The word Rasta probably conjures up images of dreadlocks, the Jamaican flag and the beat of reggae music, but food may not immediately spring to mind.
Rastafarianism includes a specific way of eating. ©Shutterstock/rj lerich
What is the first thing you think of when the Rastafarian movement is mentioned? A lion-like mane hanging loose or tucked into a coloured cap, plumes of marijuana slowly rising from an enormous joint, and reggae music? Why not a garden bursting with fruit and vegetables? Rastafarian followers of Jah (i.e. God) adopt a particular way of eating, called ital, based on fresh, organic and preferably homegrown produce. Processed and tinned food, as well as any other products they believe to be ‘contaminated’ by preservatives or other additives, are off limits.
Rastafarian philosophy is to remain close to nature and to respect all forms of animal and plant life. Therefore, the vast majority of followers are vegetarians and, although they do not eat meat, some do allow fish. The Bible forms the basis of Rastafarian beliefs and, in fact, some Rasta food choices are based on the Holy Scriptures. A passage from Genesis serves as an example of this ideology: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
Taken to the extreme, the Rastafarian diet does not permit anything that grows on a vine. In any case, alcohol is forbidden. Also, rather than using salt, herbs and spices are added to food to enhance its aromas and flavours.
Increasing ‘life energy’
What is the reasoning behind this way of eating? To achieve a pure and healthy body, filled with ‘positive vibrations’. The aim of healthy eating, using the freshest and most natural food possible, is to increase livity, or ‘life energy’, in Rasta terminology. Meat is considered to be dead food so it does not fulfil these criteria and, according to Rastafarian belief, consuming it turns the body into a ‘cemetery’.
Adding the word ital (derived from ‘vital’) shows that a dish has been prepared according to the teachings of the disciples of Jah (ital soup, ital omelette, etc.) and sometimes the ingredients used in Rastafarian cooking are given the prefix ’i’, for example i-bananas, i-peppers, i-pumpkins, etc.
Ital cuisine is an important element of Rasta culture. Many reggae songs refer to it, for example ‘No Bones No Blood’ by Lutan Fyah or ‘Wha Me Eat’ by Macka B. In the video of this latter song, we see the singer in a restaurant refusing a dish that does not comply with his eating habits. He then takes over the kitchen and gives generous portions of ital food to all the other diners.
According to its supporters, ital food does not just lift the soul, it is also believed to be a way of achieving independence and self-sufficiency. “[In Jamaica,] Rastas set up a scheme to use locally-sourced fruit, vegetables and plants in order to reduce dependence on imported food. They started to make dishes from yams, plantain bananas, callaloo, chocho and a wide variety of local produce which, in fact, slaves used to eat.”1 Garden vegetables constituted the main courses, while medicinal plants served as remedies. These days, Rastas still take pride in growing their own produce on small plots of land to feel close to nature. Orette, talks of the small fruit garden in the Culture Yard (Kingston, Jamaica): “What is my life like? I plant and then harvest what the earth gives us.” She goes on to say, “You know, being a Rasta is no longer just a belief, it’s a livity, a way of life. It means being a humble part of the great natural cycle.”2
A laid-back way of eating
Although there are guidelines for the ital way of eating, and more generally for the Rastafarian way of life, followers do not see it as a restrictive dogma they must absolutely adhere to in order to be a ‘good Rasta’. Everyone is free to adopt and adapt the basic principles according to how they feel and to their personal convictions. Levi Roots, the Jamaican-born musician who became famous thanks to his bottles of Reggae Reggae Sauce, has launched a line of snacks and ready meals in Great Britain. Ras Mokko, a Jamaican chef who stars in the cookery show ‘Ras Kitchen’, includes chicken and different kinds of fish in his dishes. Surprisingly, he adds powdered chicken flavouring to his ital soup, but does not use salt, which he believes is harmful to health and curbs appetite. “Salt rots your bones, it’s not good and gives you blood pressure! Some wicked f**kin’ pain all over your body, in your stomach… and when you don’t eat the salt, you can eat more of the food; more, because your food is not salty. When it’s full of salt, you can’t eat salt food. No man!”3
Ital provides recommendations that can be interpreted quite freely and, since Rastafarian ethics advocate community and tolerance, followers would never judge the practices of their ‘brothers’.
We grow good quality fruit and vegetables on our smallholding and are aiming to become self-sufficient. I haven’t given up my job yet, but I’m thinking about it. Agriculture plays an important role in my livity, because touching the earth is like praying. Earth is life, it’s the Mother of all things… and farming is sacred work. Is my produce organic? I don’t really like the word ‘organic’ as I think it is now just a label on supermarket shelves. I would rather describe my food as simple and spontaneous [from within].”