I was driving through the damp sweater of Jamaica’s summer heat with Roy Johnson, a k a Congo Ashanti, a founder of the Congos, whose 1977 album, “The Heart of the Congos,” is one of the finest vocal reggae albums ever cut. I was in Roy’s car for two reasons. First, the Congos made one of my favourite records of the year, the trancelike “Icon Give Thank.” And second, because while watching “Icon Eye,” the documentary about the making of the album, there were several scenes starring Ital food, the predominantly vegetarian diet of the Rastafarian faith. One day, the Congos’ recording session was fueled by a shake made of cooked pumpkin, peanuts and oats and spiced with nutmeg. Another scene focused on Winston Jones, a k a Drummerman, who runs an Ital food shop in Portmore, near the Congos’ studio. I had to go there.
A chief goal of the Ital diet is to enhance vitality — the root of its name. “The food we eat gives us the strength to sing the music that we sing,” Roy told me. Dairy, alcohol and meat are out; fish is permissible, and salt is eschewed by many. The diet is, in part, a rejection of what the Rastafari call the Babylon system, a way of life seen as oppressive and contrary to healthful living. In a supermarket, this takes the form of junk food, artificial seasonings and products of industrialized agriculture.
I ate nearly all of my Ital meals at Drummerman’s food shop, which is really a shack in the corner of his yard. Breakfasts were plastic bowls of neutral-coloured sludgy porridge served piping hot even on scorching Jamaican mornings. A blend of raw peanuts and oats (or sometimes bulgur, with the chance addition of puréed banana), and sweetened with a strong dose of brown sugar, it was flavorful and sustaining.
Lunch and dinner included vegetable staples of the Ital repertory: a dark stew of “veggie chunks” (textured vegetable protein) seasoned with allspice; a tangle of complexly flavoured cooked-down callaloo greens; a quick sauté of shredded white cabbage, scented with garlic, tossed with a garden mix of corn, lima beans, pumpkin shreds and more. A starch, like rice and peas, held down the rest of the serving. I also had a too-big helping of whole-wheat dumplings, little plugs of pan-cooked whole-wheat dough, which were moist and dense and perfect for sopping up with.
Juices, a steady component of the Ital diet, were also excellent. Tart plum juice, tamed with sugar and ginger and a touch of lime, was my favourite. “Average people in Jamaica don’t eat from Rasta, don’t drink from Rasta,” Roy told me one languorous afternoon. “And we don’t rush them. But they don’t know what they’re missing.”
Source: New York Times Magazine