Caribbean cuisine is becoming more and more popular in the UK … and it’s not just jerk chicken at carnival | The independent


Searching for the perfect jerk food while trying to avoid the bawling tourist crowds of the resort town of Negril in Jamaica, we took the advice of a local cab driver and ended up in a beach hut obscure, standing in front of a cooking appliance that would have sent health-and-security guards to this country crying into the ocean.

Between what looked like massive sheets of blackened chicken wire and smoldering log carcasses were sandwiched a variety of pieces of meat. A small table in the sweltering heat and a Long Island iced tea later, we were presented with these cuts of meat, accompanied only by a bucket of industrial-strength jerk sauce.

We had ordered a quarter of chicken each, but, oh my gosh, how we ended up wishing we had ordered a whole. The quick hit of the fiery, crispy friction, the chewiness of the moist meat inside and the long, long rush of endorphins from this searing sauce made it one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had.

Until recently, it was almost impossible to replicate this exquisite experience on these shores. Granted, Levi Roots and his ilk have done a lot to popularize Caribbean cuisine in the UK, but other than in native communities you still can’t make your way to your main street for a corner of the Caribbean.

Times are changing, however, London is seeing a new boom in Caribbean restaurants and savvy businessmen and West Indian expats are noticing the British’s familiarity and love for intense spices as well as the ease with which we adapt to foreign cuisines. So it’s time to get acquainted with your callaloo of your cassava and your ackee of your salted fish.

Caribbean cuisine is a blend of African, Native American, European, East Indian, Arab and Chinese influences. While every island has its own unique character, most restaurateurs claim that around 80% of all Caribbean cuisine is Jamaican-centric – its heavy emphasis on jerks and marinades seems to be reflected in the more recent openings in the UK. United. Like Cajun and West African cuisine, Jamaican cuisine has its own Holy Trinity of ingredients – Scotch Bonnet peppers, spring onions, and fresh thyme.

The newest addition to the neighborhood is the Jamaica Patty Company of Covent Garden, a 17-seat take-out opened by Jamaican-born Theresa Roberts and her Cornish husband Andrew, which seems quite fitting, as a patty is basically a batter – a spicy filling of jerk chicken, shrimp, curried goat cheese or salted fish and ackee (the Jamaican equivalent of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs), coated in a crispy puff pastry.

“Jamaican cuisine has always been important to ethnic communities in the UK, but it has been confined to small community places and never had the broad appeal of some other indigenous cuisines,” said Roberts.

Rice and Things Exclusive Jamaican Restaurant in Bristol (John Lawrence)

Outside of London, Bristol has probably the largest number of restaurants in the Caribbean, with Branatic Neufville, the chef / owner of Rice and Things Exclusive Jamaican Restaurant, emerging as the local guru for all things Jamaican. “Coming from Jamaica 14 years ago, I saw the acceptance of ethnic foods in the UK,” he explains. “Bristol is a diverse and fast growing city with guaranteed investments in the food trade and a large, tight-knit, family-oriented Jamaican population.

“Whether you like it or not, Jamaica’s food, music and culture make it the driving force behind the Caribbean. Much of our inspiration and many of our ingredients – ginger and marsala – are influenced by other nationalities. In fact, the Chinese and the Japanese will tell you that our cuisine is very similar to theirs.

“A lot of people who taste Jamaican cuisine will say it tastes like the food their grandmother made. Really authentic Jamaican recipes can be replicated here, but if you try to manipulate them or modernize them too much. , it will end in tears. “

There are certain rules to follow, says Neufville. “You have to leave the bones in your meat, stab and cut it to the bone and lovingly massage your rub or marinade into the flesh. I am also a fan of using authentic Jamaican ingredients, such as wild cinnamon and tamarind, chili leaf (like a spicy bay leaf), elderberry – a hillside vine with unmistakable flavor. and cayenne-type bird peppers.

