Vittles 2.14 - The Diversity of Caribbean Cuisines

Journey Cakes, by Keshia Sakarah

Sometimes our calf countries are not our own. I’m not sure when my dad started getting a taste for Caribbean food but at some point during his daily routine of travelling around London in a van he must have noticed the West Indian shops which — in some areas — are as populous as greasy spoons. My dad is a labourer, and lunch is always the most important meal of the day. While his fellow workers were out eating bacon and egg sandwiches and fry-ups, he would be eating ackee and saltfish, oxtail stews, and (to the amusement of the servers) mannish water, hard food and Irish moss, all of which he believed “put lead in your pencil”. As Keshia Sakarah explains in today’s newsletter, the Island cuisines are “not frilled”, which is a quality that endeared them to him. There is a function in the food that makes it perfect for a working day — I remember my dad would not only extol the taste to me but how good he felt after it, how he could keep working until evening without feeling tired. There’s a wisdom that runs through all the cuisines of the Islands, a deep knowledge of ‘wellness’ before wellness became the preserve of the daughters of English landed gentry encouraging us to spiralise our vegetables.

Of course now I’m being guilty of flattening all the cuisines of the Caribbean into ‘Jamaican food’, which has always held an outsized influence in shaping the outsider view of Caribbean cuisine. The cuisines and cultures of the Islands are vast and diverse, and are as different from each other as the cuisines of European countries, all with their own idiosyncrasies and rivalries. You only need to hear the roar of laughter that greets Felix Dexter when he says “especially you Jamaicans” in one of his best Real McCoy sketches, or Lord Kitchener’s anti-immigration calypso to get a glimpse of the intra-island politics. In London, the food scene has been strongly influenced by the cuisines of the islands marked by British colonialism — the jerk at Tasty Jerk and Smokey Jerky, Jamaican soups and stews at All Island Grill, Survivor and Ochi (where Rihanna eats on her London stops), Trinidadian food at Hilltop Roti and Roti Joupa, Guyanese at Kaieteur Kitchen and Umana Yana, James Cochran’s food inspired by Saint Vincent, Keshia’s own food at Caribe’ which spans St Lucia to Puerto Rico.

Why are they important? Beyond the obvious (they are some of the best restaurants in London) there is another reason. I’ve often wondered why the French, Spanish and the Portuguese left their mark on the cuisines of their colonies and the British didn’t. But this isn’t true. The European countries indelibly shaped cuisines through ingredients and cooking techniques. The British influence was indirect, more perverse but ultimately stronger. They influenced them through bodies. Through the movement of bodies, of slaves and indentured labourers, that came from India and China to the Caribbean, the British left such a profound influence we barely question why there is roti in Trinidad, or chow mein and mithai in Guyana. The beauty of the food elides an ugly and brutal past, that explains much of what is happening today. The Caribbean food of the UK is not Britain’s to claim but it is British history. Perhaps now is the time for people to learn it.


Journey Cakes, by Keshia Sakarah

Recently I went to Brixton Market, as I usually do, to buy plantain, breadfruit and a few other ground provisions. When I saw that plantain had increased from the usual ‘4 for £1’ to 60p each,  that breadfruit and callaloo weren't even being imported, and that even the few remaining yams had seen better days, I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. The days when an excess of blackened, overripe avocados would be tossed to the side of the road were over. We were all making the most of what was available - at a premium.

This pandemic has not only shed light on the state of our food ecosystem but also on how food is fundamental to our well-being - not just for survival but for our self-expression. For the diaspora communities of London, this means imported food. Supermarket shelves still appear full, but what were once basic, humble commodities used in everyday cooking by Africans, Caribbeans and Latin Americans may once more become almost-inaccessible luxuries. Looking at those few, sad yams, I began to recall the stories my grandparents told me of their experience with food when they first arrived here in the depths of winter in 1956. They went from the hot sun to two feet of snow; from enjoying fresh mango, avocado and fish to tinned Spam, potatoes and cabbage. The contrast couldn’t have been more severe and the culture shock was profound.

I am a second generation Caribbean, born and raised here in the UK. My grandparents emigrated to England from the tiny island of Montserrat, thirty-three miles south of Antigua, following an invitation from the British Government to help rebuild the country following the devastation of World War Two. Although their new life looked and felt different, the consistent reference to Montserrat as ‘home’ reminded us and them where their hearts always remained.

Growing up here in the UK within an immigrant family meant that our life had two parts to it: where we came from and the new reality in which we found ourselves. ‘Grandma and Grandad’s House’ was a great metaphor for this. Inside their home was the Caribbean; outside was England. Everything we did in that house was steeped in our culture from ‘back home’, and their pride in their culture was our only way of knowing who we truly were. 

Any opportunity to connect with home was grasped with open arms, and food created a beautiful bridge for this. For our family, as well as the many other Caribbeans who now resided in the UK, food was and always would be significant in the development of our sense of self, a symbolic means of shaping our identity. Food is not only something we consume for survival – it is an essential extension of ourselves, a mark of our identity and a representation of our culture. The meals I ate with my grandparents represented the very part of me that was wholly African and Caribbean. Rice and peas with almost every meal, Saturday soup, and fish every Friday  – those were our norms. Steamed snapper with pumpkin and okra or stewed saltfish (cod) with fungee (cornmeal with gungo peas or okra) and antrouba (sauteed aubergine with garlic and onions) was our end-of-week tradition, as opposed to British fish and chips. 

However, these meals were not always possible.

