When you think of Jamaican food, there are certain meals that come to mind. For me, it ranges from succulent curry goat with rice and peas and mouth-watering ackee and saltfish, to your quintessential jerk chicken and escovitch fish.
While they are all, admittedly, very tasty, there is so much more to Jamaican food than the meat and fish dishes associated with it – particularly, one plant-based diet that prioritises health – both spiritual and physical – over anything else.
The Ital diet is a way of eating that originated from the Rastafarian religion, developed in Jamaica in the 1930s.
The diet consists mainly of vegetables and unprocessed foods, as rastas believe strongly in the spiritual concept of “livity” – a belief that an energy force granted by Almighty Jah (God) flows through all living things.
As a result, most followers of the Ital diet eat clean and natural food and strongly believe the diet is better for the human body, the planet and can help increase liveliness and draw them closer to Jah.
“Growing up, I was familiar with the Ital diet and grew up eating a lot of steamed veg and callaloo without any meat in it,” says vegan chef Denai Moore.
Moore, who is of Jamaican heritage, began her journey with veganism in 2015 but grew up with an understanding of the Ital diet and eating the various fruits and vegetables which are found within it.
“I’m actually very thankful for my upbringing in Jamaica, where I was very connected to food and where it came from at a young age,” she says.
This natural way of living and eating is a key aspect of Ital cooking, as those who follow the diet don’t eat meat or animal products, such as milk and eggs, in a bid to be fully nourished, healthy and live spiritually.
While the diet can be both vegan and vegetarian, there are key products that are consumed within the Ital diet. Things like lentils, beans and alkaline foods including spinach and broccoli, almonds and peanuts are staples along with salads, carrots and beets due to being pure and directly from the earth.
Even stricter followers of the Ital diet avoid eating food that has been preserved by canning or drying and avoid cooking with added salt.
“Even before becoming a vegan I was surrounded by quite a few elder vegans and followers of the Ital diet and it really opened my eyes,” says vegan food blogger Ebony Williams, who has been following a plant-based diet for two years.
“As I’ve been vegan I’ve actually started to steer away from processed foods and the more I’m exposed to the Ital diet and have been sticking to a strict vegan diet, the more I can say it has been one of the best decisions I’ve made,” she says.
Leonard Howell, one of the key figures in the Rastafari movement, is thought to have introduced the concept of a plant-based diet to the Rastafari community after being intrigued by Hindu practices and the diet of Indian indentured labourers in Jamaica.
More than 36,000 Indians came to Jamaica as indentured labourers between 1845 and 1921 and they introduced numerous plants and trees to the island, including tamarind, jackfruit, mangos and betel leaves.
This almost century-old diet has strong spiritual practices among Rastafarians and also deep roots in veganism as a whole – a movement that has gained popularity in the West but rarely acknowledges its prominence in diets among people of colour.
After all, the earliest records of vegetarianism as a concept came from ancient India, particularly among the Hindus and Jains, while one of the earliest known vegans was the Arab poet al-Maʿarri (c. 973-1057), way before the phrase was coined by Donald Watson in 1944.
“I still think there isn’t enough representation in the mainstream,” says Moore. “Just to think about all the POC cultures that have been eating without meat decades before ‘veganism’ was a term. I think that’s where social media steps in, allowing POC chefs/influencers to navigate their own platform.”
The concepts and dishes within Ital cooking are found in mainstream veganism which continues to gain traction today, but the vegan movement rarely sees Black and brown people flourish in these spaces to the same extent as their white counterparts – despite the historic traditions many many POC communities have with non-meat diets.
“People can see veganism as a new thing, but for many Caribbeans, it’s been a way of life for a while,” says Jordan Johnson, founder of vegan Caribbean takeaway Jam Delish.
Johnson founded the business in 2020 and has found an increased demand for Caribbean vegan dishes, and a desire to see more people of colour represented within mainstream vegan culture.
“People tend to think of veganism as yoga mums or something along those lines, but that’s not the case at all,” he said.
Ital cooking and the plant-based diets originated by people of colour over the years have arguably been the foundation of the vegan movement we see today – and while the representations of POC within the mainstream remain limited, we are seeing this slowly begin to change.
“Due to social media, I have been able to connect and speak to a lot of people of colour regarding the vegan movement,” says Williams. “It can be a shock to some people that I am vegan – but I am not alone and there are many others out there who are also on this journey to better their health, their diets and also the broader issue of helping the planet and animals.”
“Over the last year, a lot of the vegan influencers I know – people who have thousands of followers – are shedding more light on veganism as something that’s not just a white person’s movement and are highlighting that it’s been around for a long time in some way or another, with the Ital diet being one clear example,” says Johnson.
“The term veganism may be new but the actual concept behind it lies with us.”
Images: Denai Moore, Ebony Williams, Jam Delish