Another day, another tonally insensitive culinary move from British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. No, he hasn’t murdered a bunch of poor people in an avalanche of sugar to campaign for higher tax regulation, but instead unveiled a new food product that manages to be both culturally appropriative and inaccurate: jerk rice.
Oliver's “Punchy Jerk Rice,” a microwavable rice packet made with wholegrain rice and aubergines, was released in supermarkets earlier this week. The instant meal is being criticised as an inauthentic rendering of Caribbean rice dishes that traditionally feature allspice and kidney beans. Caribbean “jerk” sauce or marinade is most commonly made with Scotch bonnet chilis, allspice, garlic, and ginger; and used to marinate meat like chicken or pork, before being cooked over a barbecue.
It wasn't long before outrage erupted over Oliver’s, er, creative interpretation. Labour MP Dawn Butler was first to critique Jerk Rice, asking the chef on Twitter: “I’m just wondering do you know what Jamaican jerk actually is?” and stating that “this appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.”
Others have accused the product of appropriating the term “jerk” with a creation that differs from the traditional Caribbean recipe, originating from escaped African slaves in Jamaica. In a debate on Good Morning Britain this week, chef Rustie Lee said that “jerk originated from Jamaica and they would be offended by this.”
“It’s an insult because jerk is from the Caribbean and as much as I love Jamie, the point is it’s getting onto a bandwagon to say it’s Caribbean, it’s taken away from us,” she continued, adding that “the jerk part of it is barbecue and you can’t barbecue rice.”
Cook and entrepreneur Levi Roots, who has collaborated with Oliver, also spoke about the product on Good Morning Britain, calling it “a mistake.”
However, not all chefs share this outrage. Gordon McGowan, owner of Caribbean restaurant Buster Mantis and recently opened bar Stockton, both in South East London, told MUNCHIES over email that he was “a bit bemused by the uproar, to be honest.”
“With its colonial past, modern Jamaican culture—and consequently, modern Jamaican food—is in itself a fusion. It's the product of generations of people who have had no choice but to be influenced by diverse sources the world over, for better or for worse,” he explained. “Our food and our culture will always evolve, and in doing so you will inevitably have people, at home and abroad, trying new things with it. Personally, I find it flattering, if anything.”
McGowan did concede, however, that he doesn’t “particularly want to eat” Oliver’s rice product.
MUNCHIES reached out to Jamie Oliver’s team for comment but had not received a response at the time of publishing.
Rice seems to be a sticky subject for Jamie. In 2014, the chef became embroiled in “#Jollofgate,” after sharing a recipe on his website for the West African dish Jollof rice. His recipe was similarly accused of diverging from the traditional recipe, after it called for coriander, parsley, and a lemon wedge—ingredients not often associated with the dish.
What’s next, rice and peas with actual garden peas?