Chef Branatic Neufville in the kitchen

(John Lawrence / The Independent)

But there is a downside, he says, to the growing trend for Caribbean food. “The problem is, a lot of Caribbean people have started cooking a watered down version of their food here, because they want to fit in,” he says. “If you had been addicted to food in Jamaica 40 years ago and visited many British Caribbean restaurants today, the food wouldn’t taste the same as it did back then.”

On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with adjusting, says Josh de Lisser, who was also born in Jamaica and opened Notting Hill Boom Burger earlier this year. “I tried to take what I know the UK loves – burgers – and add the flavors of Jamaica where I grew up. Thanks to my Aunt Sharon, the family’s cook, I tried to bring up the whole of the Caribbean, helped by playing a lot of reggae, ska, dance hall and a little bit of hip-hop. “

Back in Covent Garden is Dub Jam, which opened in March in a former locker room, and is now a rum shack featuring jerk grilled meat that has been marinated for 48 hours, simmered for eight hours and smoked. quickly.

“Events such as the Notting Hill Carnival have raised awareness of Caribbean cuisine,” said co-owner Kieron Botting. “But a lot of people still think jerky meat is purely a carnival event, which it sure isn’t. The problem in the UK is that Caribbean food can be terribly sanitized and dull – like that. ‘Is produced with Tex-Mex. There is a danger that restaurants will become little more than Caribbean theme parks, which is doing the whole culture a disservice. “

Chef Branatic Neufville chopping spring onions for a jerk marinade

(John Lawrence / The Independent)

Ajith Jayawickrema, founder and managing director of the Turtle Bay group of seven restaurants, which now stretches from Southampton to Manchester, echoes the sentiment. With a solid background in the field, having opened 30 branches of the South American restaurant Las Iguanas, he knew which British cities would be receptive to Caribbean cuisine which, apart from carnivals, had not always been available to them. .

“We were the first Caribbean outlets to stand alongside other more well-known ethnic offerings,” he says. “Previously, Caribbean restaurants tended to be small family businesses. We’ve created a new environment accessible to non-Caribbean people, without being the kind of place that thinks you can cook Caribbean food just by throwing in a few Scotch bonnet peppers. to this. “

As an added bonus, most of the ingredients needed to replicate Caribbean cuisine at home are readily available at most good supermarkets. You don’t need high-tech kitchen gadgets, and if you’re looking for a foreign kitchen that instantly transports you to its original home, there really is no better example.

But remember, this is food for the soul, so take your time and always cook it with your heart rather than your head.

Sweet Orange Sticky Jerk Wings

By Levi Roots

Ingredients for serving four as a starter

12 chicken wings
2 tablespoons of light brown sugar or demerara
2 oranges without seeds
5 long, sweet red peppers, whole and intact

For the jerk marinade:

4 spring onions, green part only, roughly chopped
1 hot red pepper (ideally Scotch bonnet), seeds left in
3 cm piece of ginger root, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons of thyme leaves
100 ml of apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons of honey
2 teaspoons of ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and pepper

Put the marinade ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. You can also crush the ingredients into a paste using a pestle and mortar. Pour it over the wings, turning them over so that they are well coated. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least four hours, or overnight if more convenient, turning the wings once or twice.

Run a barbecue until the embers turn to hot gray ash (or preheat an oven to 190 ° C / thermostat 5). Grill the wings or cook them for about 15 minutes, turning them several times until cooked through (the juice should be clear when a skewer is driven into the thickest point) and nicely browned, drizzling with remaining jerk marinade.

While the wings are cooking, sprinkle the sugar on a plate and cut the oranges into quarters. Dip the cut sides of each piece in the sugar and barbecue (or in a heavy-bottomed pan or under the stovetop grill) for a few minutes until the sugar caramelizes. Keep an eye out for oranges to prevent them from burning.

At the same time, roast the peppers.

Serve the wings with the caramelized oranges and grilled peppers.

From ‘Caribbean Food Made Easy’ by Levi Roots (Mitchell Beazley, £ 12.99)


Michael M. Tomlin