Though dreadlocks and reggae music are the familiar symbols of the Rastafari religion, the lesser-known style of eating its followers adhere to is more telling of the belief system. To stay healthy and spiritually connected to the earth, Rastas eat a natural diet free from additives, chemicals, and most meat.
The style of primarily vegan eating is known as ital cooking. Rastas commonly say, “Ital is vital,” pointing to how the diet got its name.
The Rastafari religion and political movement was born in Jamaica in the 1930s and promoted an African-centric way of looking at the Bible. It has since fanned out across the Caribbean and beyond to over a million followers, the most famous of which was the late reggae singer Bob Marley. Rastas are commonly called Locksmen and Dreadlocks, as they believe God (Jah) instructed them to to never cut their hair.
Daniel “Nashamba-I” Crabble hasn’t cut his hair in decades. His dreads touch the floor, so he wraps them around his head to keep the weight off his neck and out of the way when cooking. A master of ital cooking, Nashamba-I converted to the Rastafari religion as a young man and now farms a couple of steep acres on the western side of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We don’t use the word ‘cook’, since they use things like butter and salt,” Nashamba-I explains to me in the kitchen of his green-colored home with red and gold accents—official Rastafari colors. He says I can call him an “ital dubmaster,” which is the title he uses on his catering company’s business card.
Traditionally speaking, dubmasters are skilled producers of dub music, a subgenre of reggae that’s typified by remixing songs to focus on drum and bass. But Nashamba-I uses the title figuratively, perhaps to signify his creative cooking methods.
Today, he’s baking organic, vegan cakes made from banana, coconut, almond, and flaxseed—a healthy remix of a traditional cake.
Rastas believe eating pure, organic food increases one’s natural connection with nature. And getting that food directly from the land is just one more way they strengthen that bond.
In recent years, ital cooking has become more popular as interest in health food grows and new restaurants serving ital-inspired food have sprouted up in places like New York and London.
Eating naturally is both a spiritual and practical matter for Rastas: The healthier you eat, the less you have to see a doctor—a concept just now catching on in the mainstream. As processed foods were being introduced in the 1950s, Rastas took a firm stand against them even before research proved how unhealthy they can be (see Do Corn Subsidies Really Make Us Fat?)
Staying away from processed food keeps Rastas away from Western medicine, another thing the religion avoids. “Let the food be your doctor,” Nashamba-I tells me.
It’s no coincidence that Nashamba-I is part of the largest and most organized community of farmers on St. Thomas. Since Rastafarians strive to eat as naturally as possible, many prefer to grow their own food to ensure it’s chemical free.
Ital is about preparing food as naturally as possible too. Many Rastafarians believe cooking in metal pans can damage the kidneys and liver, so they prefer to use clay pots. Like others in his community, Nashamba-I cooks his food with the ‘three-stone’ method, where a clay pot is balanced on three stones over a small timber cooking fire.
A heavy rain kept Nashamba-I from cooking outside on the three stones during my visit, but he gives me a tour of his home and shows me the two large clay pots he cooks in. He doesn’t mind the rain, since his plants and his storage tanks need their fill.
Instead of using butter or dairy, coconut milk forms the base of many ital meals. Herbs and hot peppers like the fiery Scotch bonnet that is native to the Caribbean replace salt and processed flavor additives.
Nashamba-I’s diet is largely based on what grows in his yard. Mango, avocado, passion fruit, sugar apple, banana, breadfruit, coconut, soursop, tamarind, and guava trees surround his home. Collard greens, kale, peppers, pumpkin and a leafy, spinach-like green called callaloo, a Caribbean favorite, grow on the nearby hillsides and are used in many stews.
There’s room for experimenting with Ital cooking, since the diet is more of a guideline than a strict code. At Rastafari food fairs like the one held in St. Thomas every January, popular dishes include made-from-scratch barbeque jerk tofu, hearty pumpkin stews, and red pea (kidney bean) loaf. Since they shy away from added fats and salts, Rastas are acutely skilled at creating complex flavor profiles from herbs and spices like lemongrass, allspice, nutmeg, and thyme.
“Just remember, respecting culture and eating properly is Rasta,” Nashamba-I’ says as I leave his home with a gift of green bananas and breadfruit.
Kelsey Nowakowski is a environment and food security journalist based in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. She is a former National Geographic graphics reporter. Follow her on Twitter.