I love so many different ethnic cuisines, especially those with rice and spice, that sometimes it’s hard for me to choose a favorite. However, if a genie told me I could have any one cuisine placed in front of me right now, it would take me no time to choose – Jamaican food. Jamaican food, and in particular, Ital food, is my absolute favorite cuisine. Jamaican cuisine has been influenced by many cultures including Spain, China, India, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, which means there are a large variety of ingredients, spices and flavors.

Many Jamaican dishes have meat or fish, but Ital cuisine is usually vegetarian or vegan. Developed by Rastafarians, Ital food is a natural way of cooking that tries to avoid processed food, additives, oil, salt and sugar. The word Ital comes from the English word “vital” with the initial syllable replaced by the letter “i” to signify unity with nature. While Ital food and recipes may vary greatly, the common goal is to increase “levity” or the life energy believed to be within all living beings. Therefore, food should be as natural and pure as possible. The decision to eat Ital food may be a spiritual one, a health-related one or one concerned with animals. Whatever the reasons, Ital food and Jamaican food in general are delicious. Since I no longer live near any Jamaican or Ital restaurants, I had to learn how to make my own food. Here I will share some of the most common ingredients, dishes and recipes I have learned so you, too, can enjoy making your own Jamaican food at home.

1. Aromatics, Herbs and Spices

Jamaican food is rich in flavor with aromatics, herbs and spices such as cayenne, paprika, garlic, onion, scallions, black pepper, oregano, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Allspice or pimento is made up of the dried berries of the pimento plant, which is native to Jamaica. The pimento berry has the flavor and aroma of a combination of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper which is how it got the name “allspice.”  Thyme is a common herb in Jamaican cooking for both its flavor and its ability to substitute for salt. Herbs and hot peppers are frequently used as salt substitutes.

The most common spice blend is Jerk seasoning, which can be a dry rub or a paste. It is most commonly used to marinate meat but, it can be used for other foods as well. Jerk seasoning is made up of allspice, cinnamon, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, cumin, cloves, black pepper, thyme and Scotch bonnet peppers.

Scotch bonnet peppers (Capsicum chinense) are essential to Jamaican cooking. They are related to and look like habanero peppers, but their taste is unique. Scotch bonnet peppers are extremely spicy with a heat rating of 150,000 – 325,000 Scoville Units (compared to 5,000 units for a jalapeno). To get the flavor with less of the heat, the seeds can be removed from the pepper or the pepper can be added whole during cooking and removed before eating.

2. Common Ingredients

The beautiful tropical climate of Jamaica means there is an abundance of fruits such as mangoes, avocados, papaya, bananas, pineapple, guava, coconuts, ackee and plantains. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. It is a bright red tropical fruit that has soft, creamy yellow flesh. Ackee is hard to find outside of Jamaica because it can be dangerous – if the fruit is opened before it’s ripe, it lets off a toxic gas that can be lethal! All of the tropical fruit available means there is no lack of ingredients for beverages. Ital restaurants often serve a wide variety of smoothies and juices for health and healing purposes. Enjoy some tropical fruit with this Raw Mango Banana Soft Serve Ice Cream, Mango Sorbet with Banana and Pineapple, Raw Papaya Apple Smoothie, and Sunshine and Tropics Smoothie,

Coconut is a basic ingredient in Jamaican and Ital cooking. Every part of the coconut is used. The milk is the base for many dishes especially stews. The flesh of young coconuts is eaten and the water is a popular beverage. When the coconut is fully mature, it is used to make coconut oil, the only oil used in Ital cooking. Learn how to make your own coconut milk and all the health benefits of using coconut oil.

Avocados are frequently used in salads, side dishes and with bread and bullas which is a firm sweet cake made with stale bread. Check out these cool avocado recipes. Roasted breadfruit is also a common Jamaican dish. Plantains may look like bananas but they are very different. They need to be cooked before eating. When they are unripe, plantains have the consistency of potatoes. Plantains can be made into chips, baked, mashed, pureed, or sauteed. They can be used for snacks, side dishes, desserts or put into soups and stews. Enjoy plantains and coconut in this Coconut-Plantain “Rice” Pudding and these Cacao-Coconut Plantain Rice Energy Balls with Pepitas.

