Hot days on the beach – the Caribbean already conjures up a blissful idea for Brits. But it’s the food that could be influencing the food scene in the UK, according to the head of insight at Compass Group, Mark Davies.
Considering Compass Group provides food everywhere from sporting events to military bases and in schools, hospitals and boardrooms – with 15,000 locations across the UK and Ireland – Davies could be on to something.
“Caribbean has been very localised in some areas and there are places you can go get proper Caribbean food [in London], but it’s not been opened enough or developed enough,” he says.
“You can just see street food and small places opening up selling Caribbean food that is portable, that is a bit tastier and rounded for the British taste... [Things like] jerk chicken, it’s a slightly different version of chicken, it’s one step away from what people know and it’s a little bit more interesting and it’s kinda cool as well. I think that it’s possibly the next kind of Mexican, that it could be pretty big. It’s quite spicy and British people can deal with spice.”
Davies says for Compass Group it could offer an interesting, cheeky change to their menu, including bringing in some plantain for experimentation.
So what hidden treasure already abounds for Caribbean in the capital?
Not just jerk chicken
Curry goat is the most popular dish at Three Little Birds in Brixton due to its closeness to Indian cuisine, says former Apprentice contestant April Jackson, who opened the restaurant two years ago. Her restaurant offers Jamaican-inspired small plates.
She agrees with Davies that while Caribbean food is growing in popularity, it is still considered quite inaccessible.
“If you look at the landscape in hospitality, most Jamaican places are takeaways. Obviously there is the rise of Turtle Bay and The Rum Kitchen, and other places like Cottons have more branches, but when you compare it to other types of cuisine it’s relatively new in terms of having a sit-down, comfortable environment and having more players in the game that offer casual dining,” she tells Food Spark.
She is also passionate about the diversity of the cuisine, saying there is so much more to Caribbean cuisine then jerk chicken – particularly as people don’t realise the many cultural influences in the region.
Immigrants from China, Europe, Lebanon and India all call the Caribbean home and have contributed to the food scene.
Core staples include scallions (spring onions), thyme (not the soft British version, but the hardier, more flavoursome style from Africa), the scotch bonnet pepper, onions and garlic – most of which appear in every dish, says Jackson.
But she believes that people should steer away from words like authentic and traditional, as the ingredients taste different in the UK. Instead it should be about bringing Caribbean food out from the Styrofoam takeaway box and creating the right vibe and atmosphere for it to thrive.
“You can still do spices – the British palate has changed in the last 20 years – and people are a lot more excited to explore and learn and go on the journey with you,” remarks Jackson.
Taking the traditional and giving it a twist is part of the ethos for the new executive chef at Cottons Rum Shack & Restaurant – one of the oldest Caribbean restaurants in London, which opened its first branch in Camden 30 years ago.
The chef, Collin Brown, has created a reggae roast menu, giving the classic Sunday roast a Caribbean twist. It includes roast jerk chicken with plantain wedges and callaloo fritters (a traditional leafy green vegetable dish) as well as Caribbean pot roast beef.
Brown is currently going through a total revamp of the menu, including making most of the desserts gluten- and dairy-free, like its crème brulee.
Jamaica born and raised, Brown believes that Caribbean food is ideally positioned to tap into the trend for healthy eating. He grew up devouring 20% meat and 80% vegetables and grains in his daily meals.
“We don’t use oil or butter; it’s mostly steamed, stewed or grilled. It’s not just jerk chicken, there is more to it. There is the health side of it, and I really champion and try to push it,” he says.
“Health is massive right now in London. I think this cuisine is just the answer that a lot of people are looking for.”
Brown is sure that Caribbean is going to take off in the next year or two as more ambassadors start to champion the food.
So is Sparkie getting Caribbean cravings?
I think the reason Caribbean food hasn't been more widely successful yet is that it never went through the Anglicising that all other widely accepted cuisines did as they were brought into the country (aside from Levi Roots' attempts).
Bits of the cuisine were widely adopted, and the spice levels of jerk chicken for example have dropped considerably to accommodate the British palate. It is difficult to say why we never followed up with the other similar products like the curries or fried foods, because we certainly have a taste for them.
One idea may be that it is a naming issue – because it’s difficult to tell what things like ‘stamp and go’ (salt fish fritters) are without prior knowledge. It is an interesting thought though that our palates are growing more adventurous, and we are seeing a definite trend towards authentic food products. So the fact that Caribbean is quite established in parts already may put it ahead of the curve if someone takes that momentum and runs with it.
I think anything is fair game at the moment as long as it is done to a high standard that could be representative of the cuisine. That is how its popularity will spread beyond the niches.