Jerk and rum and reggae: How Caribbean food went mainstream

How Caribbean food went mainstream

It’s hard to think of a region with a cuisine and culture that’s better source material for UK casual-dining concepts than the Caribbean. A simple formula of pulsating reggae, thrown-together-looking restaurants, rum cocktails and approachable yet exotic food has seen branded Caribbean restaurants expand at pace in recent years.

Founded in 2010, Turtle Bay leads the charge with 37 sites but there are a number of smaller operators snapping at its heels, including Sugar Dumplin, The Rum Kitchen and Cottons. The latter is finally on the expansion trail following a lengthy hiatus (it was launched in Camden back in 1985), with the opening of two London sites, one in Shoreditch and one in Notting Hill, with a further site in Vauxhall set to open soon.

This growth has no doubt been fuelled by the recent success of the wider Caribbean market in London and beyond. 

“There is a growing awareness of Caribbean cuisine now, and its incorporation of the food, music, and rum,” says Cottons owner Chris Singam, who also puts the success of the genre down to its casual nature, emphasis on communal eating and the UK diner’s increasing love of spicy food.

Keeping it ‘irie’

For most brands in the space, the core menu items are similar and familiar: jerk chicken, fried plantain, rice ’n’ peas and curried goat. “It sounds a little clichéd, but we only cook authentic recipes passed down by our grandparents and parents through our own meals at home,” says Norris Panton, co-founder of the four-strong Sugar Dumplin restaurant group. “We have a really simple menu, and we focus on wholesome, comfort food that makes you feel irie (good).”

“You have to stay true to the classics,” adds Matin Miah, co-founder of Stoke Newington-based Caribbean restaurant Rudie’s, which opened in 2015. “We wouldn’t play around with curried goat, for example.”

Smoking: The jerk chicken at Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse 

Caribbean food’s rise has to some extent dovetailed with that of US barbecue. Jerk – a style of cooking native to Jamaica in which meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with spices – has similarities with US barbecue.

“We’re a smokehouse. Jerk is actually a smoked product,” says Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse head of operations Steve Phillips. “It’s a great bridge to connect the popular American-inspired barbecue flavours to authentic Caribbean food. The cuisine generally needs long preparation, marinating and slow cooking. It’s difficult to reproduce at home and people want that authentic taste.”

Despite its reliance on the classics, the Caribbean sector is fighting the idea that its food is constrained to just a handful of staples. “The cuisine isn’t as limited as some think,” says Singam. “After all, the Caribbean spans a vast region and encompasses many distinct subtleties from island to island. There are different influences, spices and methods of cooking.”

The menu at Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse, for example, encompasses many different dishes from the Caribbean, with items including Bajan fish cakes, Trinidadian ‘doubles’ – hot curried chickpeas and fresh vegetables served on double crispy flat breads – steamed sea bass, inspired by the dishes served on Hellshire beach in Kingston; and Martinique coconut chicken curry. The restaurant also doesn’t shy away from serving very traditional dishes, such as steamed yams, green banana and dumplings; and Jamaican coco bread.

“Caribbean is an emerging but still misunderstood cuisine,” says Phillips, who believes that people are more willing to try less familiar flavours. “Londoners especially love diversity, and foodies love the plethora of flavours it brings, but it takes a while to break through.”

Beyond rice ’n’ peas

The success of the Caribbean casual-dining restaurant sector is not just down to customers becoming more adventurous with their food. Most Caribbean restaurant brands also experiment with non-traditional dishes that tick off key casual-dining menu categories, from wraps and burgers to pizza and sushi. As the name suggests, Boom Burger has fused Jamaican flavours into burgers, with a menu that includes jerk chicken with fried plantain, mango and paw paw sauce as well as pan-fried fish with escovitch sauce and chilli jam.

Patty power: Boom Burger has fused Jamaican flavours into burgers

“You’ll find all the traditional dishes like curried mutton, rice ’n’ peas, and fried plantain on our menus,” says Cotton’s Singam, “But we also do jerk-cured hot-smoked salmon rice ’n’ peas sushi with breadfruit and wasabi mayo. They’re more experimental dishes for the more adventurous customer.”

Rudie’s takes a twist on Jamaican cooking by fusing traditional Caribbean ingredients with more international dishes, with the likes of calamari deep fried in jerk-seasoned polenta; deep-fried jerk pulled pork balls and Boston wings. The restaurant also taps into the current popularity for small plates. 

“We serve what you would expect to eat in a traditional home in Jamaica, but we try to push the boundaries on flavour and presentation,” says Miah. “At Rudie’s, we want food that has got the soul and tradition of home cooking but elevated to a much more interesting format and standard. Like any cuisine, Caribbean food is constantly evolving.”

A rum deal

Rum is the key drink for almost all the groups in the space. Consumers are increasingly interested in the category and Caribbean restaurants are uniquely placed to educate on the different varieties available. With a tagline that reads ‘no rum, no rainbow’, The Rum Kitchen runs weekly rum masterclasses at its Notting Hill site, guiding participants through the key styles and showing them how to make a number of rum-based cocktails.

Rum specialist: The Rum Kitchen

Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse has teamed up with UK rum ambassador Ian Burrell to curate its selection and, late last year, Cottons in Notting Hill won a Guinness World Record for having the world’s largest collection of rums.

The drink is intrinsically linked to the region’s history, as a look at Rudie’s cocktail list reveals. “Rum is synonymous with the Caribbean. Each island has its own variety and takes pride in it,” says Miah. “Jamaican rum is sweet, so it balances the spice and the jerk, and each of our drinks tells a story of the various islands’ histories.”

