You are what you eat. It’s a well-worn trope, but in Jamaica it takes on serious, almost religious meaning. Actually, it does have religious meaning here: For Rastafaris, following a strict dietary law (known as ital) is a major key to living a long and healthy life. That’s why Ibo Spice, a ital restaurant in downtown Kingston, has become the go-to spot since opening in 2014—and not just with Rastas.
Located on Orange Street (also known as the legendary “Beat Street,” the epicenter of music in the 1960s), Ibo Spice is hidden just beyond a façade of exposed red brick and repurposed metal siding walls. As you climb uneven stone steps into the restaurant, you’re greeted by a black-and-white photo of Haile Selassie I—the Messiah for Rastafaris—and a huge pile of freshly chopped guava. The mission of Ibo Spice is to “grow what we eat and eat what we grow,” says the owner, who is affectionately known as “Spicemaster.” Produce used at the restaurant comes from only two places: the small garden behind Ibo Spice, or local vendors with whom the Spicemaster has forged a personal relationship. For him, Ibo Spice is more than a restaurant. “It is a portal to an experience.”
The restaurant houses a tiny craftsman’s shop in its entrance hall, filled with the works of local artists like Richardo “Medz” Hines. Medz is an incredibly talented sketch artist, as well as a wood carver, who has been working on his craft for over 12 years, and selling his pieces at the local shop since opening in 2014. Beautifully hand-carved faces with intricate expressions line the long wooden table in the shop for people to browse and purchase.
In the back yard, out-of-towners, Rastas and rambunctious toddlers gather around scattered wooden tables for a completely vegetarian meal. The menu changes slightly every day, but there are a few mainstays like the bulga rice ( a wheat grain that is a great substitute for rice), ital stew made with squash, potatoes, carrots and plantains in a coconut milk broth, steamed vegetables and turn cornmeal (similar to the Italian dish polenta). We can’t forget the natural fruit juices—guava, soursop—and neither will you, after your first sip. It’s no wonder Ibo Spice has found its home on one of the most iconic streets in Kingston: It’s well on its way to becoming a legend of its own.