Traditional Jamaican Sweets
To tell the story of traditional Jamaican sweets, our journey begins under the blistering hot sun of a Jamaican sugar plantation and ends in the gritty urban streets and picturesque country markets of today's Jamaica.
The commercial production of sugar cane in the British Isles changed the world's diet, which created a sugar boom and fuelled the demand for a regular supply of slaves, which would continue until legislation was passed for the abolition of slavery in the British West Indian colonies in 1833. Simultaneously, within the plantations themselves a whole new world of possibilities opened up in the kitchens, the slave yards, and the brick ovens of Creole and slave society.
To address this era from a culinary perspective we must examine the fact that coexisting side by side were two completely different worlds, parallel realities that had different interpretations of the same ingredients resulting in a variety of manifestations or versions of the same thing. So we developed sweet treats that were comprised of whatever was available, the basic ingredients of which were always the same — sugar (molasses, wet sugar, brown or white), nuts, seeds or fruit (peanuts, cashews, sesame, coconut, tamarind) and spices. And the variety, the flavours and the names that we call them are as colourful, vibrant and unique as the Jamaican women who made them — names like wangla (a sesame seed cake), pinda-cake, gizzada or pinch me round, chip chip or cut cake, grater cake and tooloom.
An examination of the earliest known publication on Jamaican cookery written by Caroline Sullivan in 1893 called The Jamaica Cookery Book — 312 simple cookery recipes and household hints — reveals some interesting insights about how these commonplace ingredients were put to use in both the plantation kitchen and the "native" kitchen. In fact it is the presence, or in some cases lack thereof, of some of these early versions of certain sweet treats that is the most telling.
The fact that these foods that were so popular locally yet still unrepresented further is evidence
of the fact that most, if not all, of these recipes were passed down orally, mother to daughter, hand to hand in Jamaican kitchens and largely explains their dying popularity and the demise of this type of candy making as a local cultural tradition in the Jamaica of today. In Jamaica of the mid-1800s the production, sale and consumption of local sweet treats (both rustic and refined) was commonplace and a part of the fabric of local villages, rural towns and most importantly, the "big city" of Kingston.
With full freedom in 1838 and the birth of the Jamaican entrepreneur, women took the lead. Sugar was available and it was cheap; coconuts were abundant, ginger and nutmeg could be farmed and thus began the life of the Jamaican candy seller. While the men stayed home and farmed on land they captured creating small mountain communities, the women took the produce and headed to the market to sell. And sell they did; and they were prepared to walk as far and as wide as they had to to hawk their wares.
Today, in our era of globalisation and modernisation we, like so many other societies the world over, have lost much of these traditions that so defined the basis of our unique culture. The shelves of our stores are now graced with imported candies, and the palates of our youth have changed. Few and far between are candy sellers who sell their original local versions of the sweets and, yes, our female entrepreneur is still out there selling, in the schools and the church yards and on the streets.
That said, there is always hope on the horizon; the hope that we can take some of these old-world traditions into the future and that we will be able to revive our culinary heritage while simultaneously creating new, authentic, and culturally relevant traditions that honour our heritage but also represent the people who we are today. While we cannot dwell in the past, a well-informed past can only make for a brighter and more enlightened future. As a society we must reawaken our palates with REAL food, authentically prepared using fresh local ingredients. We share with you here some simple ways to take these traditional tastes in a new direction.
Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau are epicurean adventurists and self-avowed Caribbean-ophiles. Their show, Two Sisters and a Meal, airs Sundays at 5:30 on TVJ with repeats on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. Their first book Caribbean Potluck will be published in May by Kyle Books, UK and their web series Island Potluck can be viewed at twosistersandameal.com.
Coconut Drops Recipe courtesy of Polrich. Makes 12 servings.
4 cups diced coconuts (use
liquid measuring cup)
2 tbsp grated ginger root
2 lbs brown sugar
1 pinch salt
Combine all ingredients putting sufficient water to cook coconut (about 3⁄4 - 1 cup).
Boil until very sticky (about 30 - 40 minutes). Start dropping by spoonful on a greased tin sheet or on wax paper.
Keep tipping a little water in the pot to keep it from getting hard before it’s finished dropping.
Traditional Blue Drawers
2 cups cornmeal
1⁄2 tsp salt
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1⁄2 tsp grated nutmeg
1⁄2 tsp mixed spice
1⁄2 tsp cinnamon powder
1⁄4 cup raisins
1⁄4 cup grated coconut
11⁄2 cups coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla
Banana leaves, aluminium foil, banana bark or string
Mix all dry ingredients and
grated coconut together. Add
coconut milk and vanilla, and
mix well. Place about 1⁄2 cup
of mixture unto the banana
leaf or foil. Fold up the sides
to make a secure parcel. Tie
with banana bark or string.
Drop into boiling water.
There should be enough
water to cover the parcels.
Simmer for about an hour.
Remove banana leaves