My life in food: Sean Paul on Caribbean cuisine and poisonous puffer fish

The Jamaican musician talks about his love of Caribbean food, his multi-ethnic family and eating poisonous puffer fish in Japan.
Photograph by Fernando Hevia
By Farida Zeynalova
Published 7 Jun 2021, 08:06 BST, Updated 21 Jul 2021, 15:57 BST

My grandmother, who’s from Coventry, used to make me bubble and squeak. She’d make it with sausages and cabbage and whatnot. When she was 20, she met my Chinese-Jamaican grandfather, and when she came to Jamaica, it was a culture shock for her. Not only was she getting all kinds of Jamaican food, but Chinese dishes from him, too. He’d cook things like fuqua [bitter melon], which looks like a hollow cucumber and is really bitter. He’d cut the ends, stuff it with minced meat or chicken and bake it down. My grandmother on my father’s side would cook real Jamaican food: curry goat, oxtails and stew peas.

Jamaican curry chicken is the dish that reminds me of childhood. It’s also my favourite dish to cook now. As a kid, I’d go to my aunt’s house and that’s what she’d make. I’d come home and say, “Mum, that yellow thing, that yellow food, what is that?” It’s yellow because of the turmeric in there.

I took Rihanna for pan chicken. It was one of the first times she ever ate something like that. It’s like a quicker version of jerk chicken, and it’s my go-to street food. The ‘pan’ is a makeshift barbecue made using a barrel that’s cut in half, with a grill inside and coals underneath. I have one outside. I guess the pan gives the chicken a charred taste. It’s usually served with a slice of hard dough bread and a little bit of ketchup and pepper sauce. When you go out drinking, it’s amazing for soaking up all that alcohol.

Ackee and saltfish is one of my favourite dishes. Ackee is a fruit that’s mixed with the saltfish and cooked up with onions, scallions and garlic. You eat it for breakfast with roasted or fried breadfruit. The other dish is mackerel rundown, which is mackerel cooked down in a creamy coconut sauce. It’s very salty and you can’t eat too much of it at a time. You have to mix it with staples like breadfruit, or starches like yam and potatoes.

Trinidad and Tobago has amazing breakfast food. It has so many influences from Africa and India. I love doubles; it’s made with chickpeas, which they call chana, and it’s two flatbread things with curried chickpeas and chopped-up shadow beni [a Caribbean herb]. When my wife goes to Trinidad for carnival, she’ll bring back 25 and freeze them. They do amazing curries as well.

Dancehall singer and rapper Sean was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. 

Photograph by Fernando Hevia

I ate cow heart in Peru. It was very tasty. It’s very dark, with absolutely no fat in it, and a little chewy, but very gamey and iron-y. They say that corn and potatoes originated from Peru. They have all types of corn — like corn with kennels that are huge and purple — and purple potatoes, too. The ceviche down there, and in Chile, is amazing. In Tahiti, they make ceviche with coconut milk; I think the main fish they use is tuna, but it looks white because they coat it with the coconut milk and all the spices and whatnot. I ate too much of that when I was there. Very, very dope.

I was a coward when I had fugu. It’s a poisonous puffer fish, and I was very apprehensive when we ordered it in a restaurant in Japan. I asked the waiter, “How long does it take to know that you’ve been poisoned?” — because, apparently, a couple of people a year die there eating this fish — and he said that within about 15 minutes you’d start feeling pain. I ordered it and sat watching my brother and Steve [part of Sean’s management team] — they were fine, so I ate it. It gives you a tingling feeling on your lips and tongue.

I make a really good shiitake mushroom stir-fry. We get them from a Chinese grocery store and I leave them overnight. To me, cooking takes practice and practice makes perfect. I used to do hotel management in school, right before I broke. I did culinary there, too, and learned about French cuisine and stuff like that. But I don’t usually cook that much anymore. My brother and his wife are the chefs in the family. When they host Christmas dinner, we’re licking our lips. 

My three dream dinner guests would be my pops, Donald Trump and Elon Musk. My pops passed away three years ago, so I’d love to eat one meal with him again. I’d want Donald Trump to have more culture in his life, so I’d invite him and feed him curry goat, so that he’d stop being so ridiculously crazy. And Elon Musk because it’d be good to have a businessperson. 

Sean Paul’s latest album, Live N Livin, is out now. His upcoming album, Scorcha, is out later this year. 

Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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