Caribbean food culture in the UK: From Windrush to today

After two global wars, European countries bereft of labour needed to fill a large number of jobs. Utilising their British Empire network, the heads of industry set sail to recruit workers from former colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

Those Caribbeans, from Jamaica, Guyana, Grenada, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and more, soon formed a sizeable part of Britain’s population and came to be known as the Windrush Generation. Today, the culture that these people brought with them has left an indelible mark on British society, from healthcare to music and food.

Rue Gordon, a bus conductor in Birmingham who emigrated to Britain from Jamaica two years earlier, buying Jamaican bananas from a stall

Photo credit: Thurston Hopkins / Stringer

Windrush: a brief history

The many who voyaged across the Atlantic in the 1940s and 50s were tempted by tales of employment and stability, enough so to leave their families behind – often with the hope of “sending” for them soon after they established themselves. In reality, there was no certainty these broken families would ever be reunited.

On arrival, the Windrush passengers were greeted by inquisitive eyes that soon turned to disdain. Jobs were not as readily available as advertised and housing was routinely denied. As such, dilapidated buildings in areas like Hackney and Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Moss Side in Manchester and Toxteth in Liverpool often became their home.

Families, like mine, who migrated to Britain tell stories of how they were blindsided by just how awful British weather was, especially in the winter. For many it was the first time they saw snow and poor housing conditions meant that things were no better indoors than they were outdoors.

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All this is to say that those Caribbean descendants started to miss home comforts. The sun, the community, the dance, music and, of course, food. While unfortunately you can’t manufacture or export the first of that list, the latter all soon appeared across Britain.

Earlier beginnings

It should be noted that the Windrush community was not the genesis of Caribbean people in Britain. Before this, descendants of freedmen and formerly enslaved, as well as university students and those who served in the British Empire Army, had settled in the UK.

These groups had cafes, bars, and social clubs to offer people a taste of home as early as the late 1920s. Notably, the Caribbean Cafe in Cardiff and Florence Mills Social Parlour, which was opened in 1929 in central London, was told to be selling rice and peas – a Caribbean staple of rice and kidney beans cooked in coconut milk. The population really boomed after the Windrush first arrived in 1948.

Sweet potatoes in a box on a market stall in London

Photo credit: Daniel Leal

Caribbean food traditions

In the Caribbean, absolutely no function – be it a birthday party or funeral – is complete without food, and so it’s natural it began to grow in Britain. Just like with work and housing, these new immigrants found themselves ostracised from public spaces, denied from bars and pubs and unwelcome or priced out of restaurants.

The first communal gatherings for Caribbean people often took place in their own homes, in the living room or basement. These parties were called blues parties or often “shebeens”, a term borrowed from Irish slang.

In the mid 1950s, due to slow export times of ships (keep in mind the Windrush journey took almost a month) it was near impossible to import Caribbean foodstuffs like yams, plantain, sweet potato, callaloo leaves and ackee – all the things that make up traditional meals. As such, they had to do with what was available.

Thanks to the adjacent Indian community, which historically contributed a good deal of meals to the Caribbean menu (due to the indentured labour migration that followed the abolition of Transatlantic slave trade), things like curry were possible. With this, meals like curried chicken, lamb or mutton with rice and peas, as well as fried dumplings made from flour and water, were the staples of the early population.

The shebeens went into the hours of the morning and in the late 1960s became so popular that they grew out of homes and small venues and took to the street in what is now Europe’s largest street carnival – Notting Hill Carnival.

Here, and at other events like Leeds and Manchester carnivals , the foundations for Britain’s street food scene can be observed – one which was common back in the Caribbean, with hot cauldrons and makeshift BBQ drums on the roadside, but one not then common in Britain. Along with the soon-to-follow explosion of reggae, a British taste for Caribbean culture grew.

Jamaican patties with various filling on display for sale in a bakery with name and price tags

Photo credit: Sergio Amiti

Early UK Caribbean restaurant culture

From the 1960s, Caribbean bakeries like Old Trafford Bakery in Manchester and Mister Patty in London were really the first high street offerings by the community. Bakeries in the Caribbean already had a European influence, ingredients like flour were easy to obtain and spices were the one foodstuff that could be imported at the time, it was easy to make crowd-pleasers like patties.

By the 1970s, restaurants like the Black and White Cafe in Bristol, R&JJ in Hackney and the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill had established themselves as go-to places, not only to eat but for the community to gather and discuss important social topics at hand.

These restaurants, along with the advances in shipping technology, allowed further growth in Caribbean food which, by the 1980s, led to a trajectory of growth that continues today.

Levi Roots holding up a bag of Reggae Reggae sauce products

Photo credit: Ollie Millington

Caribbean food pioneers

With the onset of TV Chefs, early pioneers who colourfully exuded Caribbean culture – like Rustie Lee and Ainsley Harriott – began to introduce Britain to a vivid style of cooking influenced by their heritage. At this point the cuisine was still not yet commonplace, though this changed after the guitar-clad Levi Roots swooned the ferocious businesspeople on Dragon’s Den with his hot sauce, winning over not just the panellists but the nation, too.

Now, jerk chicken and scotch bonnet pepper sauce are more mainstream. When I toured around the kitchens of hundreds of Caribbean eateries for my first book, many exclaimed that after that show aired, a much wider audience became interested in their wares.

The overwhelming majority of Caribbean people on the Windrush were Jamaicans, and as such they dominated the sphere of what was known as Caribbean food – most of the menus you found across the UK were almost identical: curry goat, jerk chicken, rice and peas.

But today, different elements of Caribbean culture are on display. Doubles and roti from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago are becoming popular, the Ital food of the Rastafari culture has grown with the vegan wave in recent years and even non-British Caribbean foods like the fried bread and fish sandwich bokit from Guadeloupe and Martinique is raved about across London.

Ackee and saltfish in a cast iron pan

Home comforts

Even with all this, many Caribbean people still prefer to cook at home rather than eat out. Those not from the community are often put off by the prospect.

That said, Caribbean food and its culture is not a hegemony. It’s made up of African heritage, Chinese, Indian and European ingredients and techniques, so no matter where you are from in the world you’ll find some kin to the food from the region.

When guided by a decent cookbook that details substitution ideas, it shouldn’t be hard to find the ingredients as large supermarkets now carry things like plantain and all-purpose seasoning (a combo of pimento, paprika, nutmeg, pepper), to name a few.

The British Caribbean population, like the one that I emerged from, is now in an interesting and almost unpredictable plateau. Those “first” generation Windrush folks who set sail across the seas over half a century ago are now fifth and soon to be sixth generation British people. With this comes a group of people more travelled and and more immersed in a world of cultures leading to a new vision of Caribbean culture celebrating and inspired by, but not pigeonholed by the past.

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