Rastafari culture might have pervaded the world, thanks to Reggae legends like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, but many of the religion’s core messages are not so widely known, even in its native Jamaica.
One of these is eating an ital diet. Derived from the word “vital,” ital food is vegetarian and free from artificial additives. For many in the Rastafari movement, it represents living off God’s land, free from the consumption of other creatures and in harmony with the natural world.
But over the years, meat-based dishes like jerk chicken and curry goat have become synonymous with Jamaica and a beloved part of its national menu. In more recent years, with global fast food chains serving fried chicken and burgers populating Jamaica’s cities, ital eating has been pushed further to the fringes.
In spite of this, many Jamaicans still choose to shun animal products, deeming meat to have been introduced by imperial powers and with no place in a traditional Jamaican diet. For others, the negative health impacts of meat have prompted them them to turn back to Rastafari food preachings.
At Prof-I’s Rastafarian community in the hills of Ocho Rios, North Jamaica, I speak to Dawta Monika, a 69-year-old honey merchant who is visiting from Kingston. “When I was a young girl, people didn’t have all these things,” she says. “High blood pressure, diabetes, cancers—all the things that people have today. Things that are killing us.”
Another woman at the community chimes in: “It’s a shame we try and sell our natural juices but the people just want sugar, that’s what sells.”
In 2016, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health released data showing that diabetes is the second highest killer of Jamaicans under 70 years old, just above heart disease. As a response, new dietary guidelines were issued, recommending that daily diets are made up of at least 50 percent fruit and vegetables, and limiting animal products to less than 15 percent. It also advised against excessive consumption of confectionery and sugary drinks.
A year later, the Ministry of Health launched Jamaica Moves, a campaign promoting healthy eating habits, with the aim of reducing Jamaicans’ risk of developing diabetes, heart conditions, cancer, and chronic kidney disease. It acted as a wake up call for many to the serious impacts of a bad diet. And with the rise of internet access and smartphone use on the island, more Jamaicans are now able to easily access information on diet and nutrition.
But it is the younger generations of Jamaicans who are really behind the resurgence of ital eating. Those who have lived abroad in diaspora regions like the USA, Canada, and the UK—as well as anyone plugged into the modern global food scene—are bringing new ideas and inspiration to Jamaica’s food heritage. Vegan food was once the remit of small Rasta Ital shacks, but a new wave of plant-based eating is now emerging in Jamaica.
Twenty-four-year-old Chef Vita, who is based in Ocho Rios, has already worked in a number of vegan restaurants across the island. Through his cooking, he aims to promote a plant-based, raw vegan ideology. Growing up in a meat-eating Caribbean family, he saw firsthand how fish and chicken are considered “tradition” and therefore hard for some people to give up.
“People are getting more health-conscious because they are seeing that the way they’ve been eating over the years has lead to a lot of diseases that can be avoided through your diet,” Vita tells me. “Even my family suffers from the sickness. The black community is suffering.”
Vita spent time with the Rasta community from a young age, and this had a big influence on his culinary path. His cooking combines native Jamaican produce like plantain, green banana, Scotch bonnet peppers, and coconuts into dishes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Matthew Kenney restaurant.
Not far from Vita’s home in Ocho Rios is The Healthy Way, a vegetarian kitchen and health food store located in a shaded arcade, just off the town’s Main Street. The shop is owned by Rasta Brother Obi, who employs a young staff both in the kitchen and front-of-house. The eatery’s decor is homely, notably omitting any of the red, gold, and green themes found in old-school ital food businesses.
“A lot of people here are going back to their roots and looking at how their ancestors lived,” Obi tells me, perhaps referring to a time before the American fast food outlets began proliferating Main Street. “People are feeling the impact of that food.”
Obi adds that although a large percentage of Jamaicans live in rural areas, many are unaware of the health benefits of natural food.
At The Healthy Way, tourists staying at nearby hotels sit side-by-side with employees from the town’s banks and locals popping in for lunch. The menu is based around meat-, gluten-, and dairy-free takes on classic Jamaican dishes, including curry tofu in place of goat, spelt wheat dumplings, and ackee—minus the saltfish.
Though most towns in Jamaica now have at least a few vegan businesses, Kingston, the country’s capital and home to the highest concentration of middle and educated classes, is most receptive to new wave vegan eating. Caribbean catering company Middle Earth Catering recently launched Eatopia, a vegan delivery service serving Rasta staples like patties (made with breadfruit and vegetables) and gungo pea soup, alongside tofu pasta and vegan cheese burgers. The menu is rooted in ital but has nods to the kind of healthy fast food chains you find in the UK.
Kushite’s Vegetable Cuisine in New Kingston, founded by lawyer Keisha McDonald and her partner Kush Tafari, has a similarly modern approach to ital food. At this recently opened vegan restaurant, Rasta flags and explicit mentions of veganism are kept to a minimum. Instead, the focus is on serving tasty and vibrant meals using an array of global ingredients—including quinoa, jackfruit, and cashew cream cheese—alongside traditional Jamaican fare. Ackee is served in tacos with tortillas made from black beans, and waffles are topped with locally grown fruit.
Speaking to the Jamaica Observer shortly after the restaurant’s launch, Tafari explained what pushed the pair to open Kushite’s: “When you think of vegetarian food in Jamaica, you might associate it with a roadside cookshop. We wanted to revolutionise vegan dining and take it to a higher, fine dining experience.”
Telling Jamaicans to drop curry goat, jerk chicken, and pork is no easy feat, but Jamaica’s new vegan movement is growing and this may soon change. As Vita says, “with the increase of vegan options and restaurants, we will get there.”