Why It Works
- Coconut milk adds richness (not to mention its amazing flavor).
- A combination of allspice, scallions, thyme, ginger, and Scotch bonnet pepper infuses the rice with a subtle depth.
Rice and peas to Jamaicans, peas and rice on other islands—no matter the name, dishes composed of rice and peas or beans play a significant role as a mainstay of the diets on most islands of the Caribbean. Rice and peas is believed to have come to Jamaica during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from West Africa, where rice was a staple of the local diet.
Enslaved Africans who arrived in the colonies brought with them ingredients and cooking techniques from home, which they passed to their descendants born on the plantations. As Sundays were the only days on the plantations that the enslaved had free, rice and peas is generally believed to have been consumed on a Sunday, as it would have been a more labor-intensive and time-consuming dish to prepare the rest of the week. This tradition continues today. While rice and peas is available on most restaurant and cookshop menus all over Jamaica and is enjoyed during the week, it still appears as an essential and, one could say, necessary, component of a Jamaican Sunday lunch in homes all across the island.
Jamaican rice and peas is notable from other rice and bean dishes for two distinct traits: color and flavor. Our rice and peas is made with what we in Jamaica call red peas, otherwise known as kidney beans, which, when soaked and boiled in coconut milk, color the rice and the pot’s contents with a light reddish brown hue. The flavor of Jamaican rice and peas is the other unforgettable trait. A subtle, slightly sweet coconut aroma encompasses every bite; this, combined with Jamaica’s essential quintet of seasonings—Scotch bonnet, thyme, scallion, ginger, and garlic—adds up to a memorable addition to any meal.
After the peas soak overnight, they are boiled until tender in a pot of water and coconut milk seasoned with salt, garlic, and a piece of mashed ginger (ginger is optional, but we love the zing it adds to the final dish). At this point, the rice is added, along with more seasonings: a few sprigs of thyme, pimento, scallion, and one whole Scotch bonnet pepper. The pot is covered and turned down to simmer, and the rice, peas, and seasonings cook together until the water is absorbed. The end result is a dish of sublime perfection—if you get crispy rice on the bottom, even better. Jamaicans call it bun bun, and it is often a coveted element of the dish.
For many Jamaicans, rice and peas is made even better by the addition of a spoonful, or three, of whatever gravy that goes with the protein on the table; in fact, it could be considered the highlight of the meal. Rice and peas is a great complement to any menu that requires a rice dish of substance to enhance proteins like beef, chicken, lamb, or pork. Our family always cooks a roast leg of lamb for Christmas dinner, and while we love the classic accompaniment of roasted potatoes, all of us prefer our rice and peas, especially when laced with delicious lamb gravy.