Sunday Dinner, Jamaican Style
When you grow up in a kitchen culture that largely disregards measuring cups and scales, memory is all-important.
I don't remember the first time I ate curry goat, but I remember the last. It was at some sort of special occasion, lined up alongside the various other delicious Caribbean dishes on display. As is customary at every christening, wedding, and funeral, I waited in line to be served the food on a paper plate, ate it with a plastic fork, and minutes later, found the inevitable yellow curry stain from where I’d unknowingly dropped it on myself. It is the food that reminds me of my great-grandmother’s funeral in Jamaica, where I watched members of the community chop up the goat that would later be used to feed guests. It reminds me of the way my grandmother eats, placing a piece of meat in her mouth and, after a few short chews, retrieving the bone completely clean. I’ve always wondered how she did that – and why I never could.
Curry goat is a rare treat in my household. It takes time, patience, and a particularly Jamaican sense of self-assurance: three things that life as a Londoner seldom permits, so my mum didn’t cook it often. But when she did, she’d throw every seasoning she could into the Dutch pot, stirring the goat quickly and confidently, and somehow managing to keep several other pots of food cooking at the same time. When I watched my mum cook I could tell she was brought up in Jamaica – and it was only when I tried to emulate her that I realised how clear it was that I wasn't. In my mother’s kitchen, there are no scales, no measurements, and no mistakes. She cooks everything from memory, and every time it’s a little different, a far cry from my strictly regimented method of cooking.
“OK, so how much of the curry powder do I put in?” I asked once.
“Yuh jus' haf fi use yuh eye,” she told me.
Patois is the language my mum usually speaks in the kitchen. It always reminds me of my grandmother.
“You will know,” she added.
"Curry goat takes time, patience, and a particularly Jamaican sense of self-assurance."
I began by placing the washed goat meat into a bowl. I seasoned it with thyme, spring onion, a scotch bonnet pepper, and a small bag of seasoning that my mum described as having “everything in it”. After leaving it to marinate for an hour, I heated some oil, garlic, and curry powder, then added the goat meat. Turning the meat with confidence borrowed from my mother, I made sure it was entirely covered, then put the lid on the pot to allow it to cook, returning to stir every 10 minutes. Once the juices started to reduce, I added a cup of water, more seasoning, and lowered the heat, leaving the goat to tenderise. In an hour and a half, my dish was complete.
Cooking curry goat for the first time, with only gut instinct as my guide, reminded me of watching my mum and grandmother cook: the very specific alchemy of sprinkling powders and liquids over a steaming pot. I started off reciting my mother’s instructions in my head, but as time went on, I found myself improvising, fluid with the knowledge covertly embedded over the years. I remembered the satisfying sizzle of the meat hitting the hot oil. I recognised the potent smell of curry so characteristic of my grandparents’ house. It was my first time, but it felt far from foreign.
I have plenty of opportunities to forget about my heritage in my daily life, always painfully aware that I may be too English. When I was younger, my grandma would quiz me on the kinds of foods I liked, a test of my "authenticity". If ever I showed any appreciation for a Jamaican food, she would offer a satisfied smile that seemed to say: “At least – at the very least – she’s Jamaican enough to appreciate the food.” Every time I eat curry goat I assume she’d be satisfied to know that I haven’t abandoned tradition completely. When I eat it, I feel truly Jamaican.
Every Jamaican should know how to cook curry goat. Or, at least, that’s what I think my grandma would say.
– Gena-mour Barrett
My grandma learned how to make rice and peas from her own grandma, growing up in Comfort Castle in Portland, Jamaica. When she moved to England about 50 years ago, her traditional Jamaican cooking skills came with her. Her rice and peas is by far the favourite among all her dishes, praised by everyone who has eaten it. And so many have.
My grandma’s rice and peas reminds me of her early on a Sunday morning. I wake up and hear her singing along to hymns on the radio and the slightly stuffy scent of red peas boiling. She likes to leave the peas to boil for a few hours while she gets dressed for church. The smell drifts from the kitchen and through the tiny opening of my bedroom door. Like clockwork, when she gets back from church she boils the peas in coconut milk, with onions, thyme and black pepper, before adding the rice and a little bit of margarine.
When my grandma taught me how to make it, it felt like an honour. She instructed me to use tinned coconut milk and tinned peas, because they’re quicker and easier, but she makes her own coconut milk – cracking a coconut open with any hard thing she can find, scraping out the insides with a sharp knife, grating it, and squeezing it with her hands. She doesn’t have to do it this way, she told me, but she enjoys the lengthy process.
I love watching her cook. I love the way her 93-year-old body navigates the kitchen: bending down to get pots and pans from cupboards, reaching up to get things in and out of the fridge, casually checking in on the oven’s contents, and stirring whatever’s on the stove. Her movements are strong and deliberate: muscle memory. She knows what she’s doing.
There are no measuring cups and scales in my grandma’s kitchen cupboards. She has learned what works and what doesn’t, and adapted where she either had to or wanted to. Her gizzadas – sweet coconut snacks, traditionally baked into a round open tart with pinched edges – are a little bit different: My grandma rebelliously folds hers into a pasty shape instead.
I must have been about 11 or 12 the first time she made her gizzadas for me, the incredible smell of warm coconut, nutmeg, and sugar warming on the stove and travelling throughout her small flat. I remember her wrapping it up in foil and putting it in my lunchbox for school the next morning. In the playground at lunchtime, I carefully removed the foil and shared it with my friends, all of them curious about this unusual treat. Gizzadas are both soft and slightly crunchy, the pastry made from a bare-bones recipe of plain flour, baking powder, water, butter, and a splash of milk. And then comes that sweet coconut filling.
Growing up in suburban Middlesex, visits to my grandma in multi-ethnic Shepherd's Bush felt an opportunity to learn more about my West Indian culture. My grandma would take my sister and me to Shepherd's Bush Market, just around the corner from her flat. I loved hearing the many Caribbean accents as we strolled through the market, and seeing vegetables, fruits, and cuts of meat that just weren’t available in my local supermarkets. She’d bring the ingredients home, and while she cooked, my sister and I would sit at her kitchen table, and she’d tell us stories about her younger days in the Caribbean, like how she learned to swim by being pushed into a river by one of her friends. It was Carefree Black Girl living, years before that even had a name.
But what makes watching my grandma cook so remarkable goes beyond her wonderful stories, and the joy of seeing all 93 years of her life in her physicality. What’s most inspiring is her attitude towards cooking. What’s more important than egg timers, measuring cups, and scales? Fresh ingredients, patience, and most of all, a carefree attitude.
"More important than egg timers, measuring cups, and scales are fresh ingredients, patience and, above all, a carefree attitude."
When she first showed me, aged 23, how to make gizzadas, it just looked like she was tipping arbitrary amounts of ingredients into a bowl. “How much grated coconut?” was met with something along the lines of “I just put whatever I feel like.” She gave me the same vague instructions for the sugar, nutmeg, and the pastry. I guess it was her way of teaching me to use my initiative.
– Fiona Rutherford