My maternal grandmother is the matriarch of the family in every sense of the word. Growing up in rural Jamaica as the oldest of 12 brothers and sisters, she always took care of everyone else. Not only did she begin working around the age of 12 to help support the family, she also cooked for her siblings on a daily basis. And after immigrating to America in 1969 she paved the way for the others to come, too. Looking around at my huge family, we all acknowledge that her hard work and sacrifices are the reason we’re all here.
As a kid, when my friends would talk of holiday dinners with their immediate family or even being able to sit down at a table with their extended family for Christmas, I simply couldn't relate. Holidays for us meant that the house was full of people. Every room overflowed with laughter and food—there was no attempt to contain things to just the kitchen and dining room. Picture it: my grandmother, her kids, her kids’ kids, plus her younger siblings and their tribes as well, all seated on dining chairs, counter stools, couches, folding chairs, or really anywhere we could snag a spot to eat our overflowing plates of food. As the years went on, new significant others, new babies, and even new friends in town were added to the mix. Once for Christmas, just for fun, I counted and got to 70 people (!) before I gave up the tally.
My grandmother was, of course, the original host for these gatherings. Her love of food—and more accurately, feeding people—is unmatched. Although she doesn’t cook as much anymore, she remains, in my mind, the best cook I know. She would pile your plate up with food, watch you eat, and then demand you tell her whether you liked it or not. Fortunately for everyone, you always did!
This passion for food skipped over my mom, bypassed my older sister, and landed squarely on me. It’s because of my grandmother that I derive pure joy (and anxiety) from cooking for others. She is also the reason I cannot cook small. I physically cannot bring myself to make fewer than four servings of anything, even if it's just for myself. Because my mom did not like cooking—and that’s putting it mildly—my connection to Jamaican food was almost entirely thanks to my grandmother as well.
At our massive holiday gatherings, we’d have the usual classic American dishes plus Jamaican essentials like rice and peas, curry goat, jerk chicken, oxtail, fried fish, black cake, and sorrel. The sheer quantity of food would be breathtaking and as the family grew, gatherings evolved into potlucks with rotating hosting responsibilities. My grandmother was happy to “pass the baton,” as she said, but would still cook as she desired.
About 8 years ago, my grandmother developed dementia and began cooking less and less. One Christmas, however, she was intent on making the rice and peas—arguably the most fundamental Jamaican dish on the table. We were all excited, but as soon as we smelled the acrid scent of burnt rice, we knew there was a problem. The rice and peas was irreparably scorched. She was stunned to have forgotten it on the stove, but we reassured her it was no big deal. We texted our relatives about “the rice and peas situation” so they knew to avoid any unfortunate questions during dinner. (It ended up being my grandmother who asked, “Where’s the rice and peas??”)
My grandmother is lighthearted about her memory and most times we can laugh about it, but this incident with the rice and peas was a sobering one for me. Before, she would choose whether or not she felt like cooking, but this display was proof that it was now—at least partly—out of her control. As much as I associated food and cooking with my grandmother, I knew I couldn’t expect that of her forever. It struck me that it’s up to us younger generations to continue our traditions in this new country my grandmother brought us to. As a 30-something, I’d been a “grown up” for a while, but until recently I’m not sure I’d taken that responsibility of our culinary heritage seriously.
I used to be excited to mix it up during the holidays and experiment with new recipes. Now though, I am incentivized to cook the classic Jamaican dishes I grew up eating. There are no written recipes from my grandmother—even before the dementia, you’d be hard-pressed to get exact details on the food she prepared. But as my mother said, in Jamaica you learned a lot by “osmosis.” No one ever sat you down and taught you how to make rice and peas—at least not in our family. You just saw it being made every Sunday and absorbed the smells, the sounds, and the tastes.
So, is my recipe for rice and peas my grandmother’s recipe? I’m certain it’s not, but it evokes everything I love about Jamaican flavors and her cooking, and she enjoys eating it. And will my kids and my kids’ kids expect rice and peas at their (hopefully huge) holiday dinners too? I’ll make sure of it.
What Is Jamaican Rice and Peas?
In this traditional Jamaican side dish, beans and rice are cooked in a flavorful broth with coconut milk, scallion, thyme, scotch bonnet pepper, and other classic Jamaican seasonings and spices. Traditionally, coconut milk from freshly grated coconuts is used, but canned full fat unsweetened coconut milk makes a good substitute.
Do You Mean Beans?
Yes, by “peas” we do mean beans—specifically red kidney beans or gungo peas (also known as pigeon peas). My family prefers the more popular red kidney beans and that’s what this recipe calls for.
Soaking your beans overnight helps them cook faster but it is not absolutely necessary. If you skip this step, expect to cook your beans longer. While skipping the soak is an acceptable shortcut, canned beans are not! Starting with dry beans ensures that you’ll get the color, flavor, and texture that is essential to this dish.
The Best Rice for Jamaican Rice and Peas
My favorite rice to use for this dish is jasmine rice. You can swap in another long-grain rice of your choice, but keep in mind that the amount of liquid you use, and the cooking time, may need to be adjusted accordingly.
How to Serve Jamaican Rice and Peas
Rice and peas is a hearty side dish that will fit into just about any savory meal you can imagine. Like most rice dishes, it’s a great base to soak up a sauce or gravy. On the other hand, this version is so flavorful it can stand on its own alongside any protein or vegetable on your plate.
Kalisa Martin’s Jamaican Rice and Peas
This recipe makes a big batch. Don’t think you’ll finish it within 5 days? Freeze leftovers for your next craving of rice and peas!
- 1 cup dried kidney beans, sorted, rinsed, and drained
- 5 cloves garlic, chopped
- 4 cups water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided
- 3 scallions, trimmed and chopped
- 1 large sprig thyme
- 1/4 scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, stems and seeds removed and chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons raw or turbinado sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 small bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 1 tablespoon unrefined coconut oil
- 1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
- 3 cups dry jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
Soak the beans:
In a large lidded container, add the beans, garlic, 4 cups water, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir well to combine, cover tightly, and soak overnight in the fridge, at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.
Cook the beans:
In a large Dutch oven or lidded saucepan, add the soaked beans, including the water and garlic. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Then, reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook, covered, until the beans can be crushed between your fingers but are not mushy. Check for doneness after about 40 minutes.
Season the cooking liquid:
When the beans are tender, stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, scallions, thyme, scotch bonnet pepper, ginger, black pepper, sugar, allspice, bay leaves, butter, coconut oil, coconut milk, and stock. Increase the heat to medium-high heat. As soon as it comes up to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the scallions are soft, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the rice:
Stir in the rinsed and drained rice, cover, and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes without opening the lid. After 20 minutes, the liquid should be absorbed and the rice tender. Remove the pot from the heat and let the rice steam, covered, for 10 minutes. Use a fork to fluff the rice, and serve warm.
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