Inclusive veganism takes root in Jamaica

Volume 4 Issue 002: Writer Clare Considine discovers the rich history of Rastafarian Ital cuisine and shares her recommendations for Kingston’s vegan hot spots.

Arti­cle taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 002. Order your copy here.

Veggie Campus is a tiny vegan venue that lurks at the back of a hostel on a quiet leafy street in uptown Kingston. Owner Brent Blair and his team have been making and delivering meals for a trusty following out of a small kitchen for almost five years, but they opened a sit-down space just over a week ago and have been working all hours to get things off the ground. 

Records are propped against a mosquito net and DayGlo dancehall poster artwork lines the walls (when Blair’s not peddling coconut beans and callaloo he’s producing music for his brother Gavin’s avant-garde dancehall outfit, Equiknoxx). The kitchen is open daily from noon to 8pm, though Blair’s goal is to be accessible every hour of the day”. 

The clientele is diverse – local workers, Jamaican-American hostel guests and Kingston’s creative scene all come to feast on black-bean tacos, salads and loaded sweet potatoes. While I’m there, Kingston’s biggest events producer pops in for his daily dose of veg. He’s just co-ordinated a massive soundclash event and the whole place joins in a heated discussion about the line-up. 

This is a far cry from how your average Jamaican generally perceives ital (Rastafarian food) joints. I ask every driver on our trip about their favourite spot and the majority explain – just as a cabbie might in London – that ital’s not their thing. Beyond the standard barefoot boho status that tends to attach to plant-based diets across the globe, ital is directly linked to the teachings of Rastafarianism. 

It derives from the notion that food should be natural, pure and from the earth, to encourage the livity – life energy – that lies at the heart of Rastafarian belief. However, in a predominantly Christian country, fewer than one per cent of Jamaicans identify as Rasta. 

Within Rastafarianism there are three main denominations or mansions” – Bobo, Nyabinghi and Twelve Tribes – and they operate a sliding scale of dietary strictness. Maybe two thirds of Rastas would identify with Twelve Tribes,” says Blair. In their eyes, the first founder did keep a bare foolishness: You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’” Bobos and Nyahbinghi would say that a real ital diet excludes all animal products, salt and butter (considered unhealthy), while Twelve Tribes will eat any creature that doesn’t walk on hooves. It’s this room for manoeuvre that has allowed a new form of ital-inspired veganism to blossom in the Jamaican capital.

  • I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”  I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.” 

Ital was born partly from necessity. Rastafarianism began as a religion-cum-political movement in the 1930s, built around an Afrocentric interpretation of the Old Testament. Rastas formed self-sufficient communities in the mountains where they could put their beliefs into practice. You eat what you start cultivating,” Blair explains. The name derives from the English word vital”, with the emphasis on the letter i” signifying the unity of the speaker with nature.

Aaron Moodie (aka chef I‑Ron) is head chef at Veggie Campus and a devout Rasta. Some Rastas go to the cook shop every day and buy a whole chicken,” says Blair. But I‑Ron would say they are not Rastas.” Chef I‑Ron emerges beaming from the kitchen, a straw top hat teetering atop his mountainous dreads. The livity is important on many levels,” he explains. You must consider your body as something that takes in energy and dispenses it. What you put in and get out solely depends on making the right choices.”

Rastafarians have a global reputation so intrinsically tied to happy places of weed, dub and Bob Marley that it’s easy to forget that it was once a heavily persecuted religion. Its formation was largely a reaction to British colonial influence among poor and disenfranchised Caribbeans and its anti-establishment nature terrified the Jamaican authorities. You never heard of Bad Friday?” Blair exclaims. They were still vilifying Rastas 30 or 40 years ago.”

In 1963, Bad Friday, or the Coral Gardens massacre, saw the death of an estimated 150 Rastafarians at the hands of Jamaican police and military forces. All we knew here was God. Believe in God,’” says Blair. Then there’s these men telling you they believe in Haile Selassie. My parents used to say: Rasta man have black heart.’ They were scared of him.”

Which is why, for many older Jamaicans, ital comes with a hangover of prejudice. In a city where jerk-anything and rice tends to be the order of the day, coconut bowls stuffed with mini-buffets of colour and texture – gooey and chewy sweet plantains join soothing daals, nutty black rice and zingy salads – should be welcome. But for many it is at once alien and also strangely exclusive. Vegetables are expensive here at times,” says Blair. We don’t grow things in greenhouses, so it depends on how the weather treats us.” Plus, of course, there are those same old accusations that come with any kind of plant-based diet: People say it’s tasteless, that it lacks nutrients.”

