History of Jamaican Food

Caribbean cuisine and especially Jamaican cuisine play a major part in Leeds West Indian Carnival. With food stalls around Potternewton Park, on Harehills Avenue and Chapeltown Road an estimated 70,000 pieces of jerk chicken, 80,000 portions of rice and peas and a massive 100,000 fried dumpling are sold every Carnival weekend.  While thousands of people enjoy Jamaican cuisine during Leeds West Indian Carnival, not many realise the history behind the delicious food.  Through the history of Jamaican food we can discover the history of the island itself.

One of the earliest people to live in Jamaica was the Taino who arrived on the island around 800 CE. They settled near rivers throughout the island and had a largely fish-based diet. The Taino cooked fish and other meat (such as hutias, lizards, birds and turtles) on wooden racks over fires which they called barbacoa. It is from the Arawakan-speaking Taino that we get the modern word ‘barbecue’. The Taino also grew maize, cassava, peppers, beans, and sweet potato. One-pot meals and soups were also popular with the Taino people.

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Taino people barbecuing fish.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive in Jamaica at the end of the 15th Century. They imported the first goats to the island. The Spanish also brought new crops to Jamaica including ginger, sugarcane, and plantains. The Spanish also introduced their own cuisine to Jamaica that included escovitch fish. A mix of European and Jamaican ingredients lead to the invention of gizzadas, toto, grater cake and other coconut based desserts.

The Spanish also brought the first African slaves to Jamaica. Slaves from West Africa brought their own cuisines and cooking techniques to the island.  Slow cooked one-pot dishes such as soups and stews were popular among slaves in Jamaica. These were often eaten with a cornmeal flatbread called Johnnycakes. In Jamaica, the Johnnycake developed into fried dumplings which are sometime still called fried Johnnycakes. Cornmeal was a high-energy staple food for the enslaved Africans and was used to make porridge. Sugarcane was the most prosperous crop grown in Jamaica during the slavery era with 90% of sugar in Europe coming from the Caribbean. Jamaica, Haiti and Barbados became the largest producers of sugar. Plantation slaves in Barbados were the first to discover that molasses, a by-product of the sugarcane process, could be fermented into alcohol which developed into the first rums in the early 17th Century. Caribbean rum quickly became popular with British privateers, some of whom became pirates and buccaneers. Rum began its association with the Royal Navy in 1655 when the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish.

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Jamaican slaves working on a sugarcane plantation.

Like the Spanish, the British also brought their own cuisine to Jamaica. Spiced buns, such as the Cornish saffron bun, became popular in Britain in the 17th Century when exotic spices became more commonly available. Larger versions of saffron buns were known as saffron cakes and were baked in loaf tins. Saffron cakes became popular in Jamaica and developed into the Jamaican spiced bun. The British also brought traditional hot cross buns to Jamaica. These treats were enjoyed on Good Friday. Eventually, the spiced bun replaced the hot cross buns and spiced buns became associated with Easter. Another Cornish treat that became popular in Jamaica was the Cornish pasty which first arrived in Jamaica in the 19th Century. Jamaican spices and seasonings were added to the mix and the pasties evolved into the Jamaican patty. In the second-half of the 19th Century, processed foods and tinned foods such as tomato ketchup, evaporated milk, and corned beef were introduced to the island. The British also introduced new crops to Jamaica including ackee from West Africa and breadfruit from Oceania which was introduced to Jamaica in the 1790s as a high-energy food for slaves.

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Slaves preparing food.

In the 18th Century, the Jamaican Maroons, Africans who escaped slavery, mixed African flavours with Taino cooking styles. Using local herbs and spices such as Scotch bonnet pepper, the Maroons developed jerk seasoning which was used on barbecued meat including chicken and pork. The Maroons also used Scotch bonnet pepper in their one-pot dishes. These one-pot dishes developed into curries after the arrival of indentured labourers from India beginning in 1845. The Indians brought with them curry powders, spices and roti. The arrival of these new ingredients led to the development of curry goat and other curries using a mix of Indian and Jamaican ingredients. Indians also introduced new plants to the island. These included mango, tamarind, and jackfruit. Indentured labourers from India also introduced cannabis plants to Jamaica in the 1850s. Chinese indentured labourers arrived in Jamaica in 1849 and they too brought their own cuisine to the island. Chinese food remains popular in Jamaica today.

