Jamaica’s natural food movement

Rastafarianism is a social and religious movement in Jamaica whose followers have been riding the health and wellness train for decades. “Rastas are often stereotyped as useless beings who sit around and smoke marijuana all day and do nothing, but it’s actually quite the contrary, as we try to live very conscious and holistic lives,” explains Rasta chef Michael Gordon, owner of the vegan restaurant Ital Kitchen in Brooklyn. That consciousness is rooted in the principles of Ital, a wellness philosophy that is beginning to gain traction in the US, which embraces living as close to nature as possible.

The food and philosophy

Rastas believe in the concept of livity, the idea that plants, humans, and animals are all connected, explains Rasta farmer Christopher Binns, co-founder of Stush in the Bush, a farm-to-table restaurant on a 15-acre farm in St. Ann, Jamaica. One way to increase livity is by eating minimally-processed (and preferably vegan) foods. For example, at Kith and Kin in Washington, DC, Top Chef alum Kwame Owuachi draws from his Jamaican heritage and uses soy-based patties for his burgers.

Typical Ital meals are curries and stews, filled with local ingredients like callaloo (a veggie that’s similar to collard greens), plantains, jackfruit (a meaty fruit that contains protein, vitamins B and C), scotch bonnet peppers (Caribbean chili peppers), carrots, okra, coconut milk, and fresh herbs. Jamaican rice and peas, which is actually seasoned rice and red kidney beans, is also common, says Binns. Fresh juices and smoothies are popular as well, made from both local island fruits like sorrel (a red hibiscus plant that is rich in antioxidants and vitamins B and C), and more common ingredients like papaya, pineapple, and bananas.

But really, particular foods aside, eating Ital has a larger environmental and spiritual component. “Everyone’s using the word organic now, but we’ve never talked about organic farming. We talk about Ital farming, which is the idea that you can create a rich Earth, a holistic environment where the plants and animals take care of each other,” explains Binns. Ital farmers raise animals not for killing, he explains, but to boost soil fertility, and to perform natural functions on their farms, such as composting, that help create really healthy microbial environments. “The idea is that everything is part of a cycle, and we are all connected. So to eat Ital is to honor life’s natural cycle.”

How to get started

“If you want to live an Ital-inspired life in a city, I say just plant a seed, man,” advises Gordon. You can grow them on your windowsill, or on your rooftop if you have outdoor space. “Just get your hands dirty a little bit, get in tune with the soil, and you’ll enjoy it. Watching the natural growth process of your own food is a real pleasure and it will inspire you to seek out other natural foods, too.”

Another way to tap into big-picture Ital energy is to make a point to get out into nature as much as you can. Simply heading out into the closest park will do the job. And on the weekends, venture out to go hiking or biking. “Wherever you can find green spaces, go to them. Your head space will get clearer, you’ll breathe better, and you’ll be reminded that we are all one,” says Binns.