Sweet & dandy - The history of Jamaican sweets
Published: Saturday | February 7, 2009
Jamaicans are among the 'sweetest' people on Earth. We laden our tea with condensed milk, we favour sugary sodas and syrupy sky juices and yes, we love our candy. In days gone by, before the market was flooded with British and American sweets, peppermint sticks, paradise plums, mint balls, gizzada and Bustamante Backbone held sway in the candy department.
The Origins of Candy
The word candy is derived from the Arabic qandi, which basically means a sugar confection (Davidson, 1999, p 129). In ancient times, before sugar cultivation began, honey was used. Middle Easterners, the Indians, Egyptians, the Chinese, and then the Greeks and Romans preserved nuts, fruits, flowers, and plant seeds or stems with honey in a practice still used today.
In the Middle Ages, sweet meats decorated tables in the wealthiest of homes. Very often, the food being eaten was not that fresh and so the blending of meats with spices and sugar was intended to have a therapeutic effect as a digestive aid. Guests at mediaeval feasts were often seen carrying these sweetmeats to their rooms to be eaten before bed (Toussaint-Samat, 1992, p 565-6). During this period, physicians also began the now common practice of coating medicines with sweet flavourings - remember the song from Mary Poppins, "It takes a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down." (Mariani, 1999, p 54-5).
As people experimented with sugary ingredients, different types of candy began to appear. Caramels in the early 18th century and lollipops by the 1780s. Hard candies, often made from lemon or peppermint flavours, became common in the early 19th century. Cream-filled candies first appeared at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, and it wasn't until the late 19th century that the American candy bar rose to prominence (Mariani, 1999, p 54-5).
In Jamaica, in days gone by, everyone knew the candy seller. She would find a location on a sidewalk, often in front of a school, and set up her box-shaped, glass-covered wooden display case called a candy bowl. Inside, she artfully arranged colourful traditional sweets and inevitably children would appear to have a look-see (Senior, 2003, p 471).
Candy recipes, just like general food recipes, were passed on by word of mouth which accounts for why we have so many different versions of bulla - a popular treat for schoolchildren. Cheap and easy to make, a bulla is a small, flat round cake made with molasses, flour and baking soda. It can also be flavoured with ginger (Senior, 2003, p 79).
Old-time Jamaican candy flavours
The coconut is probably the staple of Jamaican sweets. One of the first to come to mind is the Bustamante Backbone - a hard grated coconut and sugar confection named after national hero and first prime minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante - which is said to represent his firmness of character.
Then there is the pink and white gizzada (which, as a result of its round, crinkled edges, can also be called pinch-me-round), the flourless grater cakes, cut cakes and toto, and, of course, coconut drops (Senior, 2003, p 472).
Next, in terms of popularity, would most likely come the peanut. Pinda cakes, as the peanut cakes are known, are made from boiling brown sugar with the nut. When sesame seeds are added, it is known as Wangla (Senior, 2003, p 472).
Plantain and Tamarind
Another traditional favourite comes from one of our main food staples, the plantain. Plantain tarts are small pastry shells filled with mashed ripe plantain and spices and baked.
Tamarind balls, which most likely came to Jamaica with Indian indentured labourers in the 19th century, is another popular sweet now considered a national candy. Tamarind balls are made by kneading tamarind pulp and sugar and forming them into balls left to air dry (Senior, 2003, p 472).
Last but not least, there is also an entire line of corn-based sweeties - the most famous of which is called Brown George or asham (sham). Brown George/asham is made by shelling dry corn, parching it in a hot pot and then pounding it in a wooden mortar and sifting it until it is similar to sand. Salt or sugar can then be added to the brown mixture and it can be eaten dry or with water.
Asham comes from the African Twi word for 'parched, ground corn'. Cocktion is another sweet made from parched corn and sugar; it is rolled into balls and sometimes coloured (Senior, 2003, p 132).
Today sweet-making is a dying art, not only because of competition from large commercial international candy corporations, but because many of the recipes have been lost in yet another example of ways in which our intangible heritage is at risk.
For a copy of this and other stories on Jamaican history, check bookstores for the book, Pieces of the Past, authored by Dr Rebecca Tortello.
Davidson, A. (1999). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press: Oxford, Mariani, J. (1999). 1999 (p 54-5), Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Lebhar-Friedman: New York, Senior, O. (2003). The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston, Twin Guinep Publishers Ltd., Toussaint-Samat, M. (1992). History of Food, (Barnes & Noble Books): New York.