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History of Jamaican Food

With a coat of arms that says, “Out of Many, One People”, we should not be surprised that Jamaican food lies at the epitome of international cuisine fusion. A cursory glance at its rich and varied past will give us an idea of just how Jamaican food has managed to become such a unique blend of cultures.

The roots of Jamaican food can be traced back to the peace-loving Arawak Indians, who named their tropical paradise Xaymaca, or “the Land of Wood and Water”. They were believed to be one of the first people who barbecued their food, which involves grilling meat over wood, giving the meat an added smoky flavor from the wood.

However, the influence of the indigenous people was limited by the fact that the Spanish took over the island and enslaved the natives in the early 16th century. Nevertheless, along with the oppressors, came a new selection of dishes, the most popular of which included the vinegary escovitched fish introduced by the Spanish Jews.

As the native population began to dwindle in numbers due to the harsh ways of slavery, the Spanish began to import African slaves to boost their workforce. The African diet played a major role in shaping Jamaican food, as many of the basic ingredients were introduced by the African slaves, such as okra, ackee, saltfish, mangoes, and yams. In fact, the most well-known Jamaican food, jerk, originated from the West African Coromantee Tribe. Jerking involves marinating meat (chicken, beef, seafood etc.) in a spicy concoction made of pimento, pepper, thyme, cinnamon, brown sugar, lemon juice, onions, cayenne pepper, and soy sauce, then grilling it slowly.

In 1655, the English wrested the land from the Spanish, bringing with them characteristically English dishes. One fusion dish that remains popular till this day is the Jamaican patty, which is a turnover with a spicy meat filling. But that is not the only influence that the English exerted on Jamaican food. In the early 19th century, slavery was abolished, necessitating the import of indentured servants from China and East India. The Chinese brought with them rice, mustard and chili peppers, which makes Jamaican food stand out even within the Caribbean. The Indians, on the other hand, introduced their famous curry spices and the endearing notion that practically everything can be curried. Goat curry is a particularly quirky curry that is famous in Jamaica, but you can find all sorts of other curried meats as well.

With culinary influences from Spain, Africa, England, China and India, Jamaican food can definitely live up to its national motto. It is an eclectic melting pot of all the elements from its turbulent past, and is certainly a treat for the taste buds.

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