8 Things My Mum Made Me Buy From West Indian Shops

Picture taken in a West Indian shop, from Riaz Phillips' Belly Full series

I love my West Indian heritage. Whenever I can, I claim it above being British as I feel more at home amongst family and my kinfolk. A part of that comes from the Jamaican cuisine and having to buy ingredients for certain dishes.

As a teenager, I’d have to go out to various ethnic shops (often South Asian-owned) but I also went to West Indian shops that stocked all the things my mum needed. I didn’t always enjoy doing it (who wants to run errands while you’re in the middle of playing video games?). But as I got older, it was nice to go for a walk and immerse myself in the culture.

So, here are 5 things my mum made me buy from West Indian shops.

Jamaican bread (or hard dough bread to everyone outside my family)

Jamaican bread (or hard dough bread to everyone outside my family)

I didn’t know it was generally known as hard dough bread until my late teens. I always knew it as Jamaican bread and that’s what I call it to this day. It’s the best bread on the planet as far as I’m concerned. It’s thick, sweet, and demands a slab of butter on it by default.

In terms of size and shape, I started out buying the square-shaped loaves but as time passed, we moved onto the rounder loaves. It was a better choice. You got more bread for your money that way. Who cares if it’s misshapen? This ain’t Bake Off.

Bun (spiced bun)

Bun (spiced bun)
A smaller version

There is no better bun out there. The Jamaican spiced bun is often eaten during Easter and that’s when I usually got it but the tradition extended to Christmas because why not?!

For anyone who hasn’t experienced this Jamaican delicacy, the bun is often round and dark brown, filled with currants or raisins and goes hand in hand with cheese (although I eat it with butter mostly). And a glass of milk to wash it all down. I’m sure the vegan alternatives would go superbly with it as well.

Coconut cream

Coconut cream

This often shocks people but I don’t like coconut. The taste makes me wretch, particularly if it’s desiccated coconut. Not a fan of the water. But the cream and the milk is fine in food… if the flavour isn’t prominent.

That’s how I managed to eat rice and peas with coconut cream in it for so many years. It was a Sunday staple and I’d regularly buy the boxed form from KTC.

Encona Hot Pepper Sauce

Encona Hot Pepper Sauce

It’s strange that I can’t handle spicy food and yet I’ve written about ghost peppers and hot gummy bears. I live for the intrigue I guess.

My mum couldn’t eat her food without Encona. Had to be that brand. Recently, she’d been “slumming it” with Tabasco as they didn’t sell Encona where she lived. When I visited earlier this month, I brought two bottles of Encona for her. She was happy.

The pepper used in the sauce is the Scotch bonnet, which is more than 10x hotter than the hottest jalapeño. It’s no ghost pepper but it’s fire for anyone who can’t handle heat like me. You’ll definitely need another glass of milk for this one.

Green bananas

Green bananas

This wasn’t a regular purchase but still one I made. Some may know them as guineos in Latin America, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic and they’re basically unripened bananas. My mum would boil them and we’d eat them with dumplings (often boiled too but occasionally fried) and yam (we’ll get to that one later).

Not my favourite savoury food as it didn’t taste of anything so that’s when the gravy came in, to add some flavour.

Honourary mentions

Some of these weren’t exclusively purchased at West Indian shops but they were things I bought on my travels and remind me of my black heritage.

Yam

There was an art to buying the right yam. My mum did it most of the time but on the occasions I did, the pieces had to be clean-ish, big-ish, and cheap-ish.

Much like green bananas, I wasn’t a fan (in fact, I hated them as a kid). But my tastes matured and a bit of gravy went a long way.

KA drinks – Karibbean Kola or Black Grape

The Caribbean amber nectar. I know people love Supermalt but Karibbean Kola and Black Grape were my drinks. Sweet beyond words but the flavour! They were exquisite.

West Indian shops often have fridge shelves filled with them. That’s when you know you’re in the right place.

Nurishment

Speaking of delightfully sweet drinks contributing to diabetes in black people, it’s Nurishment! Besides the sugar, the cans have all the vitamins you need for the day and it comes in an assortment of flavours – my favourite is strawberry.

I still buy them every now and again but I always check the price. If they’re on offer, they’re about £1 otherwise I don’t pay any more than £1.40, which is the RRP. I don’t usually buy them in West Indian shops either.

(main image source: Evening Standard)

Making Peace in Jamaica with former gang members

Making Peace documentary

One of my favourite Jamaican proverbs is “if you cannot hear, you must feel” and that’s something many Jamaican live by. Making Peace is a documentary about former gang members who probably followed that unwritten law in their former lives.

They now work as part of Jamaica’s Peace Management Initiative, a UNICEF-support non-profit aiming to end gang violence in the country. The “Violence Interrupters” as they’re known, work in some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Jamaica and have their own stories to tell.

Many of them started out in child gangs and spent varying time in prison and saw friends and family die. Dave Sewell is a PMI Liaison officer and got involved in crime at 17. He went onto spend 20 years in prison with 9 of them on death row. He now says he’d “rather die than go back to prison”.

The film was shot on location in Montego Bay, which may surprise those who think the area is a paradise for white tourists looking to “escape” their lives elsewhere. Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with Montego Bay and Kingston amongst the worst areas on the island.

Making Peace is the briefest glimpse into the lives of those involved in crime in Jamaica. The perpetrators were given a second chance but their victims and many more aren’t so lucky.

