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One of the most important parts of Jamaican culture is food. Sunday dinners, birthdays, and holidays all require large amounts of food and drink to accompany the socializing and celebration. These meals usually require hours to prepare, if not days. And rarely is one dish served, but rather several options for everyone’s taste. In our family, the meat-eaters, vegetarians, and practicing Rastas all have something to eat…for days. It is typical to “plate-up” two or three times and spend much of the time walking around talking with every guest. At our family events, there is usually some sort of Reggae music playing…cliche? Maybe, but it guarantees a nice environment for everyone.
Jamaican cuisine is typically known for its flavor and spices. Some common ingredients include bananas, breadfruit, chocho (or chayote, a type of squash), bok choy, butterbeans, pawpaw (papaya), lime and avocados (known in Jamaica as pears). Pork, chicken, fish and shellfish find their way into various dishes. Allspice and thyme are typical seasonings in Jamaican cooking, and the super-hot Scotch bonnet pepper adds fiery punch to almost everything. Then there is always the Jamaican rum… which lends itself to a variety of drinks, commonly mixed with juice, ginger beer, or just water.
It is an island full of history, heritage, and people from all corners of the world and each has lent a flavor to Jamaica. With so much influence from all over the world, it’s no wonder that the food is just as original, unique and tasty, boasting of influences from the Spanish, British, East Indian, West African, Portuguese, Chinese, French and the Dutch. One cannot be but fascinated with the rich culinary choices of Jamaica. Here is a little history lesson on Jamaican cuisine…
The history of Jamaican food starts with the Spanish arriving in 1509 and driving out the original inhabitants (the Arawak Indians.) With the Spanish, came many slaves, which brought their cooking techniques, spices and recipes from Africa to the island. These nations began to mix their recipes in with the island’s local fresh produce and seafood choices, creating new dishes.
Perhaps the most widely known and beloved of Jamaican food is jerk. This method of grilling meats originated with the Arawaks and involved cooking marinated meat over a fire of pimento wood. The pimento tree is the source of allspice, a beloved Jamaican flavoring, and allspice finds its way into every jerk recipe.
In 1655, the Spanish lost Jamaica to the English, who brought in further additions to the cuisine choices and developed many new dishes on the island (the most famous, currently, is the Jamaican pattie.) The English also transformed much of the island into sugar plantations. When the slave trade was finally forbidden a century later many immigrants began to join the island as laborers from China and East India. The Indian influence brought many of the Indian spices into the mix – which is why Jamaica is very famous for spicy food to this day. Just about everything is made into curry – whether it be seafood, pork, rice or anything the island has to offer. Jamaican curry is a wonderful eclectic mix.
The vegetarian cooking of the Rastafarians, called Ital cuisine, is an important subcomponent of Jamaica’s food culture. Ital focuses on not only the nutritive value of food but also on its medicinal effects.
Whatever your choice of food, Jamaica will surprise you again and again with such wonderful unique and rich island tastes. Jamaica is also famous for coffee, since a lot of coffee is grown on the island, and their fresh produce is very popular amongst tourists. All of the island’s combined history has created some of the most flavorful tastes and cuisines the Caribbean knows, resulting in a bountiful choice of food that you will desire for even long after you may have left the island. Their food truly represents the island’s motto – “Out of Many, One People.”