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Easter

The Hidden Iconography in Jamaican Easter Food

From steamed fish and hard dough to bun and cheese, traditional Jamaican Easter food reflects the country’s rich and complex Christian history.

by Riaz Phillips
18 April 2019, 10:24am

Fried ackee and saltfish with plantain and rice. All photos by the author. 

Every Easter, bakeries, takeout spots, shops, and restaurants in Jamaica and its extensive diaspora communities go into overdrive. Posters advertising “Fish Friday,” usually only displayed once a week, are everywhere come April and supermarket shelves overflow with spiced bun and bright yellow cheese. The preparations for this food bonanza begin even earlier. In February, with the religious observance of Lent only just underway, businesses warn customers to get their Easter food orders in early and avoid disappointment.

Curtis Reid is director of Lincoln’s Patisserie, a bakery his family has operated in North London for more than 30 years.

“There is definitely a spike in business during the Easter period,” he tells me.

Fish, bread, and cheese may be synonymous with Easter for those of Caribbean heritage, but less thought is given to the long-standing religious meaning behind these foods.

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Spiced bun on sale at a Jamaican supermarket. All photos by the author.
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In the run up to Easter, Jamaican supermarkets are filled with spiced bun.

Christianity in the Caribbean can be traced back to the mid-seventeenth century, when British forces captured the island of Jamaica from Spanish rule and imported slaves, mostly from Western Africa, to labour on sugar plantations. As well as enforcing work on the island’s captured people, the British brought over a number of their customs, including Christianity.

Today, there is a much-loved (but questionably fact-checked) saying that Jamaica has the highest number of churches per square mile in the world. Exact figures aside, Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic churches do clutter the small island, and Christian education is the norm for most school children.

When the British captured Jamaica, it was widely believed that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and became practice for Christians to observe some form of abstinence or fasting on this day. Over the years, the popularity of fasting waned and people instead abstained from eating “warm-blooded” creatures, i.e. meat, on Fridays, causing fish consumption to increase.

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Fried fish, peppers, plantain, and dumpling.

The Caribbean islands took “Fish Friday” and made it their own. In Jamaica today, behemoth sound systems are hooked up on roadsides and in car parks with grills and jerk drums loaded with sprats, saltfish, flying fish, red snapper, and sea bream—the smoke billowing out and enticing passersby. Lobster and crab are fried, roasted, steamed, grilled, escoveitched, and jerked, which makes for gargantuan fish platters in a rainbow of colours and flavours.

“My memories of food at Easter time was eating a lot of Jamaican fish,” Reid tells me. “I remember the house smelling like fried fish, steamed fish, and lots of hard food. It was all so delicious.”

While fish plays a big part in any Caribbean Easter spread, baked goods are just as important. In fact, bun and cheese, made with a rich and spiced bread, was once only eaten on Good Friday. The bun is a direct relation of the hot cross bun, but like many other British foods brought to the Caribbean, morphed over time to become a loaf doused with molasses, spices, and fruit. It is most commonly eaten sliced and filled with a very specific processed cheese. I couldn’t find any records that documented where the pairing of fruity bread and cheese originates from in Jamaica, but it’s likely that a foreign dairy company or supermarket played a role.

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Spiced bun is often enjoyed with a slice of processed cheese.

Reid tells me that other traditional Caribbean baked goods are also popular at Easter, alongside bun and cheese.

“What also sells well are our hardo bread, duck bread, bulla cake, Jamaican spiced buns, and bammies,” he says. “These items are very popular during Easter, as Caribbean customers tend to enjoy these items for breakfast or to snack on every now and again. It’s kinda like a tradition to have [the breads] with hard food for breakfast; spiced bun with cheese for dessert or snack; and bulla cake for a small feast.”

While bread is inextricably linked with the Resurrection story in Jamaica's Easter food traditions, Reid thinks that the religious element may be less important to some Caribbean Brits.

“Some customers would be doing it [buying baked goods] for the religious reasoning of Easter, but I feel the times have changed so much nowadays that the tradition of what Easter actually is may have been lost a little,” Reid says. “People are now doing it for heritage reasons.”

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Festival, fried fish, and bammy—a type of flatbread made with cassava.

Reid adds: “I find the older generations are the people that purchase food for the religious reasons of Easter. The younger generations are doing Easter mainly for the tradition of family feasting and family get-togethers.”

In a way, it doesn’t matter whether you enjoy bun and cheese or fried fish as a religious symbol or a way to feel connected with your heritage. The Caribbean table at Easter has always been a place of abundance, and the importance of continuing this tradition is something we can all agree on.