Sweet potatoes and yams are often used in Jamaican dishes as is Yucca root. Yucca root, also known as cassava, is a tuber with white, starchy flesh. This tropical veggie can be boiled, steamed or processed into tapioca flour. The leaves of the plant are also edible. Yucca root is often ground into a meal and used to make bread. Bammy is a traditional Jamaican flatbread sold in stores and by street vendors. Read 10 Ways to Cook with Sweet Potatoes and find out how tapioca flour is a healthier choice than white flour. My favorite vegetable used in Jamaican food is callalloo. Callalloo is a leafy green that is somewhat similar to spinach, but spicier. Steamed callalloo is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can prepare callalloo any way you would spinach. Beans, peas and legumes are frequently used in Jamaican dishes.

While most of the ingredients used in Jamaican cuisine are local foods, Ital food has expanded to include foods not normally found locally. Tofu, soy chunks, vegan “meat,” and soymilk are used in Ital dishes and are usually made from scratch.

3. Jamaican and Ital Dishes

The national breakfast of Jamaica is ackee and saltfish. Ackee looks and tastes very similar to scrambled eggs or tofu scramble. Ackee can be bought in cans where you can be sure it is ripe and safe. To make Sauteed Ackee: In a skillet, heat 1 Tbs. coconut oil. Saute 1 sliced onion, 3 minced garlic cloves, and 3 chopped scallions for 6 minutes, or until the onions are soft and lightly browned.  Add 1 sliced red bell pepper and 1 seeded and minced chile pepper. Cook for another 3 minutes. Rinse the ackee from the can to wash off the brine. Add the ackee to the pan and mix with the vegetables. Season with 1 tsp. dried thyme and 1 tsp. paprika. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Season the dish with salt and pepper to taste.

Jerk is one of the most popular Jamaican dishes. Usually a meat such as pork, chicken or fish is marinated in spicy Jerk seasoning and cooked over a flame. Jerk is a very spicy dish and is usually served with rice and peas or bread. I love making Jerk food – it can be made with tofu, tempeh, seitan, TVP or any meat replacement you like. To make my Jerk Tofu: prepare the marinade by combining ¼ cup tamari, ¼ cup apple cider vinegar, 2 Tbs. vegan Worcestershire sauce, ¼ cup fresh lime juice, 2 tsp. hot sauce, 1 seeded and minced chile pepper, 1-inch fresh grated ginger, 2 minced garlic cloves, 3 Tbs. brown sugar, 2 tsp. ground allspice, 2 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, ½ tsp. ground nutmeg, ½ tsp. cayenne pepper and ¼ tsp. ground cloves. Mix well. Place 1 block of pressed and drained tofu that has been cut into cubes into the marinade. Toss to coat the tofu and let marinate at least 30 minutes. Heat 2 Tbs. coconut oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove the tofu from the marinade and pat dry. Add the tofu to the skillet and toss to coat in the oil. Let cook for 4-5 minutes until browned on one side. Flip and continue to cook on each side until the tofu is crisp and browned. Garnish with 2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley and serve.

Rice and peas is the most popular side dish of Jamaican cuisine. Also called “Coat of Arms,” this dish is made of rice and either peas or beans cooked in coconut milk and spices. The peas and beans most often used for this dish are red kidney beans and pigeon peas. To make Jamaican Rice and Peas: heat 1 Tbs. coconut oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 small chopped onion and cook for 4 minutes until softened and beginning to brown. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and 1 ½ cups brown rice and toss to coat the rice with oil. Mix in 1 tsp. kosher salt and 1 tsp. fresh grated ginger. Add 3 cups coconut milk. Stir well. Add 1 ½ cups cooked kidney beans or pigeon peas to the saucepan. Add 2 tsp. dried thyme and stir everything together. Add 2 fresh bay leaves. Let the rice cook until the liquids begin to simmer. Then lower the heat and cover the saucepan. Cook for 40 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat and let sit for 10 more minutes. Uncover, remove the bay leaves and fluff with a fork. Taste for seasonings and adjust if necessary. Squeeze fresh lime juice over top.