But for younger Jamaicans ital has the allure of forbidden fruit. Blair talks about Damian Marley – son of Bob and poster-boy for international next-gen Rastas – with misty-eyed affection. He was everything to us growing up,” he explains. He sang about herbs and different stuff to eat. And you’d want to look up all these words. If he sang about spirulina [a blue-green algae favoured by vegans], we wanted to know what that was.” So, for Blair and many of his peers, this was the giddy route into veganism. A couple of us from school took up this path of not eating meat. But it would be more like: Yo, I’m not gonna eat meat for a week.’”

  • If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.”  If Damian Marley sang about spirulina, we wanted to know what that was.” 

We head to Sunday night’s Dub Club. Located high above Kingston in the jungles of the Blue Mountains, it’s a musical mecca for Rastas across the globe. Through air heavy with ganja and overlooking a twinkling cityscape, devout Bobo Rastas in headscarves party in slow-mo alongside a local fashion crowd and reggae’s new school (a teensy Koffee can be spotted darting in and out of the crowd). 

It is a snapshot of Rastafarianism in 2019 Kingston. Blair and many like him identify a lot with the culture without fully committing themselves to the religion.

I make music, I write poetry, I wear crystals. I do a lot of things that Rastas do,” says Blair. But I don’t want to fall into the stereotype. Where people say: Let’s go get some Rasta food.’ No, I just wanna buss vegan food til it’s normal food.”

Blair is hell-bent on spreading his brand of inclusive veganism – Veggie Campus avoids all animal products but it does use salt. He’s set his sights on longer opening hours, selling bottled sauces and opening venues across town. Just as Skepta and Jme are introducing a plant-based lifestyle to a new crowd in London, Blair’s little black book of musicians are helping to do the same in Kingston. Veggie Campus recently catered the concerts of figureheads of reggae’s second coming, Chronixx and Protoje, along with a lot more grassroots music events.

Plus, they managed to scoop the gig of the year – Buju Banton’s breakout show. The godfather of dancehall and record-holder of most number-one singles in Jamaica was released from a seven-year stretch in a Florida prison on drugs and firearms charges earlier this year, and his Long Walk to Freedom concert is still on the lips of everyone in Kingston. 

Veggie Campus was there, repping its culture. The line for KFC was like five people and ours was like a hundred,” Brent Blair beams. Not only did they feed the fans, they served a dinner to Buju himself: We sent him a lovely plate of food.” Freedom never tasted so ital.

Kingston’s Top Ital Spots

MI HUNGRY

Kingstonians joke that this place got its name thanks to how long you’ll wait for your food. Which is ironic considering it’s a raw, or sun-cooked”, food joint. But the people keep on coming and the kitchen keeps delivering its own take on pizzas and burgers. Don’t miss the homemade cashew milk. And don’t come hungry. 

IBO SPICE

This is the all-immersive Rasta-dub experience just a few doors down from Rockers International Records in downtown Kingston. Perch where you can, underneath framed pictures of Haile Selassie and Bob Marley and next to massive pots bubbling on open flames. Put your trust in the man Ibo, hit a steam chalice (the original vape) and chat to the guy chopping tobacco leaves about the myriad health benefits of a plant-based diet.

THE CHEFFING DON

Tucked away off a main road just past Taboo, Kingston’s most beloved strip club, a tiny kitchen serves coconut shell bowls brimming with wholesomeness. A stream of locals come for takeaway but you can sit beneath palms and feast on green pressed plantain, black rice and salad doused in pineapple juice. For the uninitiated it’s a masterclass in the sophisticated complexities of good ital.

HOUSE OF DREAD

This is a Jamaican institution, partly for the food, partly because Bob Marley used to play football on the field next door. It’s a proper Rastafari spot where you can sample classics like sip (soup) and yatti (patty) and hopefully spy a reggae scene heavy-hitter like Chronixx, Protoje or Damian Marley while you’re there.

MARIANNA’S COMMUNITY KITCHEN

This relatively upmarket spot sits next to Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records restaurant in a busy foodie courtyard. Marianna is an Egyptian-Syrian from Greece who fell in love with Jamaican culture. It has a daily changing menu, an open kitchen and is almost certainly the only ital spot in Kingston that does brunch.


Loading...
00:00 / 00:00