Gourmet Rastafari: Eat. Pray. Love your Veggies

Rastas have always eaten healthy, natural food – and now it’s gone gourmet. Nazma Muller takes an ital tour of Kingston

Alfred “Ibby” Brissett Jr at his recently opened Veggie Meals on Wheels. Photograph by Stuart Smellie (Equilibrium Photography)Café Africa attempts to reintroduce Jamaicans to authentic African cuisine. Photograph by Stuart Smellie (Equilibrium Photography)New Leaf Restaurant’s all-vegetarian menu. Photograph by Stuart Smellie (Equilibrium Photography)Sugarcane with cold chocolate syrup is a deliberate nod to Africa’s bittersweet history with the crop. Photograph by Stuart Smellie (Equilibrium Photography)Sushi without the fish: At Fire Light, the sushi is “live” and made from sunflower seeds, cucumbers, carrots, sweet pepper and avocado. Photograph by Stuart Smellie (Equilibrium Photography)

In the kitchen of a lovely old house on Maeven Avenue, off Hope Road in Kingston, a young chef called Ben Tsedek is preparing a few dishes on a Saturday afternoon. He whips out a knife, and within half an hour he has produced a meal – without a stove. The menu consists of mustard-greens salad, live vegan sushi, dehydrated plantain and coconut pasta.

Tsedek, 29, is one of the many chefs in Jamaica who are leading the rapidly growing vegan/vegetarian movement on the island.

The self-taught “live food” chef, who returned to Jamaica after 12 years in the US, has been quietly making Fire Light Gourmet Vegan Restaurant a haven for foodies who understand the power of raw food. Over the last year and a half, word has spread about his curried mushrooms, hummus, pak choi quiche, couscous, Indian pilau, ackee-walnut nut meat and broccoli cauliflower, which a consultant psychiatrist at the nearby university swears is her favourite dish. Fire Light’s “grab-and-go dehydrates” menu includes Garvey Burgers (mushroom and ackee), Zion Fruit Pies and Lioness Plantain Fries. Meanwhile, the juice bar serves up seasonal concoctions like june plum pine, beetroot carrot, guava pine and apple pine, as well as smoothies with names like Banana Heaven and Papaya Dream. And for dessert? You guessed it: fruit and nut ice cream.

Tsedek, who plays roots and reggae music, has been influenced by the Rastafari movement, of course. Because long before there was “organic”, there was ital. Remember, in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were still living it up in Paradise, everything was ital: natural. These days, more and more people are waking up and smelling the coffee – and it’s ethically produced and organic. As the message “you are what you eat” sinks in, the enlightened foodie is turning away from processed food and turning vegetarian or vegan.

Long before the West woke up to the dangers of pesticides and fertilisers in crops, the Rastafari of Jamaica had declared, “Fire fi de chemical dem!” Rastafarians have been preaching that “ital is vital” for donkey’s years, and natural living is second nature to these worshippers of Mother Nature. Although the aroma of sizzling jerk pork and pan chicken is a constant reminder of Jamaica’s many carnivorous options, vegetarians (lacto-, ovo- and otherwise), vegans and aspiring health nuts alike will find dozens of restaurants and roadside stalls across the island doing things to veggies that make you go mmmm.

Perish the thought of tasteless tofu and bland beetroots. Ital stews – such as that served up by King Ital restaurant in Cross Roads, Kingston – come packed with as much flavour as “baldhead” (non-Rasta)  food – courtesy of local seasoning herbs like pimento (allspice), thyme (a great salt substitute) and scallion, plus some fiery Scotch bonnet pepper, coconut milk, garlic, onions, green peppers and tomatoes.

Rastafarians prepare their food in an almost spiritual manner, believing that ital food increases their “livity”, or life energy, which they believe is within all living things. Well-known dub poet Mutabaruka, who has been preaching about the raw-food revolution for decades, and hasn’t worn shoes for more than 30 years (one way of staying “grounded”, he says), had the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain over for lunch a few years ago. Muta prepared his typical lunch of garden salad, bulgar rice, pak choi, and raw ackee seasoned with garlic, cayenne pepper and virgin coconut oil. For extra flavour, add olives and/or raisins. (Breakfast is usually “power” porridge: pumpkin seeds blended with sesame tahini, coconut water, ripe bananas, pawpaw and mango.)

Young chef Alfred “Ibby” Brissett Jr has brought his brand of livity to Cross Roads, where uptown and downtown Kingston meet. At 33, Ibby is a veteran vegetarian restaurateur, having been a co-owner and the chef at Livity, which made quite a name for itself in a few short years before closing down. He recently opened Veggie Meals on Wheels, as part of Africa Village, a green retreat tucked away in a corner of the Regal Plaza in the always-busy Cross Roads. It is a refreshing symbol of green living, with its riot of Rastafarian flags and tree stumps, recycled tyres, blooming plants, burlap bags and bamboo.

