Against the backdrop of the Windrush scandal, it feels as though more British people of Caribbean descent are taking pains to learn about their history but, in general, the rich narrative of British-Caribbean food is not as widely known as it ought to be. Twelve years ago, Jamaican food entrepreneur Wade Lyn declared in the Guardian that it was “still difficult to find a Caribbean restaurant in most of our major cities, let alone some of our smaller towns”. Interest has grown since then, with the expansion of chains such as Cottons and Rum Kitchen, plus the arrival of McDonald’s jerk burger and Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice: Caribbean food is, for better or sometimes worse, part of the mainstream.
It’s also moving forwards, propelled by up and coming chefs and an older generation of connoisseurs. From restaurants such as Raggas in Liverpool, Maureen’s in Leeds, Healthy Eaters in Brixton, JB’s Soul Food in Peckham, to new ventures such as Nyamming, most people I know have a favourite Caribbean food outlet that challenges lingering stereotypes.
Author Riaz Phillips has done more than most to document British-Caribbean food. His book Belly Full, self-published in 2017, charted his journey around the UK interviewing and photographing chefs and owners of dozens of restaurants from Moss Side in Manchester to Hartley Road in Nottingham. He notes that Caribbean food and drink establishments in the UK date back to the 1920s, with the Caribbean Cafe in Cardiff and Florence Mills Social Parlour at 50 Carnaby Street in London. “I was going to every library I could, looking for social history books, scouring for any mention of food and social events,” says Phillips. “A few mentioned curry and rice and peas.” Later, came restaurants such as the widely loved Mangrove in Notting Hill, which was at the forefront of black activism in the 1970s and 80s (the site is now a branch of Rum Kitchen).
Nyamming, conceived by Joseph Pilgrim and chef Marie Mitchell of Island Social Club, represents the voices of many second- and third-generation British people of Caribbean descent like Phillips who are reclaiming a culture and a history they haven’t had full access to. “I felt like my heritage wasn’t just Caribbean, even though it’s enough and it’s rich and it’s brilliant, I still felt like there was something missing,” says Pilgrim. “This was an opportunity to find out some of those things.”
The first Nyamming menu, put together by Mitchell and Nigerian fusion star Lopè Ariyo, drew attention to the similarities between the diasporas’ cuisines – ingredients such as plantain, goat, corn and sorrel are cross-continental – as well as differences; the tactile nature of using pounded yam to sup up egusi (pounded melon seeds) was less familiar.
Projects such as Nyamming offer clues to what Caribbean food in the UK might look like in the near future, as do the current prominence of vegetarian and vegan food, both of which nod to the vast repertoire of Caribbean chefs beyond the familiar meat-based staples. Ital Fresh, a “plant-based” Caribbean pop-up run by two Rastafarians in Liverpool, who “ditched meat before it was cool” as part of their spiritual and political beliefs, began as a supper club in 2015. Owners Poppy and Dan Thompson invited a handful of diners to secret locations. “Vegan Caribbean is an ancient thing,” explains Poppy. “It’s definitely not new but it’s now coming to the forefront as veganism as a whole is growing.” The ital way of eating, which the pair adhere to, is essentially organically grown vegetarian and vegan food, developed hand in hand with Rastafarianism in 1930s Jamaica.
Buster Mantis, a moodily lit Caribbean bar and food joint tucked away under the arches in south-east London’s Deptford, explored veganism at the end of last year in collaboration with Denai Moore of supper club Dee’s Table. Moore, who was born in Jamaica before moving to the UK when she was nine, also stresses that vegan Jamaican food isn’t new. She says she started by recreating dishes she craved and could no longer eat. “Even just ackee, most places would serve it with saltfish,” she says. Her take on the Jamaican national dish uses seaweed, something she passed on to the menu at Buster Mantis, where she served delicious “saltfish” fritters with ackee crema and smokey onions. She’s also “obsessed” with the idea of making a dessert pattie. “I grew up eating beef patties, and then having chocolate milk straight afterwards,” she says.
Alongside its impact on vegan culture, Caribbean food is beginning to make an impression in more traditional areas. At 1251, his recently opened restaurant in Islington, James Cochran, a chef with St Lucian heritage, sits languidly across from me, dressed in his whites. He was champion of champions on the most recent series of The Great British Menu, cooking his dish Under the Knife (five cuts of goat) as the main course in the final banquet. There are only a handful of other chefs in the country working with Caribbean flavours at a similar level and when I sit down to try his hot and flaky jerk-spiced hake – with a bitingly fresh seaweed coconut yogurt, watermelon and coriander – his Caribbean confidence shines through. The dish tastes similar to a meal of mahi mahi I had sitting on a beach in St Kitts.