During the 70s there were only a few ‘exotic’ fruit and vegetable importers in the whole country. Like pandemic-era Brixton Market, limited accessibility meant high costs of the imported staples they were familiar with, such as yam, sweet potato, green banana, avocado, pumpkin, callaloo and dasheen. To create satisfying and nourishing meals with ingredients from their new reality required great innovation. Saturday soup may not have had every ground provision in it. Sweet potato would be substituted with white potatoes and steamed fish may be served with cabbage instead of okra. Either way, my grandparents were content because they knew its true essence and meaning. This encouraged their ingenuity and creativity in the kitchen, allowing them to recreate the dishes they had loved from ‘home’, even if those dishes were not exactly what they were used to. This is a reality we have always known: the Caribbean food we now love was created by our ancestors and informed by their time in servitude, a mix of traditional West African cuisines from Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone, evolved through British, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch colonialism.

As time progressed, the first generation of Caribbeans came of age and takeaways (aka ‘yard shops’) began to open around the country in the areas the island communities populated, such as Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol and London. Now you could buy your freshly baked patties on the go, get a steamed red bream with okra and water crackers for lunch, and take a brown stew oxtail with butter beans home for dinner. Organically, these takeaways became crucial cultural hubs for the Caribbeans in the UK to get their taste of home at a convenience, while serving as an introduction – or gateway – to island food for those outside of the culture. The natural sense of community these safe spaces created, purely out of necessity, brought a variety of islands together and opened up an opportunity for them to share the nuances that made them individual.

The presence of Caribbean food culture in the UK for over half a century has yet to make a statement within the wider food industry, with recognition and understanding of dishes being fairly limited. This is strange when you realise that over sixty percent of the Caribbean was held under British rule in the 17th century, with many islands only becoming independent within the last sixty years. Not to mention that many communities from these islands have now resided in London and beyond for three or more generations. Yet the misconception of world history here in the UK, and the perception of Britain’s influence globally, has created a lack of understanding on how old civilisations have been devastated and new communities have formed across all continents. This is an unfortunate reflection of Britain’s wider ignorance towards colonialism and how that has impacted culture.

This lack of understanding of Caribbean culture means that Caribbean food is reduced in the popular imagination to a fragment of its true diversity. For example, jerk chicken is a Jamaican dish and not necessarily something you will find all over the Caribbean; roti is Trinidadian and Guyanese; goat water (stewed goat with pimento and cloves) is the exclusive national dish of Montserrat, rooted in Irish influence. People know about jerk chicken and maybe curry goat, but these only touch on the many delicacies that come from Jamaica – one of the largest islands, yes, but still only one of over 700 that exist in the Caribbean. St. Lucia’s beautiful creole flavours, incorporating British, French and African cuisines, introduced us to wonderful dishes such as boulette (breadfruit croquettes), bouillon (soup) and cocoa tea (fresh hot chocolate made from cacao pods). Trinidadian food is the epitome of East Indian and African culture: roti and curry goat, doubles and pelau (one pot rice dish of stewed meat). Caribbean cooking isn’t ‘fancy’ or ‘frilled’, it is people eating out of survival, with every dish filled with heart and deep soul.

Fortunately, times are changing and there is more variety in the voices that exist within the mainstream food industry. Riaz Phillips self-published his book ‘Belly Full’, which celebrates the array of Caribbean eating spots all over the country. Denai Moore started ‘Dee’s Table’, sharing her interpretation of naturally vegan Ital Jamaican food, a counterpoint to those who think veganism is a modern lifestyle trend. I myself started Caribe’, based at Pop Brixton, and I have made it my work's purpose not only to celebrate the complexities of Caribbean culture through food but to honour those before me and make space for those who succeed me. 

The following recipe for Johnny cakes is super easy and a very poignant one. Adversity always inspires innovation: Johnny cakes are in fact ‘journey cakes’, referring to their ability to naturally preserve at sea for long periods of time. Some islands call them fried bakes or fried dumplings, and although some elements are interchangeable, such as the presence of milk or the addition of cornmeal, the core ingredients remain the same. This recipe is a great reflection of both the present and past because it is predominately made from the most basic ingredient of all: flour. Many supermarkets have sold out of flour as of late, which just goes to show that we can all get creative when we want to. As a culture, our ingenuity has served us well in hard times, and we now eat these as a celebratory snack, filling them with anything from cheese to ackee and saltfish. Fisherman would ‘walk with them’: carry these cakes with them for something filling to eat. When I was young, if we ran out of bread, Grandma would whip up a batch of fried bakes. It was even better than a doorstop loaf – so much so that I wished we ran out of bread more often.

Johnny Cakes aka ‘Journey Cakes

Ingredients

500g plain flour

1 tbsp/15g baking powder

2 tsp salt

1 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp oil or butter, melted

120ml milk or plant based alternative

100ml water

Vegetable oil for frying

Method

  1. Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl

  2. Make a well in the centre and add the melted butter, followed by the milk and water

  3. Knead for 5-10 minutes until a soft dough is formed

  4. Leave to rest for approximately 10 minutes

  5. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and form these into round balls

  6. Press out each ball into a flat disc, approximately 1cm thick

  7. Heat oil in a deep, heavy pan to 170C

  8. Deep fry each ball, turning frequently (this should take 3-4 mins per johnny cake)

  9. Drain on kitchen paper and serve as they are or with cheese, saltfish or cured meat.

Keshia Sakarah is the chef and owner of Caribe’ in Pop Brixton, a restaurant dedicated to showcasing the diversity of Caribbean cuisines. While Caribe’ is shut, Keshia has started 'Carnival Lunchbox' - delivering roti, rice and much more around South London. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter, as well as YouTube where she posts out recipes celebrating the cuisines of all the Caribbean islands.

The illustration is by designer Tihara Smith. You can find her work at www.tiharasmith.com.

Both Keshia and Tihara were paid for their newsletter.