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It's feast time in Tipton - Caribbean style; FOOD& DRINK A taste of the Caribbean. . . in Tipton. RICHARD McCOMB talks, and eats, with Jamaican super cook Veda Sampson.


Veda Sampson recalls walking to the beach with the Queen of the Fish Cooks to marvel at the daily catch brought in by the boats.

There was glistening red bream, goatfish, snapper, jackfish, lobster, crab and shrimp, plucked just hours before from the seas off Montego Bay.

Veda would help the Queen, her mother Miriam, to pick out the fish, and then they'd do what any self-respecting Jamaican family would do. They would scale the fish, gut it and cook it there and then, on the beach, over hot coals. It was instant cooking, Caribbean style.

"My mother always used a little bit of sea water with the cooking. The flavour was something else," recalls Veda.

She recounts the story as I admire a table of food she and her daughter, Tara, have laid out for me to taste. I feel like a king at a feast.

We may be a million miles from the tropical idyll Veda has just described, sitting in the heart of the post-industrial Black Country, but the flavour of the old country cuisine has been magically brought to life. It's plantain time, in Tipton.

This outpost of Dudley may not seem the obvious place to sample the delights of ackee and saltfish, fried dumplings, curried goat and red bream. But it is here that 67-year-old Veda, a former auxiliary nurse, has made her home.

Although most people her age might be looking forward to some quality down-time, this sensational rustic cook gives the impression of entering the prime of her life. With one Afro-Caribbean cookbook and a healthy eating plan for the NHS behind her, Veda is now putting the finishing touches to a recipe book for children. Then there is her dream of opening her own restaurant.

Clearly Veda is not easily fazed; in fact, I'm not sure she is fazed by anything. She regularly cooks up feasts for a few hundred people without breaking sweat.

"I don't think it is hard work when you are doing something you love. When I get orders for 150-200 people, it is exciting," says Veda.

"Actually, I can cook for 200 people far easier than I can for 20. And I will tell you one thing I can't do very well, and that is breakfast - because it is too small."

Food is undeniably Veda's passion. It is impossible not to be swept along by her enthusiasm. "I think food is the most important thing in every culture. Whether it is a sad, or a happy event, it always ends with food," she says.

"When we were growing up in Jamaica, when you had a social gathering or a christening, everyone would bring along a different pot and we all came together.

"Someone would bring the ackee and saltfish, someone would bring the dumplings, the rice and peas, the mannish water a hearty soup. Everybody brought something to the meal."

With a smile, she adds: "The men would bring the beer or the rum. It depends on what you have got."

Veda is concerned, however, that the old ways are under threat as the globalised eating culture spreads it tentacles ever further. During her last visit to Jamaica, in June last year, she was shocked at the changes in eating habits, the dumbing down of food.

Veda, who was born in St Elizabeth and came to the UK when she was 19, says: "The food has become very Americanised. People have big fridges now instead of larders and are using convenience foods.

"The food has become too commercial and nothing tastes the same as it used to."

She adds: "The older people are dying and the younger people don't have the interest in food. They want TV dinners. It's the same all over the world."

Veda hopes to reverse the trend among the new generation, but her mission is by no means confined to the Caribbean community. Veda's new children's recipe book is multi-cultural in focus, and if she can hook in new converts, as well as re-educating those who have lost touch with their Jamaican food heritage, she'll be a happy woman as she lovingly stirs one of her great pots of soup. To the novice, the traditional Caribbean recipe titles can sound bewildering - Saturday soup, plantain chips, cow foot, mackerel with green banana, rundown sauce, callaloo, and sweet potato pudding aren't regular features on restaurant menus in the UK.

But with the right recipe - and having cooked since she was nine, Veda's got a lifetime of them - it is impossible to go wrong. At least that's what Veda says, with a smile as wide as Montego Bay.

"You just break the recipe down to make it as easy as possible," says Veda, who is affectionately known as Big Nanny by her nieces and nephews. She is terribly cuddly.

"Some people say to me that ackee saltfish is too hard to cook. But it isn't. It is all down to preparation," says Veda.

I am by no means an expert on Jamaican food but it seems to me that the essence, and the joy, of Caribbean cooking is that it is home cooking. This is food to be enjoyed, food to be shared. And on the basis of what Veda and her daughter Tara serve me, it's absolutely packed with flavour.

The beautifully fleshy red bream has been cooked with onion, peppers, tomatoes, and lime juice; and the curried goat is rich and intense, the cooked up bones adding to the depth of the sauce.

Callaloo, a green vegetable like spinach, has been sauteed with peppers, onion, escallion (similar to spring onion), chopped tomatoes, garlic, thyme and coconut cream. It's a meal in itself and is great with grilled cheese on top.

Surely it's tricky to source the right ingredients?