Heading toward the mainstream

Caribbean food is moving closer to the mainstream but it’s not quite there yet with most of the smaller groups London-centric for now. With the exception of Turtle Bay, which launched in 2010, no other Caribbean brand has yet to gain any real traction in the wider UK market.

When it opened in 2015, the smart money was on Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse being the concept to take on Turtle Bay. The Westfield Statford restaurant has a high-profile figurehead and was co-created with Las Iguanas co-founder Eren Ali (Turtle Bay founder Ajith Jayawickrema launched Las Iguanas with Ali) with scalability clearly high on the agenda. Eighteen months on, however, and a second location has yet to open (although the management team says it is currently engaging with landlords).

Taking it easy: Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse has yet to expand

With four sites – two in London suburbs, one in Surrey and one in Glasgow – Sugar Dumplin is the second biggest player in the space and has proved its formula can work in a variety of locations. The concept places a big emphasis on its drinks and music, aiming to create a sense of the Caribbean’s laid-back party culture.

“Hopefully Caribbean will become more mainstream,” says Phillips. “We believe it is the next big thing and we intend to be at the trend forefront.”
“There is a growing awareness of what Caribbean food is, even though it’s so multifaceted,” adds Singam. “I would like to see it accepted as a mainstream cuisine; a household food on a par with Indian, Chinese and Italian.”

 

Island hopping: The key Caribbean restaurant brands

Turtle Bay 
Sites: 37
Founded in 2010 by Ajith Jayawickrema, who had previously launched Latin American brand Las Iguanas, Turtle Bay operates 37 sites across the UK. The Piper private equity-backed restaurant group is known for its beach house aesthetic, with many restaurants using shipping containers and reclaimed materials, such as corrugated 
roofs, to make them stand out on the high street. The menu is wide ranging and populist, offering everything from pulled pork toasties and superfood salads to curried goat and slow-braised jerk beef rib, and cocktails are a big part of its offer, with 26 currently on its list. The company opened its first site in Germany last year and has a pipeline of sites secured for the country and this year has 10 further openings planned for the UK.

Sugar Dumplin 
Sites: 4
Billing itself as a barbecue, bar and rum shack group, Sugar Dumplin serves Caribbean food and drink alongside live music. Founded by Norris Panton and Craig Ince in 2015, the group now operates four sites – Camberley, Glasgow, Kingston and Wembley – with a fifth, in Trinity Leeds, in the pipeline. The company is targeting shopping centres for a rollout across the country and is also planning a network of delivery-only kitchens across London. It has teamed up with Deliveroo to distribute its dishes to workers in and around the capital from its base in Soho Square.

Cottons 
Sites: 3
Cottons launched in Camden back in 1985 but waited a staggering 28 years to open a second location, in Boxpark Shoreditch (now closed). Expansion has picked up pace since, with a third site in Notting Hill opening last year and one in Shoreditch a few months back. A fourth, in Vauxhall, will open soon. The menu includes staples such as home-made jerk chicken alongside less obvious dishes such as banana leaf-steamed sea bass fillets with okra, callaloo, spring onion and tomato salsa. The brand is owned by Chris Singam, who is also behind the Camden-based restaurant and bar Ma Petite Jamaica and pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar Miusan.

The Rum Kitchen 
Sites: 3
Launched in Notting Hill in 2013, The Rum Kitchen also operates sites in Soho and Brixton. The format is based on a Caribbean beach shack and, as the name implies, has a big focus on rum, with more than 100 varieties on offer. The menu includes jerk-fried chicken; grilled red snapper with Scotch bonnet pepper; and 18-hour slow-cooked pork belly ribs with toasted coconut. Later this month, owner Alex Potter will extend the group’s Soho site in Kingly Court from 60 to 120 covers, and also plans to open two more London sites this year and a further two the following year.

Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse
Sites: 1
Levi Roots’ first foray into the restaurant world has an emphasis on tech with a sophisticated branded queuing and loyalty app. The former musician, who struck retail gold with Reggae Reggae Sauce, has created a simple menu centred on street food, jerk and one-pot dishes. Despite being developed with the help of Las Iguanas co-founder Eren Ali, the Westfield Stratford-based restaurant is yet to open a second location.

Rudie’s 
Sites: 1
A proud proponent of Jamaican – as opposed to simply pan-Caribbean – food, 60-cover Rudie’s opened in Dalston in June 2015 to “bring the energy of Jamaica” to London. The brainchild of property-manager-turned-restaurateur Matin Miah and his Jamaican wife Michelle, the restaurant is inspired by the traditional charcoal barbecue drum ‘jerk centres’. The pair recently hired Jamaican-born chef Vernon Samuels (formerly of Quaglino’s) to create more refined takes on classic dishes and have lined up a second site, in London Bridge.

Boom Burger
Sites: 1 
Initially a pub pop-up, Jamaican-born chef Josh de Lisser’s Boom Burger opened its first permanent site on London’s Portobello Road in 2013. Inspired by the ‘loud’ flavours of his Caribbean childhood, a second Boom Burger opened in Brixton last November, moving the group away from purely selling burgers with a menu featuring breakfast and cocktails, but has since closed.

Jamaican Patty Co 
Sites: 1
The 12-cover Jamaican Patty Co launched in Covent Garden in 2014 by Caribbean-born founder Theresa Roberts, offering classic fillings such as curried goat, and saltfish and ackee. Although Roberts’ husband is from Cornwall, and the patties bear more than a passing resemblance to the British ‘pasty’, these are actually a traditional island snack created by Jamaican chef Collin Brown. Alongside its food-to-go offer, the company has a small retail arm and sells its patties as frozen.

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