West Winds: Riaz Phillips on the joys of Jamaican food

UK-born and now Berlin-based, Riaz Phillips grew up around his grandmother’s Jamaican cooking and hopes the island’s food can play a bigger part in the global culinary conversation.

The main body of West Winds comes from the first time Riaz Phillips went to live in Jamaica.

Photograph by Riaz Phillips
By Qin Xie
Published 6 Jun 2022, 06:04 BST

What was the process for researching your new book, West Winds?
The main body of the book comes from the first time I went to live in Jamaica. I didn’t have the intention to write this book, I was just trying to experience and see as much as I could. It was only when I came back and looked at all the stuff I had — the photographs, notes and memories — that I thought it would be really amazing to try to capture all of this. The food hasn’t really changed much because Jamaicans are really conservative about what they eat. The biggest change is the impact of US culture on the island in terms of the number of pizza places, burger joints and fried chicken that you now see.

What makes this book different?
Sometimes I feel Caribbean food is seen as a bit of a gimmick. In discussions on food trends in Europe and US, Caribbean food is often omitted; it’s only ever really talked about in the summer around Notting Hill Carnival, or sometimes during Black History Month, when in reality it’s just as much a part of those conversations as food from anywhere else in the world. Things like nose-to-tail cooking, fermentation and preservation, farm-to-table, raw foods and even veganism are discussed in West Winds, and I laid out the chapters in a way that tries to insert food from Jamaica into those discussions where I think they rightly belong.

What’s the essence of Jamaican cuisine for you? 
One thing I don’t like to do with a big region is try and boil it down to a few dishes — I think it’s kind of reductive — but I wrote a pantry section in the book because, growing up, there were always things on the plate that no meal was complete without. There were always certain ingredients that went into everything, like scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, all-purpose seasoning and pimento seeds. You use that as a base and then just see what else you’ve got. It’s not a big deal if you don’t have this or that. If you don’t have sweet potatoes, just use regular ones. It’s not going to taste the same, but it still represents an idea of what we would be eating.

Are there any regional variations in Jamaican food?
The island isn’t that big — you can drive from one side to the other in about five hours. Certain regions and places have become known for certain things but I think that’s mainly through tourism. I usually travel to Kingston, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio. You’ve got the fast pace of Kingston where there are hundreds of street vendors everywhere. Up north in Ocho Rios, which tends to be more touristy, you’ve got a lot of waterside restaurants pulling fish straight out of the water and making amazing seafood platters. Port Antonio in the east is a really sleepy town. A lot of the restaurants there are an extension of someone’s house, so they have a really homely feeling. But everywhere you go, you’re going to have that diversity. There’s going to be a Rastafari restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a bakery, a cafe doing seafood and someone making jerk. 

How is the food of Jamaica different from what you grew up with in the UK? 
When I was growing up, access to certain foods was very difficult and things that were widely available in Jamaica were luxuries in the UK. In certain rural areas of Jamaica, you’ll just see ackee on the floor, whereas in the UK it’s £5 or £6 for a 500g tin. The way it’s cooked is different, too. In the UK, people don’t generally have the time to soak beans overnight or leave things to cook for five or six hours, whereas in Jamaica that’s just part of the routine of life. It’s unavoidable that the food is going to taste different. 

What are your favourite recipes from the book?
The sweet potato and ginger. I like the way the sweet potato just cooks down into the coconut milk with a hint of the ginger and a bit of the spice from a scotch bonnet pepper. You can just serve it with white rice and that would be good enough. There’s also the fish rundown. The balance of the sweetness of the coconut milk with the saltiness of the fish is mind-blowing to me. You have it with really thick boiled or fried dumplings and you just scoop up the rundown. 

West Winds: Recipes, History and Tales from Jamaica by Riaz Phillips is published by DK.

Discover three recipes from the book, below.

Sweet potato, chickpea and coconut curry.

Sweet potato, chickpea and coconut curry.

Photograph by Caitlin Isola

Sweet potato, chickpea and coconut curry

Curried chickpeas, also known as channa, are common in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, where there’s a strong Indian influence, and in this dish they’re fused with a Jamaican vegetable curry.

Serves: 4-6    
Takes: 45 mins 

75ml rapeseed or vegetable oil
½ large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 spring onions, white and green parts separated, thinly sliced
1½ tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
400g tin chickpeas, drained
400ml tin coconut milk
1 tbsp all-purpose seasoning
½ tsp ground cinnamon
250g sweet potato, peeled, cut into 2.5cm cubes
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
1½ bell peppers (any colours), deseeded and cut into 1cm chunks 
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
4 thyme sprigs 
1 tbsp maple syrup or light soft brown sugar (optional)
1 tbsp desiccated coconut
1 scotch bonnet pepper, whole

For the okra
2 tbsp coconut oil
pinch of dried chilli flakes
5-6 okra, trimmed and halved lengthways

- Put the oil in a large saucepan and place over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 2 mins. Add the garlic, ginger and the white part of the spring onions, then cook for another 2 mins. Add the curry powder, cumin and 1 tbsp water and stir for 1 min to combine. Stir through the chickpeas until coated in the seasoning, then add the coconut milk, all-purpose seasoning and cinnamon. Cook, stirring, for 30 secs to 1 min.
- Stir in the sweet potato, carrot, bell peppers, tomatoes, thyme, maple syrup or sugar (if using), desiccated coconut, scotch bonnet and 1 tsp each of salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 25-30 mins, stirring halfway through, until the sweet potato is tender.
- Meanwhile, cook the okra. Heat the coconut oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and add the chilli flakes. Add the okra and fry for 3-4 mins, until they start to brown slightly, then flip them over and fry for another 3-4 mins. Transfer to some kitchen paper to drain, and tip any excess oil from the pan into the curry. 
- Serve the curry with the okra, and garnish with the green part of the spring onions.