In addition to raising consciousness, Ibby has done the seemingly impossible: he’s given tofu a makeover. His menu, which changes daily, with a two-week rotation, includes pineapple tofu, barbecue tofu, jerk tofu, sweet and sour tofu, tofu and broccoli, tofu chop suey, brown stew tofu and a tofu wrap (with ackee and greens). You could conceivably spend months here without tasting everything since there’s also Rasta Pasta, veggie wraps, curried channa, veggie chilli, pasta pad thai, ackee with strips of sweet potato, and what he calls his Reggae Globe (a veggie ball), as well as an array of “sips” (soup).

Just across the dirt path is Café Africa. Here, the Kingston division of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) is attempting to reintroduce Jamaicans to authentic continental African cuisine. African, Blue Mountain, and Organo Gold gourmet coffees are served with a mix of dishes from across the continent. A Nigerian chef prepares vegetarian appetizers like Nzidi Choma (East African-style roast bananas) and Shrimp Akara (from Nigeria); and an excellent range of fish dishes from Zanzibar, Tanzania, Senegal, Congo and Benin.

Samaki wa Kukuango, the Tanzanian recipe for steamed fish with tomatoes and onions, is a winner, while Dongo Dongo, the father of Louisiana’s gumbo, is a deliciously gooey stew from the Congo. Sides include Jollof Rice from West Africa, M’chicha (East African callaloo with peanut), Wali wa Nazi (Tanzanian yellow coconut rice), Kachumbari (a spicy raw vegetarian salad tossed in lime juice, from Kenya), and the surprisingly flavourful fufu (West African pounded cassava).

Café Africa’s original dessert of sugarcane with cold chocolate syrup is a deliberate nod to Africa’s bittersweet history with the crop. Food for thought includes images of African leaders, from Lumumba to Nkrumah, as well as groovy music from the continent.

Paul Shoucair, owner of New Leaf Restaurant in Lane Plaza, Liguanea, is not a Rastafarian but he is just as conscious of the benefits of vegetarian cuisine. He’s been luring the traditionally meat-loving Jamaican public away from chicken and beef in an innovative way. His concept is simple: healthy, vegetarian fast food. “I am going after the mainstream market,” he explained. “I want New Leaf to be thought of in the same way as KFC, Wendy’s and Popeye’s. You must be able to run in here and out in five minutes.”

So what he’s done is come up with seven dishes that are scrumptious alternatives to traditional meat dishes, like chili sin carne, New Leaf Burger, doubles (from Trinidad), a falafel platter, Jamaican Jerk Pasta, Vital Stir Fry, and Roasted Vegetable Panini. “Ninety per cent of my customers are not vegetarian,” he boasts. And it’s easy enough to see how even the most hardened carnivore could be seduced into eating his beautifully presented chili sin carne, with red and black beans in tomato sauce, served with crispy garlic bread; or flame-roasted red pepper and zucchini topped with red onions, black olives and mushrooms, on a wholewheat baguette.

For the most sublime ital lunch, and the wickedest soursop juice in the capital, visit Dr Spice on Barbican Road, between Lane Plaza and Sovereign Centre. A word of caution: fast for a few hours before visiting Dr Spice, or wear loose pants. Otherwise, you may have to undo a few buttons after the ackee, pumpkin rice, stew tofu or whatever the maestro has whipped up in his tiny kitchen.

At the humble House of Dread in Vineyard Town, local dishes are prepared daily, the delicate flavours prepared without salt or any of the powdered seasoning loved by Jamaican cooks.

At Ashanti’s Oasis in the Pulse Complex on Trafalgar Road in New Kingston, ital has gone gourmet. The fruit and vegetable juices are all natural; the soups, vegetarian wraps and veggie burgers are all created from scratch, with all-natural seasonings and ingredients.

Meanwhile, Harry Joseph has given a whole new meaning to the phrase “liquid lunch”. On Grove Road in Kingston, in the Kencot area, Joseph is known as a “magnum specialist” –  magnum referring to a local brand of tonic wine that promises sexual fulfilment. For decades, the red, gold and green shop has been patronised by all manner of men. Corporate power brokers, taxi drivers, entertainers and Rastafari have all frequented Joseph, procurer of the famous “front-end lifter”, whose ingredients include natural aphrodisiacs – a variety of secret roots and herbs.

This “liquid Viagra” is a big hit, and on any given day you will find a steady stream of customers at the small shop, all eager to get their hands on the magic potion. The recipe is a secret, and no one asks the ingredients. They all glug it down quickly, smack their lips and bounce out of the door – with a smile.