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Caribbean Cuisine: Traditional Jamaican Sweets

Caribbean Cuisine: Traditional Jamaican Sweets

Posted by Shanelle Weir on April 01, 2014

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.

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