aribbean food is king on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Walking on the strip between Eastern Parkway and Empire Boulevard, it’s common to see a cloud of smoke puffing from black barrels on the curb. Chefs at Jamaican take-out restaurants use this method to grill jerk chicken, an island staple, packing the small-sized meals into a white styrofoam box, with a side of rice and peas, fried sweet plantains, and cabbage. I like my jerk hot, so I always request extra sauce. Growing up as a first-generation Jamaican-American in Brooklyn meant food like this was always in walking distance.
Since the early 1900s, thousands of Jamaicans have left the island seeking economic stability, marking the beginning of the Jamaican diaspora in America, U.K, Canada, and beyond. The majority settled in melting-pot cities London, New York City, and Toronto; in the U.S., there’s a large population in South Florida, as well. Thanks to these movements, Jamaican cuisine is sprinkled throughout these regions, often in enclaves like Crown Heights, and the cuisine offered at take-outs in the diaspora generally remains true to the island’s foodways.
But now, the descendants of the Jamaican migration are breaking tradition. Over the past five years, there’s been a marked rise in “Jamaican-inspired” cuisine, food that pivots from the usual and targets a broader clientele. From a food truck with a growing presence in Miami, to one of the most eagerly awaited new restaurants in Washington, D.C. — Top Chef alum Kwame Onwuachi’s Kith and Kin, which opened last week — many chefs driving this upswell, like Onwuachi, are of a multicultural background or grew up in multicultural environments. They’re blurring the lines of Jamaican food tradition with Latin, Korean, Nigerian, and other Caribbean island dishes, and charting the future of Jamaican cuisine in the process.
A brief history of Jamaican cuisine
Jamaican cuisine has always been inspired by a mix of cultures. Jamaica’s official motto “Out of Many, One People” acknowledges the blend of the native Arawk and Taíno people, West Africans, Europeans, and Indian migrants. “It may appear ironic that of the many foods consumed by Jamaicans, only a small proportion are indigenous,” writes professor B.W. Higman in his 2008 book Jamaican Food History. “Most have their origins elsewhere.” The island’s foodways changed, in other words, following each wave of colonization and destruction.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in May 1494, native Tainos fought tirelessly to defend their land. In their 1998 book The Story of the Jamaican People, authors Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett outline the genocide that followed: “The settlers hunted the native people mercilessly, enslaved those they caught and worked them to death on farms and in unproductive mines.” After his death, Columbus’ eldest son, Diego, inherited the island. In December 1509, he named Juan de Esquivel as governor, and sent him to colonize Jamaica.
By 1515, Bartholomew Las Casas, a Dominican Friar, called for an end to Taino captivity as many died from disease and extreme labor. He requested enslaved Africans to work instead, believing their race made them immune to diseases. The Spanish king approved his bid.
Spain’s control of Jamaica began crumbling in May 1655 when the English took over the capital. Spanish leader Arnaldo Isasi fought back for five years with the help of Maroons, Africans who escaped captivity and built communities in Jamaica’s mountains, but by 1660, Isasi surrendered and left Jamaica. Free black communities, also known as palenques, continued to resist English power. In 1663, the English offered a treaty to a palenque in exchange for submission to English rule. But they objected. By 1670, Spain relinquished Jamaica to the English in the Treaty of Madrid.
As Higman extensively chronicles, each wave of colonization brought new food to the island. Bitter cassava was long part of the Taino’s diet; Tainos taught the Spanish, West Africans, and English their methods for draining the plant of its poisonous juice, making it suitable to eat. The legacy of these lessons lives on today in the bammy, a processed cassava flatbread, typically served fried or baked. The Tainos also used the endemic spice, pimento, known as Jamaican allspice, which remains a staple.
Sources also credit the Taino people with developing the cooking method behind jerk, one of the island’s biggest culinary exports. The Taino were the first to use allspice wood as a flavoring agent; during the 17th century, enslaved Africans made jerk hog by smoking the meat in pits, and also introduced the dish’s famous dry rub: The Maroons prepared jerk by rubbing the meat with salt, Scotch bonnet peppers, cinnamon, pimento, and other seasonings.
