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The Taino's Contribution to Jamaican Cuisine | Bammies and More

by Kesha Stewart | Associate Writer

Jamaican society is a microcosm of all the people with whom we have an ancestral link making it true to its motto: ‘Out of Many, One People’. One such group is our peace-loving aboriginal people group of Amerindians formerly called Arawaks but now known as Tainos.

Who Were the Tainos?

One thing we know is that they mainly engaged in agriculture and fishing. However, their solitude was interrupted in 1494 when the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus happened upon the area. Sadly the Tainos were forced into hard labour by the Spanish who treated them harshly, they were also susceptible to the diseases which the Spanish brought and these factors along with warfare led to the Taino population’s drastic decline. Today there are no Tainos in Jamaica. Ironically, existing knowledge about the food and culture of the Tainos is largely based on Columbus’ accounts and supported by archaeological evidence. Thankfully, they were able to make an appetizing contribution to our culinary heritage.

  • Maize/Corn
    The corn which the Taino people called maize is still deeply woven into Jamaican cuisine. Wi (we) love it! The mature ears are roasted and eaten or used to make corn soup which is a national favourite. Corn is often left to be dried then steamed to rehydrate it. After which it is grated and the resulting corn flour is used to make puddings, porridges or mixed into flour to make dumplings. It can also be spiced and sweetened and made into a batter to make our famous blue drawers.

    At other times dried corn is pounded with a mortar and pestle into a coarsely finished product and this is boiled until tender. It is then sweetened and spiced with cinnamon, vanilla or nutmeg to make what is called hominy porridge. A smoother texture is known as corn porridge. Mature corns are grated and used to make washed corn porridge. These are my two favourite porridges. Hominy porridge is sold on the roadside as a breakfast item and is a hit at local fast-food restaurants often combined with peanut and/or plantain porridge. Nowadays hominy corn is available for purchase in supermarkets.

    Corn that is dried, parched and pounded into a fine powder, mixed with sugar and spiced with nutmeg is well received by children of all ages and adults too. We call it asham or brown drawers careful it can choke you in a heartbeat. Sometimes finely grounded peanuts are mixed in for added flavour. I definitely enjoy this powdery treat. Since living in St. Elizabeth I've noticed that people will sometimes parch the grains of corn to a charcoal-like state after which it is pounded into a fine dark powder and used as a substitute for coffee. It is pretty good and caffeine-free.

  • Cassava
    Cassava was the star of Taino cuisine. They used it to make a cake called cazabe, which we call bammy. I think the Taino would be amazed to see how much we appreciate this humble product. The homemade preparation of cassava into bammies is only slightly different from how it was done as we now have grates rather than pistles to make the cassava into the right texture to do the bammy. Bammies can be steamed to make them moist and warm. The slightly sticky product is best when served with its companion of several hundred years - escovitched fish. However, it is just as delicious with ackee and saltfish, steamed vegetables, curry goat or steamed fish. Bammies are sold on a wide scale at the coastal border of St. Elizabeth and Westmoreland at a spot known as Border.

    Did you know that cassava makes one of the most palate-pleasing puddings? That's just one more way to use cassava and you're in for a treat if you have boiled sweet cassava with any curried protein. One of the things I do like to eat is cassava dumplings with stew peas.

  • Seafood
    Our inclusion of seafood in the Jamaican diet is not surprising when you consider that we are surrounded by the sea. However, it is also an ethnic retention from the Taino people. They caught fish, conch, oysters, crabs as well as other edible sea creatures. This is still done today and our seafood dishes will delight the palate too. There is everything from curried shrimp, octopus, lobster, conch, or crab to conch soup. Fish is roasted, jerked, used to make a light soup (known as fish tea), steamed fish with water crackers is ever popular and so is steam-roasted fish.
  • Pineapples and Other Fruits
    The Jamaican Coat of Arms bears the images of two Tainos (male and female), as well as the symbols of the pineapple; this fruit was very common in every Taino’s diet. Succulent and sweet pineapples of different varieties are heavily cultivated in the northern parts of St. Elizabeth and St James and to a lesser extent in other parts of the island. Pineapples are a part of fruit salads at resort properties, fruit vendors or at home. Pineapple is versatile enough to make a refreshing drink on its own or with other tropical fruits. Interestingly it is included in meals such as sweet and sour chicken or in desserts like the pineapple upside-down cake.

    The Tainos were also known for growing squash, papaya, custard apple, naseberries and hog plum. Did you know that at one point the Spanish were exporting naseberries from Jamaica to Europe? Naseberries are still one of my most loved fruits.

  • Sweet Potato
    Undoubtedly, Jamaicans have a love affair with sweet potatoes. Not only is the staple widely cultivated but it is equally consumed in various forms daily. A gift from the Taino farm, the sweet potato is grated and combined with flour and various spices and flavourings to make the much sought after dessert known as sweet potato pudding. It can also be used in place of cornflour in duckunoo. Many people use sweet potatoes to make salads, chips, fries or wedges. It is even boiled and served with meat or vegetables. My favourite way to enjoy sweet potatoes is either baked or roasted on fire coals. How do you like your sweet potatoes?

  • Barbacoa
    One of their methods of food preparation was with the ‘barbacoa’. This is a wooden grate standing on four forked sticks placed over a slow fire. On this, they spit-roasted fish and meat. This was the forerunner to the present barbecue grill. This method of meat preparation is a favourite of Jamaicans. “Barbequed” meats are available at many places throughout the country.

Some of the Taino legacies discussed here were previously unknown to me. Now when I eat them I will remember that they are around because of our friendly and peaceful native inhabitants.

What is your favourite of all the foods mentioned here? Please share with us in the comments below.

I also recommend you read Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding Recipe.


  • History Notes: Information on Jamaica’s Culture & Heritage, National Library of Jamaica,
  • Sherlock, P., & Bennett, H. (1998). The story of Jamaican people. Kingston: Ian Randle.

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