Gros Michel variety was introduced by a French botanist, Jean Francois Pouyat, a French who settled in JA in 1820. He brought the banana from neighbouring Caribbean Martinique.
- Escallion: referred to as “escallion” in Jamaica, it is technically “Welsh Onion”. However don’t let that confuse you- it has nothing to do with Wales and is an alium native to China, and now a staple in Jamaican cuisine. It most likely was introduced via the Chinese community, as it is an important ingredient in their cuisine as well.
- Orange: this citrus fruit is native to Southern China, which then became popular in the Mediterranean region (namely Spain). It was introduced to the Caribbean (Haiti) in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. It is assumed that very shortly after, it made its way to Jamaica.
- Coffee: native to Ethiopia (where it then made its way to different parts of the world), it was introduced by Sir Nicholas Lawes (the governor at the time) to Jamaica in the 1700s, from Martinique. It is said he brought 8 seedlings with him. Today Blue Mountain Coffee is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
- Pimento: native to Jamaica- and Jamaican Pimento is in high demand by export markets, due to it’s exceptional quality.
- Pak choy: critical to traditional Chinese cuisine, the Chinese community
- Coconuts: introduced by Spanish settlers in the 16th century and has, ever since, become a key ingredient in Jamaican cuisine.
- Sweet Potato: originating in South America it was one of the main
crops of the Arawaks.
- Sorrel: like many of its relatives of the Hibiscus family, sorrel is probably indigenous to Jamaica. In Mexico, it is referred to as “flor de Jamaica”.
- Okra: originated in the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) center of human food zones. Okra would had came with African slaves.
- Watermelon: spread from Sudan to Egypt during the second millennium B.C.E. Now, it is distributed throughout the world. The transatlantic slave trade served as a major vehicle in transporting watermelon to the New World- which would include Jamaica.
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- The forgotten story of India’s colonial slave workers who began leaving home 180 years ago https://qz.com/india/290497/the-forgotten-story-of-indias-colonial-slave-workers-who-began-leaving-home-180-years-ago/
- Jamaica National Heritage Trust http://www.jnht.com/disndat_people.php
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- Digital History http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu
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- Taino Museum https://tainomuseum.org/taino/daily-life/
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- A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia review https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-tale-of-two-plantations-slave-life-and-labor-in-jamaica-and-virginia-review-1.2196702
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- Saveur Magazine JAMAICA’S NATIONAL DISH IS AN IMMIGRANT TO ITS OWN SHORES https://www.saveur.com/ackee-saltfish-jamaican-national-dish-history
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- Berceo’s Sacrificio de la Misa https://www.jstor.org/stable/23032086?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
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- Lost Crops of Africa https://www.nap.edu/read/11763/chapter/3
- African Crops and Slave Cuisine ricediversity.org/outreach/educatorscorner/…/African-Crops-and-Slave-Cuisine.doc
- Black History Month/ The Origins of Slave Food https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/history-of-slavery/origins-slave-food-callaloo-dumplings-saltfish/