Oxtail and butter beans.

Oxtail and butter beans.

Photograph by Catlin Isola

Oxtail and butter beans

Historically, the cow or ox was eaten from nose-to-tail in Jamaica, and the latter became a delicacy — there’s only one tail per animal, after all. This method of cooking oxtail creates a rich dish with sweetness, saltiness and spice.

Serves: 4    
Takes: 3 hours 15 mins 

1kg oxtail, trimmed and chopped into 5cm chunks (ask your butcher to do this for you)
5 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil 
1L hot beef stock or hot water
400g tin butter beans, drained
½ scotch bonnet pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 tsp cornflour (optional)
white rice, salad and coleslaw, to serve

For the marinade
6 allspice berries, crushed (or ½ tsp ground allspice)
5 thyme sprigs 
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 
2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 spring onions, roughly chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp jerk seasoning 
1 tbsp dried mixed herbs
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
½-1 tbsp light soy sauce 
1 tsp all-purpose seasoning
1 tsp Cajun seasoning
1 tsp paprika
½ red bell pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

For the gravy
125ml stout 
2 tbsp gravy browning
2 thyme sprigs 
1-2 tbsp light soft brown sugar
1½ tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp brown sauce or oyster sauce
1 tbsp tomato ketchup (optional)
1 scotch bonnet pepper, whole
1½ tsp light soy sauce 
1 tsp tomato puree 
½-1 tsp sea salt

- Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large bowl with 1 tsp black pepper and a pinch of salt. Add the oxtail and toss using your hands until coated. Cover the bowl with cling film and pop in the fridge for at least 1 hr (but ideally overnight).
- Remove the oxtail from the marinade, reserving the marinade for later. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. Working in batches, add the meat to the pan and cook, stirring, for 5 mins until browned all over. 
- Pour the hot stock or water into the marinade bowl, stir, then add it to the pan along with all the browned meat. Stir through all the gravy ingredients, bring to the boil then cook for 5 mins. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for 1 hr 30 mins, stirring occasionally. 
- Add the butter beans and chopped scotch bonnet then cook, covered, for 30 mins more. To test the meat is ready, pierce with a skewer; it should be soft like butter. If you’d like to thicken the gravy, mix the cornflour with a little water and add to the pan, cooking uncovered until thickened. If the sauce is too dry, add 3-5 tbsp water and heat through.
- Serve piping hot with a side of white rice, salad and coleslaw. 

Sun-dried salad with plantain dressing.

Sun-dried salad with plantain dressing.

Photograph by Catlin Isola

Sun-dried salad with plantain dressing

Sun-drying fruits for future use has been a practice in Jamaica for centuries, and innovations such as the dehydrator have made the drying process easier. Alternatively, it’s also possible to dehydrate produce over a few hours in an oven set to low. When in Jamaica, I often crave something between a light salad and the dense starchy meals served at the Rasta Ital cookshops, and I’ve found dried fruits and vegetables are the answer.

Serves: 2 (or 4 as a side)   
Takes: 4-5 hours 

100g kale, tough stalks removed and leaves sliced
100g rocket leaves
1 handful of dill leaves
1 handful of basil leaves
1 spring onion, sliced 
250g sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil 
400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tbsp dried barberries, raisins, cranberries or goji berries
1 avocado, peeled, stoned and sliced
2 tbsp whole almonds or walnuts

For the dried vegetables
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and sliced
1 courgette, thinly sliced into rounds
1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
1 raw beetroot, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds

For the plantain dressing
½ ripe black plantain (about 85g), peeled
2 tbsp coconut oil 
1 tbsp cider vinegar
½-1 lime, juiced
1 tsp honey
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

- Heat oven to its lowest setting. Line a large baking tray with baking paper.
- Place a large pan of water over a high heat and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with cold water. Working in batches, add the pepper, courgette, carrot and beetroot to the pan for 10 secs, then transfer to the bowl of cold water for 10 secs. Scoop them out, drain and pat dry with kitchen paper. 
- Arrange the blanched vegetables on the lined baking tray and place in the oven. Leave the oven door ajar and cook for 4-5 hrs, turning the veg every hour, until dried and crisp.
- To make the salad, place the kale, rocket, herbs and spring onion in a serving bowl. Halve the sun-dried tomatoes and put them in a separate bowl with 2 tbsp of sun-dried tomato oil. Mix in the chickpeas and a pinch of salt and pepper; add this to the kale salad and toss. Add the dried fruit, avocado, nuts and dried vegetables and gently toss again.
- To make the plantain dressing, blitz all the ingredients in a blender until smooth. Serve the salad with the dressing spooned over.

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event that takes place every summer. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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