Caribbean herbal remedies

Salted cod, pigeon peas, curry powder. Franka Philip finds all the West Indian ingredients she needs in London to make her kitchen smell like home

Chadon beni, a key ‘green seasoning’ ingredient. Photograph by Shirley BahadurFranka Philip. Photograph by Ladan PakarianTraditional West Indian seasonings. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

I chortled, yes, I chortled. It was a poor attempt to stifle a laugh as Lisa related how one of her favourite T-shirts was ruined when a bottle of green seasoning she was bringing for a friend broke in her suitcase en route to London.

“Franka, how could you laugh? Don’t you know how sad the poor girl would be because she didn’t get the seasoning that was so lovingly made by Mummy?”

After that dressing-down, it seemed the seasoning was green gold, not just a blend of parsley, chives, chadon beni and garlic.

For some people, it’s important to have this kind of stuff from home in the Caribbean, because the herbs in other parts of the world simply wouldn’t do. OK, I’ll admit that when I first came to England almost eight years ago, there was a supply of green seasoning, pepper sauce and kuchela in my suitcase. I felt I needed to bring these things with me because enough people told me that English food was really bad and it would be nearly impossible to find the things I was accustomed to using—like green seasoning.

So for several months I used my seasoning and pepper sauce judiciously, and barely touched the kuchela. In fact, the kuchela remained in the fridge for years, until I grudgingly decided it was surplus to requirements.

I lived in the seaside town of Brighton when I first got to England, and although it isn’t home to a large West Indian or Asian community (less than one per cent of the population is black), at the time there was a huge interest in “ethnic” cuisine, so I found ingredients like pigeon peas, salted cod, aubergine and curry powder quite easily in the supermarkets.

It wasn’t long before I realised that I could make my own green seasoning—and in fact, I had a greater range of fresh herbs at my disposal. Herbs like rosemary, sage and basil, which I’d only known before as dried leaves in little glass bottles, made my cooking more interesting.

Moving to London was revelatory. It was like walking into foodie heaven. London’s amazing multicultural mix means it’s possible to find restaurants selling food from virtually any country in the world. And in supermarkets, markets and specialist delis you can find the ingredients to make anything from Trinidadian pastelles to Brazilian feijoada.

Home is now West London, in between Shepherd’s Bush Market, which caters to a sizeable West Indian and African community, and Southall, one of the UK’s largest Asian communities.

I was like a child in a candy shop when I first visited Shepherd’s Bush Market because it felt like being back in the San Juan Market, just outside Port of Spain, where my mother and I spent many Sunday mornings making the “weekly shop”.

“Oh my God, look real zaboca,” I exclaimed on seeing a bunch of huge green, smooth-skinned avocados, and: “Look at callaloo bush, all I need is a crab!”

Now that I’m lucky enough to work just ten minutes away from Shepherd’s Bush Market, it’s very easy to lay my hands on the ingredients for a true Caribbean meal if I’m entertaining. I’ve popped down to the market during my lunch hour and picked up the breadfruit, salt beef, salted cod, scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk and herbs I needed to make breadfruit oil-down for a Friday evening get-together.

My colleagues in the office never cease to be amazed at the “exotic” things I pick up at the market. Once I took a box of sweet tamarind back to the office and proceeded to introduce a bunch of sceptical English people to this odd-looking delicacy.

They all liked it, except for one guy who didn’t wait on my instructions for how to eat it and just took up a pod and bit into the woody casing. Most of them said the taste was familiar, but it was only when I said tamarind was the same condiment that’s heavily used in Thai cookery that they realised why.

A 30-minute bus ride in the opposite direction takes me to the maelstrom of colours, sounds and smells that is Southall. “Little India”, as the town is sometimes called, is defined by the sound of Bollywood hits blaring from speakers, show windows displaying shalwar kameez of all colours and the unmistakable smell of curry. It’s a bit like Chaguanas in Central Trinidad.

I usually head to Southall when I get the urge to cook fried carailli, and I also pick up some bodi, spices or tasty samosas, then seek out calorific Indian sweetmeats like jalebi, barfee and gulab jamoon. The sweetmeats I’ve eaten in Southall are good but the ones I’ve bought in Chaguanas are much better —and I’m not being biased.

I’m still amused at the quizzical looks I get from some of the people in the sweetshops, who always seem surprised to see a West Indian coming in to buy. They’re also usually quite impressed with my knowledge of the sweetmeats, and then admit ignorance of the large Indian community in the Caribbean, something I find a bit odd.

For my curry-loving English friends who want to try out Indo-Trinidadian food, a visit to the Roti Joupa in Clapham North, south London, is a must. Vash and Viv, two brothers from Penal, south Trinidad, have been quietly building up a reputation for excellent roti over the last five years.

Many Brits have grown accustomed to curry from takeaways that is often peppery hot and oily but somehow tasteless, so when they taste Roti Joupa’s curry, they’re pleasantly surprised at how spicy and tasty it is.

As it’s easy for me to hop on the train and head down to Clapham for roti, doubles and pholourie, I don’t encourage anyone to bring roti skins for me from Trinidad. What I do ask for is curry powder, because Trinidadian curry powder is markedly different (ie better) from what’s on offer here.

In my years in England, I’ve found ways to substitute or, where possible, make some of the Trini delicacies that I really like. The only thing I’ve not been able to substitute is fine cornmeal for making pastelles, a meat-stuffed pie that’s eaten at Christmas. In Trinidad, we use a Colombian brand of ground maize that’s far superior to any of the cornmeal I’ve found here. If I remember, I might ask someone to bring a pack or two over for me, but if I don’t get it I won’t be bothered.

There are enough markets around London for West Indians who are far away from home to find the ingredients they need and are pining for. The more popular ones are Brixton Market and Peckham Rye in south London, Walthamstow and Green Street markets in east London and Dalston Market in north London. You’ll also find useful goodies in Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown, Turkish shops and some small Asian-run shops dotted around the city.

That’s why I laugh at people who tell me they’re getting Tantie or Mammy to send seasoning for them. What’s so hard about picking up some garlic, parsley, coriander, thyme and a bit of mint at the supermarket and whizzing them up in a blender?