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.
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.
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."
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)