For many Jamaicans, tea is much more than just a refreshing drink

Different types of teas enjoyed in Jamaica. Photo by Emma Lewis, used with permission.

Tea is a significant part of Jamaican culture — and not just because its former colonisers are known to drink a great deal of it. Yes, it quenches thirst on hot days. Yes, it is “good fi yuh,” but it also connects Jamaicans with their ancestors.

“Bush tea,” herbal tea that is drunk for health reasons, but also enjoyed by many, is embedded in Jamaican tradition and history, including its African heritage. “Bush” means countryside, and the drinking of bush tea remains very much the norm in rural areas. It is also a practice that is handed down from generation to generation, as is evident in the lyrics of the folk song, “Elena”:

Elena an her mumma go a grung
Elena start cry fe her belly
Go home, Elena, go home, Elena
Go bwile cerasee fey u belly

Elena and her mother go to their land
Elena starts to cry because her belly hurts
Go home, Elena, go home, Elena
Go and boil cerasee for your belly

Cerasee (Momordica charantia), also called bitter melon, is a common tropical vine widely used as a “bush tea.” It is really bitter. Although it is often used for stomach ailments, like poor Elena's tummy ache, it is believed to have benefits in reducing blood sugar and lowering blood pressure — both diabetes and hypertension are very common chronic health conditions in Jamaica.

Two root crops that are related, ginger and turmeric, are grown in the island's cooler areas. While both are used as cooking ingredients, they are also often boiled in tea, usually not in powdered form but rather, grated and simmered on the stove.

For Jamaican human rights activist and tea lover Susan Goffe, these aromatic roots make up two of her favourite teas. She crushes a piece of turmeric root and adds it to a cup of a different tea she is drinking:

I love the smell and flavour and it also has a lovely colour. But I do drink this also for its medicinal properties. They say it has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and cancer reducing properties.

Ginger is a popular ingredient in Jamaican cooking and can be fermented in the sun to make the strongest ginger beer ever. It is known for its ability to soothe indigestion and stomach ailments but it is also a popular hot drink.

Other bush teas have direct connections with Jamaica's African heritage. Bissy (kola nuts), for example, play an important role in Nigerian Igbo tradition and spirituality. The kola nut ceremony is briefly described in Chinua Achebe's acclaimed novel, “Things Fall Apart.” Brought via seed by enslaved peoples from West Africa during the Middle Passage, the tea is often drunk when a person may have eaten something bad or “off.” It also contains caffeine, so it is considered an effective “pick-me-up.”

In the Twi language, kola nut is called bisè, and in Ewe bisi, as this tweet from Ghana explains:

Back in Jamaica, Goffe recalls: “My grandmother always made sure I had bissy with me when I was heading off to college” — just in case.

Nunnun Baazley (Holy Basil) in the foreground and Spirit Weed (Chadon Beni) growing in pots. Photo by Velma Pollard, used with permission.

There are also “tea connections” with Hindu traditions. Via WhatsApp, Jamaican author, poet and retired educator Velma Pollard told Global Voices:

‘Nunnu Baazley,’ my favourite from childhood, turned out when I reached Trinidad and Guyana to be Tulsi or Holy Basil growing at the base of Hindu prayer flag poles. Eventually, I got it to grow in pots in my herb area and supplement with more exotic tea bags from the Health Food Shop. I like ‘Tulsi Masala Chai’ and ‘Tulsi Tumeric Ginger.’

Memories of my grandmother though, come with night snack of hot sweet Fever Grass tea and homemade bread. That aroma [is] to die for! Now I combine it with mint and remember my late Trinidadian friend who introduced me to the combination.

By the way, Nunnu Baazley/Tulsi turned up as ‘Nunum’ in a Ghanaian text on healing herbs.

She noted that she also grew to love “spirit weed” or “chadon beni” when in Trinidad. In Puerto Rico, it is called culantro, and it smells like cilantro. She knew spirit weed as “good tea for sick babies.”

So, what is Jamaicans’ favourite tea? Each Jamaican you ask may give you a different answer, but it is quite likely that peppermint tea would top the list. Another plant that is easily grown in a pot, it is present in most Jamaican households and workplaces.

Goffe bats for lemon grass, or fever grass as it is usually called in Jamaica, simply because of its delicious aroma and flavour. She picks a leaf of it from her garden — it grows quite easily — steeps it in hot water, and drinks it unsweetened.

Interestingly, any kind of hot drink is traditionally called “tea” in Jamaica. Fish tea, for example, is a kind of broth that is drunk from a cup.

To cite one of Jamaica's best known folk songs, “Mango Time,”:

Mi nuh drink coffee tea, mango time,
Care how nice it may be, mango time.
At di height of the mango crop;
When di fruit dem a ripe an drop,
Wash yuh pot, turn dem down mango time.

While this may seem a little confusing, the song — an ode to various types of mangoes — describes even coffee itself as “coffee tea!”

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