Whenever I went to an Ital restaurant, I always got some Jamaican patties. The fillings were choices of tofu, soy chunks, ackee and my favorite, callalloo. Suffering from Jamaican patty withdrawal, I had to learn to make my own. Like the authentic patties, mine have a spicy filling of “beef” and vegan cheese surrounded by flaky and flavorful dough. This filling is texturized vegetable protein, but you can use greens, veggies, tofu, seitan, lentils or whatever you love. Here is how to make my Jamaican “Beefy” Patties: first, make the pastry dough: in a small bowl, combine 3 tsp. egg replacer with ½ cup warm water. Stir and set aside. In a food processor, combine 4 cups flour, 2 tsp. kosher salt, 1 ½ tsp. baking powder, 2 Tbs. curry powder and 2 tsp. turmeric. Process until everything is mixed well. Add 1 cup of vegan butter cut into cubes and pulse until it starts to look like crumbs, about 8 pulses. Add in the egg replacer/water mixture and 1 cup cold water. Pulse a few times until it starts to form a crumbly dough.

To make the filling: In a medium-sized bowl, mix 2 cups TVP and 2 Tbs. jerk seasoning. Cover with 1 ¾ cups boiling water and let sit for 10 minutes until the water is completely absorbed by the TVP. In a large skillet, heat 1 Tbs. coconut oil over medium-high heat. Add ½ large diced onion and saute for 3 minutes until the onion is softened. Add 1 diced bell pepper, 1 diced carrot, 1 small diced zucchini, 1 diced celery stalk and 1 seeded and diced chile pepper to the skillet. Add 4 minced cloves of garlic and saute the veggies until they are softened, about 5-6 minutes. Add the TVP to the skillet. Add 1 Tbs. curry powder, 2 tsp. each ground cumin, ground allspice and chile powder, 1 tsp. ground thyme, 1 tsp. kosher salt and ½ tsp. black pepper and mix to combine. Mix in ¼ cup tomato sauce and ¼ cup water. Mix until everything is well coated and the seasoning is evenly distributed. Melt 2 Tbs. vegan butter in a corner of the pan and mix in 2 Tbs. flour to make a roux. Mix this roux into the filling mixture. It will thicken it a bit. Taste for any seasoning adjustments. Transfer the filling mixture to a bowl and proceed to make the patties.

To assemble the patties: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Set up an assembly line: you will need a bowl with 1 ½ cups vegan cheddar cheese shreds, the bowl of TVP filling, the dough discs, a small bowl of water, 2 forks, a pastry cutter (pizza cutter) and a ¼-cup measuring cup. Take a dough disc and place it on the work surface. Lay ¼ cup of filling onto the middle of the disc. Use a fork to spread it and flatten it a bit. Sprinkle some cheese on top of the filling. Using your fingers, wipe some water along the outer edge of the disc. This will help seal the dough. Fold the dough over in half to form a half-moon shape. Press the edges together. Trim any excess dough using the pastry cutter. Use the tines of the clean fork to press the edges of the dough. This seals it and makes those pretty lines along the edges. Poke 3 holes in the patty to let steam escape while it cooks. Place the patty on the baking sheet and repeat until you use up all the dough and filling. Bake for 12 minutes. Remove the baking sheets from the oven, brush the patties with olive oil and bake for another 12 minutes. Transfer the patties to a cooling rack. Serve warm.

Another vegan version of a traditional Jamaican dish is my Jamaican Curried Tofu with Chickpeas. It can be made with just chickpeas and potatoes or with tofu, tempeh or seitan. It’s mildly spicy and delicious.

This is just a sampling of the healthy and amazing cuisine of Jamaica and specifically, the vegan dishes of Ital food. While you cook, enjoy the song and video, “What Me Eat,” by vegan Rasta singer Macka B. Who doesn’t love a song about eating vegan food?

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