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Jamaican food

Confronting the Colonial Past of Jamaica's Hard Dough Bread

Also known as “hardo,” the bread is a thick and ever-so-slightly sweet loaf consumed widely in Jamaica, but whose origins span the globe—and the country's history.

by Chanté Joseph
25 April 2019, 9:49am

Photo via Adobe Stock. 

For as long as I can remember, my family has been bitterly divided into two groups: the “Bun and Cheese Brigade” and the “Hard Dough Diehards.” Christmas, Easter, and pretty much any other celebration would require two separate loaves, just to keep the peace.

As a member of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain, food is one of the main ways I maintain a relationship with my roots. Family gatherings become cultural lessons, with my blended Jamaican-Dominican heritage allowing Dominican Kwéyòl to pierce the air as relatives bicker happily over games of dominos—all while we enjoy large plates of traditional food, including those ever-divisive Caribbean breads.

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Julius Monero of Rainbow Bakery in East London prepares hard dough bread, a traditional Jamaican sweet bread. All photos by Aji Ayorinde.
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I’m a committed hard dough enthusiast. Also known as “hardo,” the bread is a thick and ever-so-slightly sweet loaf consumed widely in Jamaica, but whose origins span the globe. The loaves are basted in sugar water before baking, which gives them the signature sweet taste and a smooth, waxy skin. The baking process involves a “dough break machine,” a piece of mixing equipment found only in Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti, according to Jamaican writer and cultural historian Olive Senior.

Migration and globalisation mean that the loaf, once confined to West Indian bakeries and grocery stores, is now available in shops across the UK. As a child, I would shriek when I saw hard dough bread in the supermarket—it was never stocked in large amounts and sold out very quickly. When I was a student and went to visit my grandad at work in his lorry park, hard dough bread became our tradition: we’d always swing by the nearby Brent Park Tesco and pick up a loaf for me to take back to university. These moments became sacred between us, as we bonded over my desire to understand his history and my heritage better. Something as simple as buying hard dough bread felt like a commitment to learning more about myself.

Julius Monero of Rainbow Bakery, a Caribbean bakery in Dalston, East London, feels just as passionately about hard dough. However he tells me that handmade hard dough loaves are very different to the shop-bought variety my grandad and I would enjoy.

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Baker Julius Monero.

“Many factory-produced hard dough breads have additives and preservatives that allow them to stay the same consistency for a week,” he says. “When you buy a French baguette fresh from the baker, it’s good for a couple of hours, then it gets hard. That’s just like [Rainbow Bakery’s] hard dough bread. When it comes to hard dough bread, which has more ingredients and takes a lot of craft, I feel that our community takes for granted.”

Monero argues that in Jamaican culture, hard dough bread is seen as an inexpensive, staple product, which doesn’t reflect the skill that is required to make it.

“The true art of hard dough bread is the refinement,” Monero says. “It is easy to weigh and portion, but there is also craft in knowing if it is ready. With hard dough bread, you have to feel for it. If you under-handle it, you don’t get what you want and if you over-handle it, it will be dry. When you buy a loaf of bread from a craft baker, they employ the same techniques as hard dough bread. Making this bread is a real skill.”

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According to Monero, hard dough bread is “easy to weigh and portion, but there is also craft in knowing if it is ready."

Hard dough bread may be taken for granted by some, but it is also imbued with important religious meaning, especially at Easter.

“Jamaica is a largely Christian country,” Riaz Philips, London-based food writer and author of Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK, tells me. “So with bread being an important icon in the religion at holidays, especially Easter and Christmas, hard dough bread and spiced bun fly off the shelf.”

Indeed my first encounter with hard dough bread was in a religious context. Growing up within the Jamaican Pentecostal church, every first Sunday of the month would see my family break bread in recognition of Lord’s Supper. This tradition usually involves Communion wafers and wine, but our church invoked a uniquely Jamaican twist, replacing the wafer with hard dough bread and the wine with grape juice.

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Many in Jamaica and across its diaspora communities will associate hard dough with Christian symbolism, but tracing the bread’s origins reveals another story. In Nyam Jamaica, a Culinary Tour, Rosemary Parkinson writes that a Chinese migrant named Mr. Chin Bwang is thought to have been the first to produce sweet bread in Jamaica, back in the 1920s. Chinese migration to the country had begun shortly after the abolishment of slavery in 1834.

“European colonial powers (British, French, Spanish, Dutch) sought to replace the labour of Black people with Chinese and then Indian indentured contract labourers,” explains Tao Goffe, assistant professor of Africana and Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. She adds that some Chinese migrants set up small shops adjacent to the plantations.

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Hard dough loaves at Rainbow Bakery are made without preservatives, meaning that they are best eaten fresh out of the oven.

“Much of Jamaican food is heavy in starches because of slavery and the caloric requirements of brutal plantation labour in a tropical climate,” Goffe says. Hard dough’s history is therefore intertwined with colonisation and slavery.

The story of indentured Chinese and Indian migrants in Jamaica is often glazed over, perhaps with the assumption that their experiences were somehow less damaging than the horrors of slavery due to their contractual nature. Our collective lack of understanding is not only a fault in our education system, but in Britain's inability to take accountability for colonial crimes. Indentured labourers who migrated to Jamaica were promised a fair wage, free healthcare, and accommodation. The reality upon arrival was often the opposite, with harsh working conditions and painfully low wages, as well as physical and financial penalties if their contracts to the plantation owners were broken. Even before arriving in Jamaica, 17 percent of Indians died on the voyage from South Asia between 1834 and 1917, due to disease on the ships transporting them.

As I unwrap my hard dough loaf, fresh from Rainbow Bakery, I think about the bread’s place in Jamaican history and culture, and I feel stuck. Yes, hardo helps me feel closer to a distant heritage, but the joy is muddled with guilt as I’m reminded of the decimation caused by Britain’s colonial past. How do I balance my need for self-preservation with the burning curiosity to know more about those that came before me?

The answer is as complex and multi-layered as the hard dough recipe itself.