The English introduced food traditions, too, particularly breads and other baked goods, as Higman outlines. The Jamaican patty— filled with meat, seafood, or vegetables seasoned with garlic, thyme, salt, pimento, and Scotch bonnet pepper — is a spin on an English meat pie. Another item, the Jamaican spiced bun, is closely related to English hot cross buns: As early as 1870, Jamaicans ate hot cross buns, featuring currants and mixed ground spice, during the Easter holiday. But by the 1960s, it had evolved from individual cross-shaped buns into a loaf, often with cinnamon and often raisins. Today, Jamaicans eat these spiced buns with cheese, known as a “bun and cheese,” on Easter.
Enslaved West Africans were another big influence on Jamaica’s foodways. Higman suggests their knowledge about plantains made it one of the island’s essential foods as early as the 17th century. During the early 18th century, enslaved people produced plantain flour by drying and pounding it, later using it to make porridge or dumplings. In the 18th century, ackee, a West African poisonous fruit of the Sapindaceae family of plants, arrived in Jamaica, and is now a namesake ingredient in the country’s national dish, ackee and codfish.
The abolishment of slavery in 1834 led to more additions to Jamaican food culture. That same year, the government recruited people from Germany, Scotland, England, and Ireland to cultivate sugar plantations. But many new arrivals would eventually leave, or die from diseases. This led the British to bring indentured Indian workers to Jamaica between 1840s and 1910s. During this period, they faced harsh conditions and ridicule for practicing Hinduism and Islam. By the 1930s, Jamaican cuisine adopted curry goat, inspired by Indian cooking, and curry continues to have a place of pride in Jamaican cuisine.
The Chinese migrated in smaller numbers between 1854 and the 1880s, and they also faced difficult conditions and discrimination from the government and Afro-Jamaicans. While Jamaicans ate and cooked Chinese food, the two cuisines remained — and save for a few contemporary fusion restaurants, still remain — distinct from each other.
Meanwhile, the emergence of Rastafari, a religion founded in Jamaica in 1930, saw the spiritual belief system challenge the Jamaicans’ consumption of meat, flour, and rice. Rastafarians follow an Ital diet: raw, organic, and vegetarian, with no processed foods. Herbs and peppers serve as seasoning instead of salt; coconut or almond milk is consumed instead of dairy.
Looking to the future
After World War II, the Jamaican diaspora started to spread, first to Britain, then to America and Canada in the 1960s. As Jamaicans settled in new cities, they opened eateries to cater to the new Jamaican communities. Companies like Tower Isles, founded in 1968 in Brooklyn; Golden Krust, founded in 1989 in the Bronx; and Lloydies, a Jamaican food production company opened in Montreal in 1995, brought beef patties to supermarket frozen food aisles. And takeout restaurants serving jerk chicken, curry goat, and ackee and saltfish popped up in neighborhoods with a large Jamaican population, like Crown Heights; Jamaica, Queens; and Wakefield, Bronx.
Today in New York City, one relatively newer Jamaican dish, rasta pasta, an Italian-meets-Jamaican dish of penne pasta topped with seasoned vegetables, fish, or meat, has spread in the diaspora. The credit goes to chef Lorraine Washington, who first placed ackee on pasta at her restaurant in Negril, Jamaica, in 1985. The food has no relation to Rastafarian culture, but you can now find rasta pasta on menus in Toronto and New York.
But now, a new crop of chefs is picking up where Washington left off, trying their own hand at expanding the fusion that has defined Jamaican cuisine.
In Miami, chef Alex Torres blends Jamaican flavors with a different culinary perspective as the executive chef of the Fude Dude food truck. Torres and his wife Erica launched their first truck in 2013, serving up a menu that combined Jamaican and Puerto Rican influences: think jerk burgers; arroz con jerk, seasoned meat over saffron yellow rice; and loaded tostones, meat over fried plantains, cheese, peppers, and calypso sauce.
