Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

David Gerrie goes in search of some authentic soul food

In search of the perfect jerk food while trying to avoid the braying tourist crowds of Jamaica's Negril resort, we took the advice of a local taxi driver and wound up at an obscure beach shack, standing in front of a cooking device that would have sent health-and-safety officers in this country screaming into the ocean.

In between what looked like massive sheets of char-blackened chicken wire and hulks of smoking logs were sandwiched a variety of lumps of meat. A tiny table in the sweltering heat and a Long Island iced tea later, we were presented with these meaty chunks, accompanied only by a bucket of industrial-strength jerk sauce.

We had ordered a quarter of a chicken each, but, oh my, how we wound up wishing that we'd ordered a whole one. The quick hit of the fiery, crunchy rub, the mellowness of the moist meat inside and the long, long endorphin-releasing rush of that searing sauce made this one of the best lunches we have ever eaten.

Until recently, it's been nigh-on impossible to replicate that exquisite experience on these shores. True, Levi Roots and his ilk have done much to popularise Caribbean cuisine in the UK, but, apart from in indigenous communities, you still can't pop down to your local high street for a spot of Caribbean.

Times are changing, though, with London experiencing a new boom in Caribbean eateries and savvy businessmen and West Indian ex-pats spotting Brits' familiarity with, and love, of intense spicing as well as the ease with which we adapt to foreign cuisines. So it's time to get to know your callaloo from your cassava and your ackee from your saltfish.

Caribbean cuisine is a blend of African, Amerindian, European, East Indian, Arab and Chinese influences. While each island will have its particularities, most restaurateurs say that some 80 per cent of all Caribbean cooking is centred on Jamaica – its heavy emphasis on jerks and marinades seems to be reflected in most recent UK openings. Like Cajun and West African cooking, Jamaican cuisine has its own Holy Trinity of ingredients – Scotch bonnet peppers, spring onions and fresh thyme.

The newest kid on the block is Covent Garden's Jamaica Patty Company, a 17-seat takeaway opened by Jamaican-born Theresa Roberts and her Cornish husband, Andrew, which seems only fitting, since a patty is, essentially, a pasty – a spicy filling of jerk chicken, prawn, curried goat or salt fish and ackee (the Jamaican equivalent of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs), encased in a flaky, crispy pastry.

"Jamaican food has always been important to ethnic communities in the UK, but it has been confined to little community places and never had the broad appeal of some other native cuisines," Roberts says.

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

"Whether you like it or not, Jamaica's food, music and culture make it the driving force of the Caribbean. Much of our inspiration and many of our ingredients – ginger and marsala – are influenced by other nationalities. In fact, the Chinese and Japanese will tell you our cuisine is a lot like theirs.

"Lots of people tasting Jamaican cooking will say that it tastes like the food that their grandma made. Really authentic Jamaican recipes can be replicated over here, but if you try and fiddle with them or modernise them too much, it will end in tears."

There are certain rules that should be adhered to, Neufville says. "You must leave the bones in your meat, stab and slash it right down to the bone and lovingly massage your rub or marinade in to the flesh. I'm also a stickler for using authentic Jamaican ingredients, such as wild cinnamon and tamarind, pimento leaf (like a spicy bay leaf), pepper elder – a hillside vine with an incomparable flavour and cayenne-like bird peppers.

Chef Branatic Neufville cooking away Chef Branatic Neufville cooking away (John Lawrence/The Independent)
But there is a downside, he says, to the growing trend for Caribbean food. "The problem is that a lot of Caribbean people have started cooking a watered-down version of their food over here, because they want to fit in," he says. "If you had been intoxicated by the food in Jamaica 40 years ago and walked into a lot of today's UK Caribbean restaurants, the food would taste nothing like it did back then."

On the other hand, there's no harm in adapting, says Josh de Lisser, who was also born in Jamaica and opened Notting Hill's Boom Burger earlier this year. "I've tried to take what I know that the UK likes – burgers – and add the flavours of Jamaica where I grew up. Thanks to my Auntie Sharon, the family cook, I've tried to conjure up the whole Caribbean package, 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 cloakroom, and is now a rum shack offering jerk barbecued meat that has been marinated for 48 hours, slow-cooked for eight hours and flash-smoked.

"Events such as the Notting Hill Carnival have raised awareness of Caribbean food," says co-owner Kieron Botting. "But a lot of people still think of jerked meat as purely a carnival event, which it most certainly isn't. The problem in the UK is that Caribbean food can be terribly sanitised and dumbed-down – as happened with Tex-Mex . There is a danger of restaurants becoming little more than Caribbean theme parks, which does the entire culture a disservice."

Chef Branatic Neufville chopping spring onions for a jerk marinade Chef Branatic Neufville chopping spring onions for a jerk marinade (John Lawrence/The Independent)
Echoing this sentiment is Ajith Jayawickrema, the founder and chief executive of the seven-strong Turtle Bay group of Caribbean restaurants that now spreads from Southampton to Manchester. With a strong record in the field, having opened 30 branches of the South American eatery Las Iguanas, he knew which UK cities would be receptive to a Caribbean cuisine that, carnivals aside, had not always been available to them.

"We were the first Caribbean outlets to stand alongside other, better-known ethnic offerings," he says. "Previously, Caribbean restaurants tended to be small, family-run businesses. We created a new environment to be accessible to non-Caribbeans, without being the sort of place which thinks you can make Caribbean cuisine just by chucking a few Scotch bonnet peppers at it."

As a final bonus, most of the ingredients needed for replicating Caribbean cuisine at home are readily available at most good supermarkets. You don't need any hi-tech kitchen widgetry and if you're looking for a foreign cuisine that instantly transports you to its original home, there really isn't any finer example.

But remember, it's soul food, so take your time and always cook it with your heart rather than your head.

Sticky Jerk Wings with Sugared Oranges

By Levi Roots

Ingredients to serve four as a starter

12 chicken wings
2 tablespoons soft light brown or demerara sugar
2 pipless oranges
5 long, mild red chillies, whole and undamaged

For the jerk marinade:

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

Put the marinade ingredients into a blender and whizz until smooth. Alternatively, pound the ingredients to a paste using a pestle and mortar. Pour it over the wings, turning them over so that they are well coated. Leave to marinate, covered, in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight if more convenient, turning the wings once or twice.

Get a barbecue going until the coals die down to hot grey ash (or pre-heat an oven to 190C/gas mark 5). Barbecue or cook the wings for about 15 minutes, turning them over a few times until they are cooked through (the juices should run clear when a skewer is pushed into the thickest point) and nicely brown, basting with any leftover jerk marinade.

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

At the same time, chargrill the chillies.

Serve the wings with the caramelised oranges and chargrilled chillies.

Taken from 'Caribbean Food Made Easy' by Levi Roots (Mitchell Beazley, £12.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us