The name Ital is derived from the English word vital. This achieves double significance by beginning with ‘I,’ which has particular significance to Rastafari as an expression (I and I) of unity with all things and by capturing the essence of the diet, which is vitality, energy, life force. Rastafarians refer to the universal energy as livity and thus Ital is intended to increase livity, thereby imbuing the diet with a religious or spiritual significance.
Despite the significance of livity as a concept of universal energy reinforced by only putting things in the body that strengthen it, there is no universal interpretation of what constitutes Ital. The most common general principles are that the food should be natural, organic and from the earth, thereby excluding processed foods and meat. Many Rastafarians avoid salt modified with iodine, preferring to use Kosher salt — which is consequently common on the shelves of Jamaican supermarkets.
One of the early leaders of the Rastafarian movement, Leonard Howell, is thought to have introduced the concept of vegetarianism to Rastafari after being interested in the diet of indentured Indian servants in Jamaica. In Hinduism, as well as Buddhism, and taken up by the spiritual practice of yoga, vegetarianism is one way of respecting life and doing no harm to others; it is also considered healthy and thus a way of doing no harm to oneself. Following an ital diet is therefore one of the key spiritual practices of the Rastafari.
Some followers actually adhere to a vegan diet, considering diary to be harmful or not strictly ital. Others avoid any food that has been preserved or has been prepared using metal instruments. Clay pots and wooden bowls and spoons are often used in the preparation of Ital food. Many adherents avoid alcohol and other stimulants, but this is less strictly followed.
Throughout Jamaica, many Rastafarian communities operate small holdings or otherwise grow much of their own produce, particularly in the mountains. There are even some very good ital vegetarian restaurants in the capital Kingston serving juices, tonics, salads and other vegetable based dishes.
It isn’t necessary to be a Rastafarian to enjoy ital food. Visitors to the island should take the opportunity to sample this tasty, healthy, natural food and return home with a bit more livity than they started with.