“I pulled from the major things I knew growing up,” says Torres, who was born in Jamaica and grew up watching his mother and grandmother, a restaurant owner, cook. Erica, who is Puerto Rican, offers advice about how to make dishes from her childhood.
Torres’s technique for jerking chicken combines Puerto Rican influences such as mojo marinade. “It brings a different flavor than what people are used to,” he says. “It’s much more citrusy, and it goes all the way down to the bone: It’s a much more potent marinade. So my chicken is going to be different than any other jerk chicken you’ve ever had.»
This August, Food Dude popped up at Wynwood Yard, a “pop-up outdoor entrepreneurial hub” in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. Food Dude also has a catering arm, which offers Caribbean food and a variety of other items, like pan-seared mahi mahi, chicken satay with mango chutney, and calamari served in sweet Thai chili sauce. Torres says his goal is to take his Latin-Jamaican fusion mainstream. “We’re doing it an authentic way, but also a contemporary way so everyone will be interested, not just Jamaicans,” he says.
In Philadelphia, the Spicy Belly has drawn attention since January for its Korean-Jamaican fusion. Co-owners and brothers Jimmy and Jason Mills created a menu inspired by the food their Korean mother cooked for their Jamaican father. When they moved to Philly and started exploring the food scene, they saw an opportunity. “We figured we have something that nobody can take away from us,” Jimmy says. “Let’s try to incorporate our Jamaican background and our Korean background to bring something that not only local foodies would enjoy, but people from outside the area would enjoy, as well.”
The brothers are both big fans of dumplings and jerk chicken. So offering jerk mandu, a riff on Korean dumplings filled with jerk chicken, was “a no-brainer,” Jason says. Mo-bay bibimbap features the expected bulgogi, kimchi, and egg over Jamaican coconut rice and peas. The aptly named “fusion burger,” meanwhile, features a dry-jerk-rubbed spicy pork belly burger served on a brioche bun.
And last week in Washington, D.C., Top Chef alum Kwame Onwuachi opened Kith and Kin, one of the year’s most anticipated restaurants, drawing from his Jamaican, Trinidadian, Nigerian, and Creole heritage. “The cuisine I’m doing isn’t just African or Caribbean,” Onwuachi says. “It is blending the two. I’ve always had influences from African and Caribbean cuisine, so it felt natural to bring the food to the forefront.”
This starting point, on paper at least, is not unlike the chef’s plans for the Shaw Bijou, his ill-fated fine dining debut that abruptly closed in January. After its closure, Onwuachi took time to reflect on his next culinary move, and he says musician Questlove, who hired Onwuachi to cook for one of his food salons, ended up being influential.
“He gave me the Impossible Burger meat,” Onwuachi says. “It’s a soy protein and vegetable protein burger that has the consistency of ground beef, and I made Jamaican beef patties with a calypso dipping sauce. It was a hit.” The Bronx native says those close to him encouraged him to make more of these dishes. “My friends and my family said, ‘Why don’t you cook like this in your new restaurant; this food is so good when you make this.’” These conversations inspired the restaurant’s name, Kith and Kin, which means friends and family.
And that’s what Onwuachi’s planning to do. He’ll be serving a Jamaica-inspired salmon belly escovitch, a Caribbean style of preparing fish, especially mackerel and kingfish, that traces back to Spanish’s escabeche. Trinidadian doubles will be on the menu. He’s also planning to serve West African jollof rice with spring onion confit, Nigerian red sauce, marinated tomatoes, and whipped ricotta.
During our conversation, I remind Onwuachi that the array of foods he enjoyed growing up isn’t everyone’s normal, and it’s not every day that diners can walk into a restaurant and order African and Caribbean foods side by side. The chef has a chance to amplify the conversation around Jamaican fusion. “I’m really happy to be part of it,” he says, “and being part of spreading the culture and opening people up to trying new things and breaking barriers. Hopefully this is the first of many restaurants that will do that.”
Natelegé Whaley is a culture journalist from Brooklyn, New York.