Veda corrects me, pointing to the specialist Afro-Caribbean shops of Handsworth, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton (here she recommends Home from Home) and Birmingham's fruit and fish markets.

"There's no excuse not to cook Caribbean food!" says Veda. Ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, which has a scarlet shell enclosing the yellow edible flesh, can be bought tinned, she says. So can callaloo, about 90p.

Veda insists the only ingredient that is impossible to get is annatto, known as poor man's saffron. These orangey/red seeds are used to flavour and colour food, and Big Nanny makes sure she puts in an order every time someone she knows pops back to Jamaica.

Recipes can be tweaked to suit personal preferences. So while Veda likes her soups chunky, some people blend. Either way is fine, she says.

"And Caribbean food doesn't have to be hot," says Veda. "You are in control of your herbs and spices. There is nothing wrong with adding a little bit more later on. Heat is like salt. You can add it, but you can't take it out."

Do not, however, be tempted to pull a fast one with tradition. You'll end up with ackee on your face. "There is no point in substituting ingredients with Jamaican food. It doesn't work. You can tell the difference," stresses Veda.

As I finish off my tropical fruit salad and sweet potato pudding (a divine mixture of ginger, syrup and coconut) I vow not to eat for a week.

"Caribbean food is proper food. You don't need to snack," says Veda.

I wasn't thinking of snacking, but I was considering sleeping, and dreaming of the Caribbean.

How then does Veda keep going, and why has she got so much energy?

"It's the food, isn't it. It keeps you alive!" she cries out laughing.

For more information about Veda Sampson's cooking, go to Big Nanny's Jamaican Kitchen features more than 150 recipes and a glossary on Caribbean ingredients. Veda's new children's cookbook, not yet titled, will be out later this year.

Big Nanny's Jamaican recipes


An essential Jamaican marinade for poultry, meat and fish, jerk seasoning is very hot and spicy. While it can be rubbed into meat or fish and cooked immediately, it is best to leave for at least two hours, preferably overnight.

4 stalks escallion or spring onion, dried and finely chopped

12 poinsettia (bird) peppers, dried

2tbsp dried onion

1tsp garlic powder

1tsp ground ginger

1tsp salt

2tsp mixed herbs

1tps pimento seeds

1tsp ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in a grinder and grind to a powder. Alternatively, use a pestle and mortar, or tie all the ingredients in a clean tea towel/cloth and beat with a rolling pin. Store seasoning in a clean jar or air-tight container. Lasts for up to two months.


(serves four)

18 ackees, or 1 large tin of ackees, drained and thoroughly rinsed

450g (1lb) salted codfish or salted mackerel (soaked overnight)

1 large onion, chopped

2 stalks escallion, chopped

1 fresh tomato, diced

1 small tin tomatoes, chopped

Pinch mixed herbs

Pinch black pepper

Salt to taste

1 hot pepper deseeded and finely chopped

75g (3oz) sweet pepper (red, yellow, green), diced

1. Drain off water from soaked fish. Cover fish with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Drain off water and repeat. Place in cold water and leave to cool.

2. If using fresh ackee, remove seeds and membrane. Place ackee flesh in a pan of boiling water. Add pinch of salt and parboil for five minutes. Drain and put to one side.

3. Remove skin and bones from fish. Flake and put to one side.

4. Heat oil in frying pan. Add onions, escallion, fresh tomato, sweet peppers, hot pepper and saute for five minutes. Add tinned tomato, mixed herbs and black pepper.

5. Stir in ackee and fish. Cook for five minutes until hot.

Serve with hot fried dumplings, boiled green banana, boiled rice or bammies (flat bread made from cassava).


11/2 lb sweet potato, peeled and grated

1/2 lb cornmeal

1 large egg

1 pint milk

1/2 lb brown sugar

4oz self-raising flour

1tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ginger powder

6oz fresh coconut, grated (can use desiccated)

1/2 tin evaporated milk

3tbsp golden syrup

1tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp cinnamon

Pinch of salt

1. Mixed sweet potato, flour, cornmeal, coconut and sugar. Add mixed spice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and stir.

2. Add egg, golden syrup, evaporated milk and salt. Mix briskly with a wooden spoon. Pour mixture into a greased small jester pot or 8in tin.

3. Bake in oven for 1 to 11/2 hours (375F/gas mark 5). You can check if it is cooked by sticking a clean knife in the centre of the pudding. If the blade comes out clean remove from the oven, and leave to cool.

4. Cut into thick slices and serve hot or cold with double cream, ice cream or on its own.

"To the novice, traditional Caribbean recipe titles can sound bewildering - Saturday soup, plantain chips, cow foot, mackerel with green banana, rundown sauce, callaloo, and sweet potato pudding


JS190308FOOD-14; Veda Sampson in her kitchen cooks up a dish of fried snapper fish, dumplings and fried plantines. Pictures/JASON SKARRATT
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 29, 2008
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