London: the city where you can eat the world

Caribbean cuisine abounds in London, yet it’s not as popular with the locals. Franka Philip explains why

Customers queue for their daily doubles outside the Brooklyn Bar, Woodbrook, Trinidad. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

If you’re heading to London for the first time this summer, there are probably a few things you’ve been told you must do or see. Most of my friends from the Caribbean usually want to visit attractions like Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye and Madame Tussauds.

What most of them don’t realise is that London is a fantastic place to “eat the world.” After all, the city is home to more than 270 nationalities and with 250 languages spoken, it’s the most linguistically diverse city in the world.

But what if you wanted to try out the Caribbean food in London? Our cuisine can be found all over London, most commonly in the established Caribbean communities of Brixton, Hackney, and Shepherd’s Bush. Most of the Caribbean outlets in London are takeaways and like their Indian counterparts, the quality could be pretty dubious. But as I’ve been lucky enough to visit London’s top Caribbean restaurants as a reviewer for a leading food and drink guide, I can say that there are several excellent restaurants across London.

Over lunch with a food-journalist friend some time ago, the topic of Caribbean food in London came up and he was puzzled as to why Caribbean food hadn’t taken off.

“If Caribbean people have been here for more than 50 years, why doesn’t the food have a greater appeal?” he asked. “Lots of us Brits go over to the Caribbean for holidays and love the food there—why can’t we get more of that stuff here?”

Those are questions I’ve asked myself many times, and more so in recent months as the Caribbean community is reflecting on its achievements since 1948, when the SS Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, carrying almost 500 West Indians hoping to find a new life in the motherland.

I dug out an article published on the Guardian’s website during Notting Hill Carnival last August, by Wade Lyn, a Jamaican-born caterer dismayed that our cuisine hadn’t taken off in the way other world cuisines have done.

Lyn wrote that in Yorkshire, north England, 51 per cent of people had tried a samosa and 46 per cent had eaten Thai curry, but only 13 per cent had ever tried a Caribbean pattie.

He asked, “Is it the lack of restaurants? Is the Caribbean community not selling itself enough?”

I think one has to take a much broader view. Caribbean cuisine is still relatively new and cannot be compared to Indian or Chinese, which have traditions going back several hundred years. Indian food in particular has been a part of English tastes since the days of the Raj. Evidence of this is to be found in that famous tome, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, where there is a “Bengal recipe for making mango chetney.”

Not only is our cuisine young, but it’s also—like our geography—a bit disjointed. We may use the same fruits and vegetables, but across the islands, they’re known by different names and have different uses. So it’s difficult to have consensus on a “canon” of recipes.

With Jamaicans (the largest group of West Indians in the UK) owning and running the majority of restaurants and takeaways, most people who have only experienced Caribbean food in the UK assume jerk chicken and ackee and saltfish are the region’s core dishes. Without having tasted dishes like roti, oil down or coo-coo, and recognised the diversity of the region’s food, many go away believing that the cuisine is extremely limited—and as a result, it isn’t taken very seriously.

This is where the chefs come in, because no cuisine can take off without great chefs, craftsmen who set the benchmarks and inspire a generation of younger chefs. What that really means is that if a celebrity chef like Emeril Lagasse or Gordon Ramsay champions a particular food genre, it’s going to get noticed.

In the UK, there are very few chefs from ethnic-minority backgrounds in the media spotlight. And the most logical explanation for this could be that there are not many young people of Caribbean descent going into the industry. Not a lot of young black men and women see slaving over a fire for long hours and low pay as a good career option. Also, the absence of role models in the media who can engender a passion for food is definitely a factor. Most of the passionate Caribbean chefs are at home, experimenting and pushing boundaries. It would be great if some of them could come and work in the UK, and set the culinary world alight as Indian chef Atul Kochhar has done with his award-winning restaurant Benares. But with the tightening of immigration laws those opportunities look to be disappearing for talented chefs from outside the European Union.

Passion for food isn’t only about cooking a great meal, it’s also about consistency and service. As both a reviewer and a hungry punter, I’ve found this is not the case with a lot of our restaurants in London.

Wade Lyn’s questions, “Is it the lack of restaurants? Is the Caribbean community not selling itself enough?” are very pertinent.

There are a lot of places to eat Caribbean food in London, but not enough of them are of a high enough standard to make the world sit up and take notice. However, those who are doing the business are doing it excellently.

On the menu: Caribbean restaurants in London

When you come to London, try some of the many cuisines on offer in the city—but if it’s a taste of home you’re after, I’d recommend you check out restaurants like Cottons in Chalk Farm, North London, where, in addition to an exquisite meal, you’ll be able to choose from more than 270 rums.

Or if you’re in the financial area of Canary Wharf, then Caribbean Scene is a good bet.

On the banks of the Thames, near the historic Kew Gardens, there’s a little gem called Glistening Waters that’s great for a Sunday lunch with your best friends. Brixton’s Bamboula is a stalwart, and though it might be just past its heyday, you could still get a pretty decent meal there.

And for the Trinis who can’t do without their dose of curry and doubles on a Saturday, the Roti Joupa in Clapham, south London, is the place to go.

Caribbean Scene
ExCel Marina, 17 Western Gateway, Royal Victoria Dock, Docklands
www.caribbeanscene.co.uk

Cottons
55 Chalk Farm Rd, NW1 and 70 Exmouth Market
www.cottons-restaurant.co.uk/cottonsindex/index.htm

Glistening Waters
5 Ferry Lane, Ferry Quays, High Street, Brentford

Mango Room
10–12 Kentish Town Road, Camden

Roti Joupa
12 Clapham High Street, North Clapham
www.rotijoupa.com