Carnival weekend is nearly upon us, which means it’s time to dance, dodge puddles and drink rum. The food can be hit and miss and most of us usually end up running the gauntlet of stalls, trying to work out what to order and where. We don’t want you looking all confused when you get there, so here’s a handy guide to the main dishes you’re likely to come across kerb-side this weekend. It always helps to know your jerk from your patty.
Jerk Chicken and Pork
This is probably the most famous Caribbean meat preparation of all, and it’s the one you’ll smell in the air, as the smoke rises from the grill and takes to the streets. Jerk is cooked in a ‘jerk drum’, which is basically an oil drum turned sideways, mounted on stilts and used as a barbecue creating that very distinctive smell. The main ingredients used to marinate the meat are: ground allspice berries, scotch bonnet chillies, spring onions, thyme and... many others. Recipes are fiercely guarded and rarely revealed. Good jerk chicken should taste smoky (which is why the cooking method is crucial), hot and slightly sweet. The skin should be very crisp, and the meat succulent. See our recipe for jerk marinade at the end of this article if you want to avoid the crowds and make your own at home.
Rice and Peas
This is likely to come as a side to your jerked meat, and there are no green peas involved. The dish will contain kidney beans, black beans, black-eyed peas or sometimes lentils. It will also be flavoured with coconut milk, although occasionally this is omitted.
Festival (Caribbean Dumplings)
These heavy, deep-fried dumplings can be used to dip or scoop up mouthfuls of food. They can be very dense, so it's best to eat them with very saucy dishes that need lots of carbs.
This classic goat preparation is a result of Indians introducing curry powder to the Caribbean islands during the sugar industry boom. The meat is simmered slowly, and served in a sauce that ranges from mild to hot, depending on the vendor. It should be very tender, and you’ll find pieces of bone to nibble around too. This is a good thing, as it all adds up to extra flavour in the pot.
These are banana-shaped fruits that are sliced and cooked, then served either alone or as an addition to your jerk meal with rice and peas. We think that the best are cooked with a little acidity, to offset the intense sweetness.
A small, spiced-meat filled pasty, these are to be found everywhere. To be honest, there’s not much difference between them, and it’s very likely they’ve all come from the same place and been re-heated.
The best corn at the carnival is grilled inside husks; they’re soaked in water prior to cooking, which means the corn steams inside on the grill. Finished with butter, spices and/or lime, we think this is the quintessential final taste of summer (no really, it is still summer). Don’t let that butter drip down your chin, now.
Coconut water comes fresh in green bulbous shells; the lids are cut off and a straw poked into the top so you can drink right from the source. This is different to coconut milk, which is made by pressing the flesh of the coconut.
It won’t be a surprise to learn that the Irish introduced Guinness to the Caribbean. To make the punch, it is combined with sweet condensed milk, spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and occasionally, rum. This is a must-try for any carnival reveller.
Come on — get involved.
Where To Find Caribbean Food At The Festival
As we said, the quality of the food is highly variable, so now you’re armed with the knowledge; it’s time to make the decision based on your senses (i.e sight and smell). Go forth, culinary adventurer.
Some Local Pubs and Parties
The Elgin will be having a pre-carnival warm-up event on Saturday from 6-12pm (book via their website). On 28 August there will be a carnival party from 2pm - 2am with live DJs - it's essential to book in advance.
The Walmer Castle will be open as usual on Sunday from 12-11pm, and Monday from 12 noon-11pm.
Portobello Star will be opening only on the Saturday, then will be closed Sunday and Monday.
Not Going At All? Get A Taste At Home With Our Jerk Chicken Recipe
1½ tbsp allspice berries, ground to a powder
55g muscovado sugar
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
A bunch of large spring onions
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cloves
3 fresh Scotch bonnet chilies, seeded
Juice of 2 large limes
Slug of dark rum
1 tsp sea salt
4 chicken legs (or other chicken pieces of an equivalent size)
To make the marinade for the jerk chicken, put all the ingredients, except the chicken in a blender and whizz together until smooth. Smother the marinade over the chicken legs, rubbing it in well. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Allow the meat to come to room temperature and brush or wipe off most of the excess marinade before grilling the chicken on the BBQ.
To set up your BBQ for the indirect cooking method, light the coals in the middle in a kind of volcano shape, then wait for the flames to disappear, leaving you with coals that have a light grey ash coating. Move them to the sides. This gets the indirect heat circulating around the kettle when you put the lid on. We find it helps to also brush the grate with a little oil. Chuck the soaked allspice berries into the coals before you start cooking, if using. The chicken pieces will probably take about 30 minutes to cook (although it depends on size) — always check that the juices run clear before serving.
* Top tip! Soak bay leaves in water prior to cooking, then sit the chicken on top of them on the BBQ. This goes some way to replicating the flavour of pimento wood, which would be used to cook jerk in Jamaica.
Recipe from 101 Sandwiches by Helen Graves, published by Dog n Bone Books.