Food: Out of many cultures comes one food; Despite Birmingham's large Afro-Caribbean population, Caribbean cuisine remains a largely unexplored area. Caroline Foulkes looks at a gastronomic Cinderella.
When you think of the Caribbean, what do you think of? Sundrenched beaches? Blue seas? White sand?
Chances are you don't think of the cuisine. OK, so rum or some form of rum-based cocktail on which you might have once got hideously drunk might spring to mind, but that's probably about it.
You'd be pushed to name a traditional Caribbean dish.
But the thing is, whether you know it or not, you've probably eaten a Caribbean influenced dish at one time or another.
Condiments and cook-in sauces with a Caribbean flavour are now part of a mass industry worth pounds 30 million a year in this country alone. There are more than 300 West Indian restaurants and takeaways across the country. Yet Caribbean cuisine still trails behind Indian and Chinese foods, the traditional leaders in the ethnic food market.
'The thing with Caribbean cuisine is that it's a combination of a lot of other food styles,' says Orlando McDonald, managing director of XE (Xaymaca Experience), a Caribbean restaurant based on Bristol Road.
'Where most other food comes from a single culture, Caribbean food is a mixture of things brought in from all different cultures.
'I often say to people who are trying Caribbean food for the first time that they may well find something in it that they can identify with in terms of their own culture.'
Because of the colonisation of the West Indies by numerous European explorers, Caribbean food not only bears the culinary hallmarks of the native Carib and Arawak people but also has Portugese, English, Dutch, French and Spanish influences.
'All these different cultures have contributed to what we today call Caribbean cuisine,' says Orlando.
'What's more it's a combination of cultures that has occurred in a very short space of time - we're only talking about the space of a couple of hundred years. That's a short period of time in any culture.'
'The national motto of Jamaica is 'Out of many, one people',' adds Beverley McMahon, lecturer at the Birmingham College of Food and Tourism and XE's other managing director.
'That's very much reflected in the food - out of many different cultures comes one food.
'There's been a lot of hype about fusion food in recent years, but we think that Caribbean cuisine is the original fusion food. Jamaican cuisine is at the core of the food we specialise in, then we add other things from other parts of the country.'
While many Caribbean countries share the same dishes, they often flavour them or name them in different ways.
'The three key ingredients in any Caribbean dish are usually Scotch bonnet peppers (a small, very hot chilli pepper), pimento and fresh thyme,' explains Beverley.
'But it's the combination of those things with other ingredients and seasonings that makes it unique.'
'When a Caribbean cook is preparing food,' says Orlando, 'They'll normally say 'I'm going to season up the food'. They add a pinch of this, a pinch of that, a touch of something else.
'And when it's finished it's unique.' The names of dishes are often transposed depending on which country you're in. So while in Jamaica you might find yourself being served curry goat, in Trinidad and Barbados it's goat curry.
Each country also has its own specialities. 'Roti', from Trinidad, bears a close resemblance to the Brummie's favourite, the naan. Yet it's much more substantial than your average peshwari or coriander naan, being stuffed with jerk chicken or prawns.
Flying fish are a Barbadian speciality, being unique to the waters around the island.
'They're a member of the sardine family,' says Orlando.
'They're usually eaten panfried with escoveitch or 'Scobich' as we call it in Jamaica. It's a Spanish way of preparing food with onions and vinaigrette to give it a nice firey flavour.'
One of the most traditional styles of food in the Caribbean is 'jerk', a style which owes its invention to the Maroons, or runaway slaves of Jamaica.
'Most of them lived in a part of the island called the Cockpit country, which was very hilly and densely forested,' says Orlando 'Because they had to cook on the move and undetected, they would dig holes in the ground and light fires made with pimento wood, which gives off very little smoke.
'But the pimento also gave the food a certain flavour, and became an essential part of the cooking process. A spice derived from pimento is still used today.'
Even odder is the fact that the British plantation owners, the 'plantocracy', actually contributed to Caribbean cookery.
'There's a big misconception that the British only ever used to like bland food,' says Orlando.
'Members of the plantocracy would give huge parties and dinners and would ask the cooks to prepare a lot of flavoured food - they created a lot of Caribbean food as we know it. For instance, they brought over the idea of a pot roast. In the Caribbean they would roast it in what's called a Dutch pot and then add seasoning.'
Orlando, who is originally from Jamaica - 'I was brought over here kicking and screaming as a youngster, but eventually settled down' - never intended to work in the food business. It was only while he was reading for a law degree as a mature student that he noticed people were interested in the food of his birthplace.
'People tried the kind of food I was used to cooking and then asked me to do buffets and food for parties. Later, I opened my own vegetarian fast food unit in the Pavilions.'
He met Beverley, who grew up in County Clare, ten years ago. In 1994 they decided to team up and create a restaurant dedicated to Caribbean food.
'I learned most of the things I know about Caribbean food from Orlando,' she says, 'but now my work for the college actually takes me abroad and I teach in Jamaica three times a year - it gives me a good opportunity to find out what's happening in food out there and bring back some new ideas.'
Xaymaca Experience - the name is from the original Spanish word for Jamaica - opened in 1998. It's now being relaunched as XE.
'My experience in the catering sector suggested to me at the inception of the restaurant that we had a lot to learn about running a restaurant,' says Orlando. 'We've just been on alearning curve. Now we're at the point where we feel we're ready to launch ourselves on a bigger scale.
'Caribbean culture and Caribbean food need to be part of Birmingham's cultural renaissance, and hopefully we can play a part in that.'
XE, 34 Bristol Street, Birmingham. Telephone 0121 622 3332.
Ingredients Serves four 2lb goat meat (mutton can be used as alternative) 2 cloves of garlic 1 scotchbonnet pepper, diced 1 teaspoon of salt 2 tablespoon of curry powder 2 tablespoon of oil 2 medium onions , sliced 1 sprig of escallion
Method Season the goat meat with escallion, garlic, curry powder and salt. Allow to marinate overnight. Add the seasoned meat with the sliced onions, the oil and the diced scotchbonnet pepper and add to a large cooking pot. Simmer until cooked, for about two to three hours. Serve with plain white rice or traditional rice and peas.
Ackee and saltfish
JAMAICA'S NATIONAL DISH
Ingredients (serves six) 2 tins of ackee 250g of skinned and boned salted codfish 2 onions sliced 1 tomato chopped 1 sprig of thyme 1 cup of oil 1 teaspoon of coarse black pepper Soak the salted codfish overnight to remove the salt.
Open the tins of ackee and drain. Delicately flake the saltfish Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the saltfish, saut for a few minutes and then add the onions, thyme, tomato and black pepper. Saute again Fold the ackee into the mix and simmer for five to ten minutes.
Garnish with coarse black pepper. Serve with rice or fried plantain.
XE Island Bounty, a whole seabass seasoned and served with prawns and below, the exterior and interior of XE on Bristol Road
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Mar 8, 2003|
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