He seems unfazed by the idea of being one of the few chefs bringing Caribbean cooking into more upmarket dining. “Long may it continue,” he says, going on to tell me about his plans to open a jerk chicken and hip-hop restaurant somewhere in central London. “My jerk seasoning spice I keep quite close to my chest … everyone has their own style with it.” Moore believes a new generation will be inspired by people like Cochran. “He had scotch-bonnet jam and all these cool ideas,” she says of his appearance on The Great British Menu.
Cochran stresses the importance of his family history on his blended-culture cooking. “My mum’s from St Vincent then worked on Mustique, where she was a nanny for Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger,” he says. When she moved to London she met Cochran’s British dad. For the Cochrans, “A roast was never just a roast. You’d have your leg of lamb with lots of West Indian seasoning, with plantain, roast potatoes, breadfruit, suet pudding … It was like, wow, this is an explosion of flavours in my mouth!”
The thread that draws the work of a lot of contemporary Caribbean chefs together is that they are grounded in family. In some ways, the evening at Nyamming was in honour of Pilgrim’s grandmother, who had died the night before. “She was called the Queen of Ridley,” he says, referring to Hackney’s Ridley Road market, which has long been a hub for the Caribbean community. “My first investigation into my heritage was through her; I’d go over and she would teach me how to cook. Although,of course, she wouldn’t teach me because there’s no teaching to be done.”
“No – no! You watch – you observe,” Mitchell chimes in. “I would always make my nan bake and watch my dad cook in the kitchen.”
Peter Innes, the chef behind Bristol restaurant Caribbean Croft, was adopted into a Caribbean family as a child, and his wife is of Jamaican heritage. He has been “cooking and joking and laughing in the kitchen for the last 25 years” with his mother-in-law, Ms Cat. Her influence is found throughout the menu which includes peppered Appleton coconut steak and marinated aubergines with a chilli okra, bean and tomato sauce.
Innes’s take on the future of Caribbean food is grounded in his belief that cooking from a wider range of islands will become more influential. Jamaica has tended to dominate perceptions of Caribbean food, though places in London such as the Trinidadian Roti Joupa and Limin’, and the Guyanan Umana Yana have built up a following.
“We have three staff here who are from Trinidad and they’re always giving me ideas from the Indian connection they have,” Innes explains. One of their most popular dishes is a trini (also known as a double), a flat festival-style dumpling. Slit open to reveal a fluffy centre, it’s filled with mackerel, jerk chicken, pork or curried chickpeas. It has its origins in the food of the indentured labourers brought from India to Trinidad, post-slave trade, and is similar to the Indian dish chana bhatura.
“There are so many different islands and each one of them has their own offerings,” says Chris Singam of Cottons, who has been running Caribbean outlets since 1985. Cottons’ menu has featured Guyanese pepperpot and will soon be adding a vegan section. Much like his current contemporaries, he is offering a fresh taste of Caribbean cuisine grounded in family values. The struggle, Singam says, is retaining authenticity while reaching a wider audience. Singam is not of Caribbean heritage but has thought carefully about how to bring the taste to the UK and makes a point of hiring Caribbean chefs. “What we see at the moment is a lot of pseudo-Caribbean places opening up and pseudo-Caribbean food being served,” he says. “ It’s very hard for a non-Caribbean person to develop the taste that is necessary to produce a good, good Caribbean meal.”
As Nyamming’s Pilgrim says: “The thing with gentrification is that a business is often inexperienced, so they get told they have to think of a customer who would be the most valuable to them. That person is always the ABC1 white, middle-class person.”
Vegan dishes and cuisine that takes in influences of islands beyond Jamaica is the future of the style in the UK at the moment – but hopefully, even as it penetrates fine-dining culture, it will remain grounded in its authentic family values and home cooking.
As Mitchell says: “Within Caribbean culture, you come together, you eat and you celebrate with food.” A wider understanding of the differences between the islands seems to be brewing, rather than them being seen as a homogenous mass. What is undoubtedly true is that rather than being the next big thing, Caribbean food is already here.
Island Social Club is at Curio Cabal, Kingsland Road, London N1, from 15 February