Bob Marley used to drink an Irish moss-based concoction every morning. This red seaweed, which does not exactly evoke the Caribbean, was introduced to Jamaica in the 17th century by Irish immigrant workers and has been growing on the coast ever since. The drink derived from it, known for its high content of vitamins, iron and calcium, is now marketed in a ready-to-drink version and has little to do with the potion beloved of the king of reggae.
Rejecting the consumerist society
Born with the Rasta movement in the 1930s, the ital diet – a contraction of ‘vital’ and ‘I’ (the unifying pronoun ‘I’ favoured by Rastafarians) – essentially consists of vegetables and unprocessed products. Homemade is the watchword of its followers.
Jamaican chef Rasta Mokko, one of the leading exponents of ital, takes the time to simmer his Rastafarian nectar over low heat in his garden, as he talks about the benefits of the fruits and plants that grow on his land. “I add lime, milk and it makes Supligen,” he says in a YouTube video and on his successful Ras Kitchen channel. “With this, no more prostate cancer.”
Ironically, Bob Marley died of systemic cancer at the age of 37, despite drinking his homemade iodine-infused mixture daily.
“For Rastas, preparing their own food is a way of refusing consumerist society,” says Alexandre Grondeau, founder of reggae.fr, one of the first French media outlets dedicated to the genre and its culture. “It can be seen as a political interpretation because consuming what you produce is being anti-Babylon, anti-colonial.”
Only eating what grows naturally
Vegan chef Delroy Brown, who runs Gee Wiz – an Italian restaurant in Treasure Beach in the southwest of the island – agrees. “The aim of this diet is to ban all food that was imported by the colonists,” says the cheerful 66-year-old, who also works as a caterer for Jammin Voyages – an agency specialising in tailor-made holidays in Jamaica.
“The ital diet encourages us to eat what grows naturally on our land. We won’t use salt, for example, because it is found in the sea. The idea is also to get closer to our slave ancestors who grew their own food in colonial times,” says this fervent defender of the pan-Africanist movement. Thus, on the menu of his colourful canteen, one will find stews and soups based on vegetables as well as fish “to support local fishing,” he says.
‘Carrots never go mad, but your cows do!’
Vegetarian or vegan, the ital diet has many variations. Bob Marley allowed fish on his plate but never went on tour without his chef. “Marley did not go to any restaurants,” says Alexandre Grondeau, who is also the author of Bob Marley: un Héros Universel (Éditions La Lune sur le toit, 2019). “During his first tour with the Wailers in England in the early 1970s, he had to find something to cook ital, but it was winter, there were no vegetables and everything was expensive at the time,” he says.
No animal products
Cooking at home, growing food and eating locally: this central triptych taps into the consumption patterns encouraged by environmental protection activists in the current ecological crisis. Like vegans, the followers of ital cuisine do not eat meat or animal products such as milk and eggs. Their approach is less political and social than spiritual.
If the Rastas want to free themselves from Christianity, a religion imported by European settlers, their eating habits are based on the Bible. “Behold, I give you every herb bearing seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree that has in it the fruit of a tree and bears seed; it shall be your food (Genesis 1:29).” This way of eating is also based on passages from Leviticus, embracing the livity movement – a contraction of live to live and Leviticus.
Pulses and raw food
“We can also see an animist approach inherited from African spiritualities,” says Coralie Jouhier, a Parisian who co-founded the Italian and Afro-vegan restaurant Jah Jah le Tricycle. “Some pioneers of the Rasta movement, such as Leonard Howell, the apostle of the return to Africa, encouraged people to be aware of what they were eating, to be close to nature, to respect the cycle of life, their body and their spirit,” she says.
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Pulses (lentils, beans, etc.), alkaline foods (spinach, broccoli, etc.), protein-rich oilseeds (almonds, peanuts, etc.) and, more recently, raw food such as grrens, carrots and beetroot, form the basis of the ital detox. “One day I was in the studio in Jamaica with Anthony B,” says Grondeau, “And we wanted to have food delivered. He said: ‘You see, I am what I eat, that’s why I’m healthy. Carrots never go mad, but your cows do!’”
Soon in organic shops
At a time when city dwellers in Western capitals are feasting on chia seeds in between yoga sessions, the ital diet is slowly becoming part of the mainstream. However, it has long been at odds with eating habits since the 1970s.
“Today, concert organisers no longer receive Jamaican artists the way they used to, by laughing in their faces and serving them platters of cold cuts,” says Grondeau. Society has changed its view and understood that Rastas are avant-garde in their way of eating.
The movement has spread beyond Jamaica’s borders to include US and British artists such as Jah Sun and his track No Bones No Blood and Macka B and his ital anthem What We Eat; the two continue to advocate for this culinary philosophy in their music.
There is still the matter of certification. A label is reportedly being structured in the United States to give recognition to this almost century-old diet. “It’s only a matter of time, I’m convinced that ital products will soon be available in organic shops,” says Jouhier.
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