I'm still trying to figure out whether or not I should take this personally, but my mum and my brother both decided to move away from the UK soon after I got married. After over four decades grinding her fingers to the bone as a healthcare professional (#loveourNHS forever but DAMN those people are overworked and underpaid), my mum upped sticks to retire on the Caribbean island she'd left as a teenager, Jamaica. She now splits her time between staying with us here in London and her little place in Jamaica. There are many, many upsides to this arrangement, first among which is the joy that reacquainting herself with her homeland has brought to my mother. That we have an excuse to batter our credit cards to go visit her runs a close second. The sun! The sea! and the FOOD, Lord have mercy, the food.
If you've ever had the opportunity and/or good sense to spend your August bank holiday at Notting Hill Carnival here in London, you should have some idea of some Caribbean staples, at least by smell. I'm talking drum-BBQd jerk chicken (above and left), steaming vats of curry goat, pepper pot soup, mounds of rice and peas, piles of roti, bags of freshly cut sugar cane...all washed down with some Ginger Beer, or a can of Red Stripe if you're hitting the booze. And of course, Wray & Nephew rum, either being swigged happily from hip bottles or, more likely, disguised in dangerous quantities within some innocent sounding fruit punch, all the better to punch you in the head the morning after. I've been hitting Carnival since I was a tiny kid perched on my dad's shoulders, and it's so meaningful to me to be able to do the same with my own kids.
So, the NHC food stalls are such a helpful crash course - and when we can safely have the glory that is Carnival back on our streets, you must go and eat and drink your body weight in everything before dancing, jumping and walking it all off along the route. And please take the time to learn about why it's so much more than a party - far too few people know that Carnival is a vital part of community healing, born from the crucible of a civil rights uprising after the racially motivated murder in 1959 of a Black Caribbean resident, Kelso Cochrane. Recently, of course, it's also been at the epicentre of the push for accountability after the avoidable tragedy of lives lost in local high-rise housing block, Grenfell Tower. More on Carnival's history here.
But back to food. You'll find all those Carnival options in Jamaica too, of course, but JA will also bring you a wealth of other goodies. Jerk pork. Jerk crab. Jerk everything in the place where it was invented (I was told, don't @ me!). Mangoes, bananas, coconuts, guineps, nesberries, oranges, fresh off the trees. Fresh ackee and saltfish - made with the freshly-picked squidgy yellow flesh of Jamaica's national fruit. And that's before we get to all the Ital food - vegan, delicious goodness popular with the Rastafarian population, who had been singing the praises of plant-based food for decades before it was popular in Europe. The thing is, outside the more perishable Caribbean-grown goodies it's much harder to get in Britain, you will find that good traditional Caribbean takeaways in the UK will serve up a lot of the favourites non-Caribbean folks might be less familiar with. To eat Jamaican food is to have a taste of the history of the island - it's truly the case that "Out of Many, One People." Here are a few of my favourites:
Patties - meat, fish or vegetable filled hand pies, likely descended from the Cornish pasty brought to Caribbean shores during colonisation, seasoned with the curry spices brought by indentured Indian labourers
Festival - think fried dense but fluffy dough dumplings in the shape of a giant's finger, as seen on the small white plate in my picture.
Roast breadfruit - cooked whole in the flames until the skin is blackened and the white interior is tender and light.
Escovitch fish - fried and covered in fiery pickled carrots and onions, seen on the large rectangular plates in the picture.
Steamed callaloo - somewhere between kale and spinach, and just as packed with goodness.
Fried bammy - thin flat rounds of cassava bread descended from Jamaica's original people, the Arawaks, usually served with fish.
Gizzada - finger-pinched open pastries, filled with spiced, shredded, cooked coconut, brought to the shores by Portuguese Jewish refugees escaping religious persecution in the early 1500s.
So please don't wait for Carnival before you start to explore more Caribbean cuisine. There are some things that just won't taste as good here in the UK, because the produce just can't be fresh or in season enough. But in honour of Jamaican Independence Day, next Black Pound Day, or just because you like good food, go get involved with your nearest Caribbean restaurants. And if you're in London, check out the Jamaica Patty Co, now with branches in both Covent Garden and Liverpool Street. Best patties I've had in the UK yet. Thank me later.