Peas and rice can make for a flexible and filling dish: Andrew Coppolino

Using ingredients mostly found in Food Bank of Waterloo Region food hamper got the wheels turning for Kevin Thomas of Big Jerk BBQ, as he prepared a peas and rice dish for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's Sounds of the Season.
Kevin Thomas of Big Jerk BBQ and Smokehouse fills a plate with "peas and rice." (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Fans of Jamaican food will know Rainbow Caribbean Cuisine on King Street in Kitchener's east end. 

Jim Nicholas opened the popular restaurant with his wife Lucinda nearly 20 years ago and operated until they sold the business in 2016.

It was at Rainbow that Jim's son Kevin Thomas learned the techniques and history of Jamaican cooking and food. He notes that a dish such as "rice and peas" has stories behind it that give the meal special flavour.

"We say peas, but typically, we use beans. I'd have to ask my mom about this, but I think there was a shortage or gunga peas were too expensive, so they substituted red Mexican beans, and they just kept the name. You don't even use peas anymore," Thomas said.

A sentimental dish

Using ingredients mostly found in Food Bank of Waterloo Region food hamper got the wheels turning for Thomas as he prepared the dish for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's Sounds of the Season, a food and money drive for The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

"There's lots of potential on the list. I thought about doing a Rasta pasta when I saw the spaghetti sauce. I could have made jerk pork meatballs, and the noodles would represent dreadlocks," Thomas said.

In fact, he got, "lots of ideas" from the ingredients.

"I had to actually focus on the rice and peas because I was starting to get off track," he said.

Rice and peas is a favourite of his, and one that is sentimental.

"My father passed away in September 2017, so it's an honour for me to continue his cooking. This is something that I've been doing since I was four-years-old, and it's nice to carry on dad's legacy now," he said.

Nicholas was a self-taught cook who had earned a reputation for his food before he entered the restaurant business; decades ago, he was asked to cook meals for migrant farm workers from Jamaica as they tended the fields in southwestern Ontario, according to Thomas.

So with that background, Thomas learned professional cooking and now owns Big Jerk, a commercial kitchen in the Bridgeport neighbourhood of Kitchener. He also operates the Big Jerk food truck.

He does catering for local businesses as well as private catering, and if you've eaten a Jamaican patty in the region, there's a good chance it was a Big Jerk patty — he makes thousands each week.

A flexible dish

As for rice and peas, it's a simple dish that is flexible and can accept a lot of different flavours and ingredients.

"We would certainly not eat rice and peas in the morning," he said.

"It's a hearty meal, so it would be your final meal of the day. We'd joke around and say don't eat rice and peas for lunch because you'll fall asleep and won't go back to work."

When it comes to Christmas in Jamaica, Thomas says it's not celebrated in the same way there.

"Jamaica took on and embraced Christmas for tourists," he said.

"They came down, and they wanted Christmas and Santa Claus and all that. Businesses would close down for the holiday, but we'd all have our shorts on and have a beach party."

Kevin Thomas's Big Jerk Rice and Peas

What you need

  • 5 cups brown parboiled rice
  • 2 cups whole black beans
  • 5 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • 1 glove garlic, minced
  • 1 finger-length piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 Scotch Bonnet pepper, whole
  • salt and pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight or until soft (or use canned beans).

Sauté the onion, garlic and ginger to release their flavours and soften. In a large pot, combine the rice, water, thyme, Scotch Bonnet (be gentle; take care that it doesn't break apart), coconut milk and sautéed onion, garlic and ginger mixture.

Bring to a gentle boil and then reduce to simmer. Let the rice cook until tender, stirring occasionally.