I recently stopped by the Coconut Industry Board’s retail outlet, the Coconut Shop, located on Waterloo Road in Kingston to buy a gallon of coconut water. The Coconut Shop also sells other coconut-based products like coconut oil, gizzadas, grater cakes, bustas and coconut drops, as well as other items such as plantain chips, plantain tarts, chocolate bars, and many more Jamaican sweet treats.
On this particular day I only needed coconut water so, after paying for my purchase, I stood by the counter waiting for my bottle to be filled. A young lady then entered the store and asked if gizzada was available, to which the lady behind the counter, the latter above the showcase of goods, responded no. Then the young lady, looking quite perplexed, pointed at another item in the showcase and then said something like (a bit too loudly if you ask me!): “But nuh gizzada dat?!” To my dismay she was pointing at the pink and white grater cakes.
So how did this young lady manage to confuse grater cake for gizzada? For many of us (old-timers?) the difference between the two sweet snacks is quite clear; but how many of the next generation of Jamaicans know about these traditional confections? Are we (families, communities, and local and national governments) doing enough to pass on these tangible forms of our heritage and history to the next generation?
Well, this is why Jamaican Echoes is here! 😀 So, for all our benefits, let’s now take a pictorial tour of 10 of these popular traditional Jamaican sweet treats made from several of our food staples, and learn how many of them got their names.
Coconut-based Jamaican Sweet Treats
Coconut is the base for many of the popular Jamaican sweet treats. These include:
1. Busta: This popular hard coconut candy’s full name is Bustamante Backbone, named in honour of Jamaica’s national hero, Alexander Bustamante, who was considered a champion of the common folk or a “buster” (Cassidy and Le Page 2009), in reference to the firm and no nonsense character of the former Premier and first Prime Minister of Independent Jamaica. Alexander Bustamante was affectionately called Busta by the people. The other name for busta, the sweet, is staggerback.
Busta is made from grated coconut meat and brown sugar that is boiled down together until it becomes hard and sticky and, ultimately, difficult to chew. This is then cut into cubes, each cube wrapped in a small square of white paper.
So if it’s difficult to chew how do you eat a busta? You just have to suck on this sweet until it basically dissolves in your mouth.
2. Coconut drops: This sweet takes its name from its preparation process. Diced coconut meat is boiled with brown sugar, ginger and other spices. When done, the sticky mixture is dropped into lumps onto a tray, hence being named coconut drops, and left to harden.
3. Gizzada: This is one of my favourite traditional Jamaican pastries. This is an open pastry tart filled with grated, sweetened and spiced coconut meat. The edges of the open tart is crimped, giving the pastry its other name, Pinch-me-Round. The gizzada is then baked.
The name gizzada is actually a corruption of the Spanish “guisado” meaning something stewed or fried (D’Costa 1979), which is quite opposite to how gizzadas are prepared. Gizzada is thought to be of Spanish or Portuguese origin.
4. Grater cake: Again, this sweet treat owes its name to its preparation process. Grated coconut meat and sugar (nowadays mostly granulated sugar is used) is boiled together until the coconut has become soft and the mixture is sticky. When done some of the sticky mixture is heaped onto a greased sheet or tray where it is spread out and allowed to cool and harden. Once cooled it is cut into squares. The remaining mixture is coloured with pink food colouring and placed into small heaps on top of the squares on the tray.
In the past the grated coconut was boiled with brown wet sugar and was called grater brute.
5. Jackass Corn: I must admit this is not one of my favourite Jamaican biscuits cause it tek whole heap a work fi eat! But it does taste good! This hard, thin biscuit is made from coconut, flour, sugar and spices. It was possibly named in honour of the tough jackass. Recently, I’ve been seeing some jackass corn that’s not too thin; but they are tough nonetheless.
Corn-based Jamaican Sweet Treats
6. Asham: Also called brown george, black george, kak sham and sham-sham, asham is a sweet and powedery Jamaican treat, especially for young school children who can often be seen pouring asham into the middle of their palms or directly into their mouths, some even choking on too much of the finely grounded corn. Asham is made from dried corn that’s parched, then finely grounded and mixed with sugar.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen asham around town, though. How about you?
Peanut-based Sweet Treats
Second to coconut as the base for many of Jamaica’s traditional sweets is peanut.
7. Peanut cake or peanut drops: This is one such popular peanut-based sweet. Originally known as pinder cake, peanuts, sugar and ginger are boiled together until the mixture becomes sticky. When done, mounds of the sticky mixture are placed separately onto a greased tray or sheet and allowed to cool and harden. If sesame seeds are added the final product is called wangla.
8. Peanut brittle: This type of peanut-based sweet is not common to Jamaica alone, with other types of brittles made with nuts such as almonds or pecans in other countries. Peanuts and sugar are boiled together until the sugar dissolves. The peanut mixture is then spread onto a baking tray and allowed to cool and harden, after which the brittle is broken into pieces. Across Jamaica you’ll find peanut brittle in long rectangles or small squares.
Plantain-based Jamaican Sweet Treats
9. Plantatin tart: This is another favourite for me. A pastry shell is filled with mashed spiced ripe plantain that is coloured pink, and then baked.
Tamarind-based Jamaican Sweet Treats
10. Tamarind balls: Sweet and sour tamarind balls are another favourite for me. The tamarind fruit usually comes in season in March annually, which means tamarind balls are on sale like hot cakes during this time and going into the summer. The tamarind pulp is removed from its shell and kneaded with brown sugar. The tamarind mixture is separated and each rolled into balls.
You’ll find these sweet treats sold across the island by vendors who sell in the markets, at bus stations or other roadside locations, but also in supermarkets and shops.
Question: Which is your favourite Jamaican sweet treat?
Until next time…
Cassidy, F.G. and R.B. Le Page (2009). Dictionary of Jamaican English. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
D’Costa, Jean (1979). “What’s in a Name?” The Sunday Gleaner Magazine, June 17, 1979, pg. 7.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Tortello, Rebecca (2009). “Sweet & Dandy: The History of Jamaican Sweets.” The Gleaner, Saturday, February 7, 2009, pg. A7.