African Retentions in Jamaican Foods

Out of many one people is Jamaica’s motto which speaks to diversity in our apparel, language, appearance and food. Our food reflects the rich mixture of different cultures and over the year various methods have been used to enhance what Jamaicans have learned from ancestors. While traditional methods of foods preparation have been maintained by some ethnic groups, in many cases the recipes have become Jamacanized. Each ethnic group is traditionally associated with particular foods and methods of preparation which is uniquely theirs, although now shared by others. For example, curried dishes are associated with Indians; sweet and sour with the Chinese; and ground provision, soups and stews with the Africans. Our African ancestors came to Jamaica as slaves and indentured labourers to work on plantations. The African influence on our eating habits is far reaching, though not obvious. They brought with them several foods that were successfully cultivated in a climate similar to that of West Africa, as well as their dietary habits, their ways of preparing foods and designations of these foods.

One such food is the ackee that was brought to Jamaica in 1778. Originating in West Africa, the name ackee is from the Twi language of Ghana.The first ackee was taken from Jamaica to London by Captain William Bligh and in 1806 it was officially given the botanical name Blighia Sapida in his honour. The ackee is nowJamaica’s national fruit. The unripe fruit contains a poison called hypoglycin; therefore the pod should open naturally before it is eaten. Although it is a fruit, it is used like a vegetable in Caribbean cooking.  It is found throughout the Caribbean, but has been most abundantly cultivated in Jamaica,where it is regarded as a component of the dish, ackee and salt fish. Additionally, both the fruit and tree have various uses in traditional medicine; the leaves are boiled to make teas, alleged to cure colds or rub for pain.  The fruits and husk are used with water to produce lather for washing and the pulverized ackee seeds are used as fish poison. In Africa, the Krobo of Ghana use the unripe fruit to produce lather; in areas of northern Nigeria the seeds and the husk are also used for soap making

Another Jamaican dish is the Ackra or Akara, a flat cake like fritter made from Black eye – peas.  This is a traditional Yoruba dish; The Yoruba people of Nigeria, Dahomey and Toga are very fond of Akara.  Akara is prepared from black eyed peas paste which is whipped to a light, spongy texture and seasoned with onion and pepper. In Jamaica, annatto is also added to the mixture. It is then deep – fried to make a light fritter or muffin. The fritters are eaten along with agidi or by themselves.

Another popular traditional African Jamaican food is the tie-a -leaf or dokunu or blue draws, which is known in Ghana as kenkey or dokunu. Dokunu is a boiled pudding which can be made from cornmeal, green bananas or sweet potatoes with the combination of spice, coconut milk and sweetened with sugar.  The mixed ingredients are added to softened banana leaf that is tied then placed in hot water to boil hence its other names, blue drawers and tie-a-leaf.

 Dokunu                                                                       Dokunu


The kola nut tree is native to Tropical West Africa and was brought to Jamaica on a slave ship from Guinea in the 1680s. The term kola nut is also called bissy or obi in Jamaica.  Our ancestors in West Africa “associate the nut in religious rites, initiation ceremonies, property rights, diplomatic relations and as a symbol of hospitality” (Senior, 270). In Jamaica, bissy or obi is also an indispensable item of hospitality at Ettu ceremonies. Cola comes in cotyledons and whoever shares in eating it is regarded as a friend. The Ettu usually grind cola into powder   before sharing it (Adetugbo, 58).

In rural Jamaica, dried bissi can be found in homes and is readily available to treat cuts, erectile dysfunction, diarrhoea, upset stomach and other ailments, but most importantly as an antidote to poison. It is also used as tea, in porridges and soft drinks.

 Kola nuts                                                                       Kola nuts


The Ettu people of Jamaica use yams to make fufu, which is also used in the dinner play ceremony.  Fufu is a West Africa meal that consists of staple food eaten with stew. Made from yam, breadfruit, plantain, or cassava, it is boiled and then pounded in a mortar; the fufu is made into balls and dipped in stew, sauce or put into soup. In Africa, it is considered a delicacy as it is very filling and only eaten at noon or in the evening. It is said that one of the tastiest fufu is the combination of coco-yam or plantain with cassava.


Fufu                                                                      Fufu   

 Coffee was originally from the highlands of Ethiopia and came to Jamaica via Europe in 1728 when a former governor, Sir Nicholas Laws planted it on his estate in Temple Hall, St. Andrew. The coffee was also planted throughout the island between 1730-1768 in St. Thomas, Manchester, the Blue Mountains, St. Ann and St. Elizabeth. Presently, there are over nine thousand coffee plants in Jamaica. Coffee is used to flavour beverages, pastry, ice cream and other desserts.

One pot meals in the form of soups reflect a strong African influence.  To many Jamaicans soup is a meal in itself rather than a preliminary dish, as is in the European tradition. One such meal that has been passed down generations by the Maroons is the Cacoon soup and dish. This is made from a nut borne on the vine of the same name. The kakoon (cacoon or rampant vine), bears one of the largest bean pods and can be found in wet areas. After falling from the tree, the dry pod is collected, placed in the fire, taken out after giving off a popping sound, and pounded to extract the kernel. The kernel is sliced into quarter inch strips and placed in a bundle made from the fronds of a giant fern known as ferril macca; the bundle is then placed in the river for three days. The kakoon or cocoon is removed, salted and can be eaten without being cooked.  Prepared with black junga, a type of shrimp found in the springs, it makes both a stew and a soup.  Many soups use ground provisions to add texture and taste.

Ground provisions such as yams are important in the diet of Jamaicans. The word yam is derived from the African word ‘nyam’ which means ‘to eat’.  The various kinds of yams in Jamaica were brought from Africa in slave ships as these could survive the long voyage and combat scurvy in a sailor as it is rich in vitamin C.  Although there are over 600 species of yams, only a small number of these are edible. African names for the edible yams still persist; and some of the most common ones include the yellow yam know by its African name afu of Twi origin. The word afu  is the Twi word for plantation or cultivated ground. A second type is the akam, which is small wild variety which is only eaten when other food is scarce and is also of Twi origin.  A third kind of yam is called pum-pum, a variety that is referred to as ‘stumpy’ yam. The Twi word pum-pum means to swell.  In Africa, yam may be boiled, or roasted and then mashed with palm or kernel oil. The usage of this plant in Africa are very similar to it usage in Jamaica.

The Guinea corn is native to Sub-Saharan Africa and was brought to Jamaica on the slave ships. Guinea corn have been cultivated in Jamaica, and played a significant role in the diet and domestic life of the countryman. Today, the corn is be eaten on the cob, boiled or roasted while the grains are used in various dishes. One such dish is the agidi, which is distinctly of Yoruba origin. According to Adetugbo, “this is a solid starch food made from corn and the preparation in Jamaica is about the same as in Nigeria. The corn is shelled, soaked in water to soften it, grated or blended into pap with its fermented water drained, and then the pap is put inside the banana leaves and then steamed in a pot.”

 The Jamaican cuisine can be found all over the world. Our authentic food and cooking techniques that date back to Africa are still being used. It is said that variety is the spice of life; our African ancestors have left their roots in agriculture and foods so that Jamaicans can create their own unique blend and taste of the cuisine.





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