Jamaican Stew Peas is a very delicious dish which is usually served for dinner. It is similar to the popular American dish, red beans and rice, served in many Southern states of the US. This Jamaican comfort food has such a rich and important history. Stew peas was birthed out of war times, the Second World War to be exact. Red kidney beans cooked down with salted/pickled meats in coconut milk and spices doesn’t exactly sound like struggle food. But stew peas wasn’t always heavily laden with various kinds of meats as it is today.
During World War II, Jamaica as a British colony played an important role in securing resources for the great war. Though many Jamaicans were not directly recruited to the frontlines of battle, they were expected to ration food and other resources for the Mother Country’s sake. This meant there was very little availability of fresh meats and meats in abundance. Large families were reliant on small amounts of scrap meat usually salted for preservation. So just how did a large family sustain itself with small amounts of salted scrap meat? Well they added it to a hearty red bean stew thickened by coconut milk, flavored with garlic, onions and allspice and served it over rice. That is the birth of stew peas — a stew that transformed little into much and made it possible for Jamaicans to be well fed during the war.
Here are some things to know about Jamaican Stew Peas before you get started”
I’ve made Jamaican Stew Peas without salted meats and it simply was not the same. The salted and pickled meats are an essential part of this dish. If I don’t use pork, I salt my own beef and chicken feet for this dish. Corning meat at home is very simple and just requires wait time for the salt and spices to penetrate and flavor the meat. You can also search for salted beef in the stores. A few meat shops in NYC sell salted oxtail as well. When cooking with salted meats, it’s important to boil most of the salt from the meat before adding it to your stew. If the salt is not boiled from the meat, the stew will be inedible.
Red Beans (not peas)
This Jamaican stew peas is made with dry red kidney beans. There are actually no peas in the dish. People have attempted this dish with canned beans to shorten the cooking time. I would not recommend it. The stew gets the color and flavor from cooking dried beans from scratch. The beans are cooked when pressed by a fork or between your fingers, they are soft.
Coconut Milk or No Coconut Milk?
This is a hotly debated question. I learned to cook Jamaican stew peas without coconut milk. I was actually shocked when I was asked on my page why mine did not have any. It just was never done in my home. People have sworn that the authentic Jamaican way to cook this is to add some amount of coconut milk to the stew after the beans and meat are cooked. I will say that NOT adding coconut milk does not ruin the taste of the stew. It is still excellent with or without it. Even those who prefer it admit that the stew is just as delicious without it.
You can pressure cook stew peas but you absolutely do not need to. It actually tastes much better if you skip the pressure cooker pot. This recipe features the long method so make this on a weekend when you have the time to do it. You won’t regret not taking a shortcut this time.
For Jamaican Stew Peas you will need:
- Large Stew pot
- Small saucepan
- Cutting board
- Sharp knife
- Large stew spoon
- 1.5lbs salted pig's tails (cut up)
- 1 lb salted beef (cubed)
- 1 lb red kidney beans
- 5 cloves garlic
- 3 scallions (chopped finely)
- 10-15 sprigs of thyme
- 1 scotch bonnet pepper
- 10 pimento berries
- 1 small plum tomato (chopped)
- 1 medium onion (chopped)
- 1/2 cup coconut milk (optional)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 cup of flour
- Water as needed
- Cut pig’s tail and beef into 2-inch pieces. Boil pig's tails and beef in a saucepan at least 4 times to remove salt content. Fill the pan with enough tap water to cover the meat and set to boil. After each boil, discard the water. Depending on where you buy your pig's tail, it may be saltier or not as salty as other places. After the 4th boil the meat should be cooked enough for you to taste it for salt. You may boil it more if you need it to be less salty.
- To 8 cups of water in a large stock pot, add washed beans and the meat. Add garlic and cover the pot. When the water begins to boil, the beans will come to the surface of the water. Use 1 cup of cold water to "sink" the floating beans. Cook for 1.5-2hours until the beans are cooked and the meat is fork tender. If the meat is not tender enough, cook for a longer time until the meat is fork tender. You will need to keep adding water as the beans and meat cook and the water cooks off.
- Once the beans and meat are cooked, add scallions, thyme, scotch bonnet, pimento, tomato, onion and coconut milk (if using) to the pot. Allow the stew to come up to a boil.
- Make spinners which is a simple recipe of dough and water. Roll the dough between your hands to form tiny flour cylinders/dumplings. Drop them into the stew.
- Taste your stew for salt and pepper. It should not need salt but it may need black pepper. Add 1/2 tsp black pepper and only add salt if absolutely necessary.
- If the stew is runny and not thickening after adding the spinners, you may add a cornstarch slurry (cornstarch and water) to the stew to make it thicker. If you don't have cornstarch, you may use flour and water. Be sure to stir the pot vigorously as you add the cornstarch slurry so that it does not form clumps in the stew. Your stew is ready when it thickens and the sauce reduces.
- Serve stew hot with steamed white rice.