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Indo-Jamaican women cooking.

The popularity of Jamaican rum continued into the 19th Century and in 1825 John Wray opened ‘The Shakespeare Tavern’ in Kingston and began selling his rum. In 1860 John Wray was joined by his nephew Charles James Ward and the brand became Wray & Nephew. Wray & Nephew rum became one of Jamaica’s most popular exports and won awards around the globe throughout the 19th century. The Jamaican banana export industry began in the 1860s and reached a peak in the 1880s. London food wholesaler Edward Fyffe began commercial imports of bananas in 1888. Workers on the banana boats working long hours and the folk song ‘Day Dah Light’ (later known as ‘The Banana Boat Song’) was written around this period.

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Banana carriers

Market places such as Linstead Market and Coronation Market in Kingston became popular in the 19th Century and the folk song ‘Linstead Market’ was written around the end of the 19th Century. Markets across Jamaica allowed local farmers to sell fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and poultry. Jamaican owned food companies began emerging on the island in the 1920s. One of the oldest,  GraceKennedy, was formed in 1922 as a small trading establishment. It’s most popular product is Grace Hot Tomato Ketchup which was introduced in 1959 along with Grace Vienna Sausages.

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Linstead Market, 1891.

The 1930s saw the development of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica. The spread of the Rastafari movement across Jamaica had an impact on Jamaican cuisine. Most Rastas eat an Ital or ‘natural’ diet made up of organic and local food. Following the dietary laws of the Old Testament, some Rastas avoid eating pork or crustaceans. Other Rastas are vegetarian and avoid sugar and salt in their food. Rastas also avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Jamaica’s national beer, Red Stripe lager was first produced in 1928 from a recipe developed by Paul H. Geddes and Bill Martindale. By the 1940s the beer had become extremely popular in Jamaica and was the drink of choice to celebrate Jamaican independence in 1962. Red Stripe began being associated with Jamaican music in the early sixties. The 1963 album ‘Let’s Have A Red Stripe Party’ is one early example. Red Stripe lager became popular in Britain in the 1970s and from 1976 became the unofficial beer of Notting Hill Carnival.  Red Stripe is a sponsor of the annual Reggae Sumfeast festival held in Montego Bay.

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Ska LP ‘Let’s Have A Red Stripe Party’, 1963.

Restaurants serving Jamaican cruise have existed in Britain since the early 1940s but have failed to take off to the same extent as Indian or Chinese restaurants. However, small independent restaurants have had success in communities with large West Indian populations. It is only in more recent years that Jamaican food has become mainstream. Jamaican food is now readily available in British supermarkets thanks to companies such as Tropical Sun, founded in 1996. The company’s popularity in recent years has caused some customers to boycott the company, feeling it is taking away sales from smaller Jamaican companies selling the same products. Jerk sauce became popular among non-Jamaicans after the launch of Levi Roots’ ‘Reggae Reggae’ sauce which hit supermarket shelves in 2007. Companies including Weight Watchers, Schwartz, and Maggi have all introduced jerk seasonings to their ranges.  Tesco launched their own brand of tinned Jerk chicken in 2014 which was ridiculed by fans of Jamaican food on social media. Companies such as Tilda, Asda, and celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott have all launched microwaveable takes on rice and peas to mixed reviews. Jamie Oliver’s Punchy Jerk Rice was met with controversy after it’s launch in 2018.  It’s lack of traditional Jerk ingredients and misunderstanding of the Jerk cooking technique left people upset with the product  with some critics calling it ‘cultural appropriation’. The first in a chain of Caribbean-themed restaurants called ‘Turtle Bay’ was opened in 2010 and the company now have restaurants across the country.  McDonald’s even introduced ‘The Jamaican Chicken’ burger at their UK stores for a limited time in 2017 and again in 2018. In 2016 Walkers Max Crisps introduced their Jerk Chicken flavoured crisps which was followed by Walkers Sensations Jerk Chicken flavoured crisps in 2018.

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McDonald’s ‘The Jamaican Chicken’ burger.
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