Traveling On a Plant-Based Diet
by Heather Hunter
As one who thrives on a gluten-free vegetarian and vegan diet, traveling often prevents me from being able to stick to my preferred way of eating. But I recently struck gold on a trip to Jamaica, which afforded me an array of rich and colorful plant-based foods that has me contemplating when I can return for more.
Occupied for centuries, first by Spain and then England, and with a large African population descended from former slaves, Jamaica possesses great cultural diversity, and this diversity has created an indigenous cuisine that offers visitors and locals a delectable fusion of flavors.
Whether you are seeking more vegetables or are already a plant-based food lover, a plant-based diet is de rigueur in Jamaica. One reason for this is the Rastafarian movement. Though you may recognize the dreadlocks and the reggae music as part of Jamaican culture, an often unknown trait of being Rasta is their dedication to a vegan diet. Using what is known as “ital” cooking, the Rasta diet focuses on a natural, organic, plant-based foods to keep them healthy and spiritually connected to the earth. Not surprisingly, most Rastas grow their own food to ensure it is chemical-free.
Luckily, Jamaica’s year-round sunshine makes it ideal for growing food and lots of it. The lush jungles and rich soil receive plentiful rain and stable temperatures, which encourages mature plant growth and results in an impressive production of native fruits and vegetables. Pineapples, mangos, papaya, coconuts, callaloo, ackee, and breadfruit are just a few of the foods grown across the island.
This vegan diet is how the Rastafarians live and the sheer abundance, incredible flavor and freshness are enough to also lure locals and tourists to fill their plates with mostly fruits and vegetables, almost forgetting what might be missing.
We stayed at a villa at the Tryall Club, a development just west of Montego Bay, on Jamaica’s north coast. Our chef for the stay was Jerome O’Connor, a Rastafarian chef who cooks dishes that are adored by vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores. His hair is braided, and though he mostly keeps it up in a bun of sorts, when he lets it down, it touches the ground.
Much of what he prepared was proudly procured from the property and the thriving organic garden, although we also visited the Charles Gordon Market in Montego Bay to stock up on cabbage, carrots, onions, ginger, cucumbers, green beans, mangoes, papaya, garlic, and other ingredients.
A typical morning in Jamaica begins with a colorful plate of assorted, ripe, sweet and juicy fruit that reminds you why you love to visit—and hate to leave. Succulent John Bellyfull mangos are the Rolls Royce of mangos, and you’ll want to eat your weight in these orange-fleshed gems.
The bright red papaya isn’t the boring variety you may be used to but something worthy of attention. Add a squeeze of lime and you’re set.
Heavy, 20- to 30-pound watermelons are the norm, so watermelon slices are standard fare on the daily fruit plate. Cold watermelon slices are also a great afternoon snack to cool off while soaking up your daily dose (or two) of vitamin D at the pool or beach.
The locally grown pineapples have a sweet flesh with a mellow yellow color and are a bit denser.
Bananas grow profusely across the island and are significantly sweeter and smaller than the American banana, which makes them a real treat.
Of the more exotic and indigenous fruits, there is soursop and naseberry. Soursop has a white flesh with big black seeds. The fruit melts in your mouth and can be transformed into the most delicious sorbet you have ever had.
Naseberry is a small brown fruit that is the same color inside. It’s a cross between a fig and a date and is rich in antioxidants with numerous health benefits.
If you love scrambled eggs or, as a vegan, miss eating them, you’ll be enchanted with Jamaica’s famous breakfast combination of ackee with peppers, onions and tomatoes. Ackee grows on trees. Once ripe, they are harvested and then cleaned and turned into the most amazing vegan scrambled eggs, as well as a dip similar to hummus and served with plantain chips.
Calaloo, a cousin to spinach, is sautéed with onions and peppers. A traditional Jamaican breakfast spread is ackee with calaloo and can capture the hearts of both carnivores and vegans.
For lunch and dinner, colorful salads can easily be a satisfying meal. Roasted vegetables and mixed greens fresh from the garden are tossed with feta and toasted nuts and served with Chardonnay vinaigrette. The salads are typically so hearty, even the carnivores won’t be asking “where’s the beef?”
Curry is a typical way Jamaicans prepare vegetables and proteins. Using many of the vegetables from the organic garden, Chef Jerome made this vegetable curry for me. Neither too spicy nor boring, it hit a beautiful balance of flavors and spice that left me wanting more.
Whether you are vegetarian, trying to lean into the vegetarian movement, or are a hardcore vegan, the next time you are wondering what country to visit for your next vacation, explore Jamaica. This Caribbean island is filled with happy people, mon, and plentiful opportunities to relax, soak up the sun, recharge your batteries, and eat some of the best vegetarian and vegan foods you have ever had.
All photography by author.