Credits

  • Director: Matthew K. Firpo
  • Executive Producer: Maximilian Guen
  • Cinematographer: Stuart Winecoff
  • Editor: Stephen Michael Simon
  • Original Score: Gavin Brivik
  • Colorist: Carlos Flores
  • Co-Producer: Rosanna Bach
  • Sound Design & Mix: Sean Higgins
  • 1st Assistant Camera: Gary Bardizbanian
  • Location Sound: Saeed Thomas
  • Associate Producers: Donia Quan & Casey Rotter

Khalik Allah's "Black Mother" is a spiritual trip through Jamaica

Theatrical poster for Khalik Allah's Black Mother. Designed by Midnight Marauder

I love my Jamaican heritage and love any from of art that exhibits its richness. Black Mother does exactly that. The film, directed by Khalik Allah, takes you on a journey through the Caribbean island but not the kind you’d find on a Sandals commercial. Black Mother shows the true Jamaica with all its highs and lows, beauty, scars, and all. Critics have called it “thrilling and hallucinatory”, “spiritual and philosophical” and “dazzling cinematic poetry”.

Thoroughly immersed between the sacred and profane, Black Mother channels rebellion and reverence into a deeply personal ode informed by Jamaica’s turbulent history but existing in the urgent present.

via Grasshopper Film

Black Mother features sex workers, Rastafarians, and Revivalists who weave their life experiences into the greater Jamaican tapestry. This is a must watch.

Stream the trailer below and purchase the movie poster on the Grasshopper Film website. If you happen to be in or around Beverly Hills on 10th May, screening will take place at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Pizza Pi - the Caribbean’s only “food truck boat"

pizza pi

The U.S. Virgin Islands is a group of islands in the Caribbean and home to an amazing pizza restaurant. But it isn’t on dry land. Pizza Pi is the Caribbean’s only “food truck boat, specially fitted with a commercial kitchen that cranks out New York-style pizzas”.

Based in the Virgin Islands, you can order a Pizza Pi pizza by boat radio, phone, or email, but they don’t do delivery. Instead, you have to collect your pizza in Christmas Cove. That means people on the west of the islands will need to travel a bit.

Sasha and Tara Bouis were the masterminds behind the Pizza Pi but sold the boat to another couple, Heather and Brian Samelson. Despite changing hands, the food remains the same and there haven’t been any complaints so far.

PIZZA PI — The best pizza of the caribbean — Sailing Uma [Step 78]

Cocoa Tea - The Caribbean drink that's neither hot chocolate nor tea

Cocoa Tea

When I was little, my dad would play a lot of reggae in the car. One of the songs was I Am Not A King, originally recorded by Delroy Wilson. But the version my dad played was by a Jamaican singer called Cocoa Tea. At first I thought it was just a Jamaican name for hot chocolate. I didn’t think much of it after that. 20 years later, it entered my life again in a Gastro Obscura article and my assumption was wrong. Cocoa tea was not a Jamaican term for hot chocolate. And it wasn’t really tea either.

Cocoa or chocolate tea is made from mixing grated cocoa balls or sticks with milk and water, before boiling. So in some ways, it’s a lot like hot chocolate. But the secret to a perfect cup is pure unsweetened cocoa. Authentic cocoa balls are best but hard to obtain outside the Caribbean. Adding traditional Caribbean spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or ginger is the proverbial icing on the tea. The biggest difference is the lack of sugar (which is a big part of Caribbean sweet cuisine) and that’s where condensed milk comes in (which is a big part of Caribbean sweet cuisine). This can, of course, be substituted for any kind of milk and the spices can vary depending on where the drink is made.

It’s not even specific to Jamaica and Barbados. Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Dominica and Saint Lucia are some of the islands who sip on the hot beverage. So why is it even called “tea”? Think of it as a Caribbean umbrella term for a hot drink at breakfast.

Check out some recipes for the drink below.

Cocoa Tea - I Am Not A King

17 Proverbs and Phrases from Jamaican Culture

Jamaican man

Coming from Jamaican heritage, I have been exposed to a plethora of proverbs and phrases from my mother.

And while they may seem like broken English to many outside the Caribbean sphere, they have resonated with me since childhood. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Jamaican people isn’t the “cool” stereotype the West love to perpetuate but their no-nonsense approach to life lessons. This should come as no surprise given the nation’s history of enslavement and the horrific ordeals suffered by not only the original natives but its “newer” generation from Western Africa.

Below are seventeen proverbs and phrases from Jamaican culture, some of which I live by and have heard in my household from the moment I was lucid enough to understand.

If yu cyaan ‘ear, yu mus’ feel

(If you cannot hear, you must feel)

Put simply, if you don’t heed the warnings of others, you must deal with the consequences. These can be emotional or sometimes physical so be careful!

Let fart be free wherever you be, ‘cos that was the death of poor Mary Lee

This is a silly rhyme my mother often said to me whenever someone broke wind. On a deeper level, it could be interpreted as not holding onto worries or fears or it will cause you harm.

What is joke to yu is deat’ to I!

(What is a joke to you, is death to me!)

Be mindful of who you play jokes on as the recipient could misinterpret your jovial intentions.

Finger never seh “look ‘ere,” ‘im seh “look yonder.”

(The finger never says “look here”, it says “look yonder”)

We never like taking the blame for things or acknowledging we’ve done wrong, but it’s important to do so otherwise we’ll continue to make the same mistakes and never grow.

Peacock hide ‘im foot wen ‘im ‘ear ’bout ‘im tail.

(A peacock hides his feet when he hears about his tail)

Much like above, if our weaknesses are exposed, we look to hide them and feign an aura of strength. It’s okay to be vulnerable at times; it shows you’re human.

Nuh wait till drum beat before yu grine yu axe

(Don’t wait for the drum to beat before you grind your axe)

Always be prepared. Not as punchy as the Scouts’ motto but a useful proverb nonetheless.

Dawg nuh hol ef im ha bone

(The dog does not howl if he has a bone)

You might think bad times in life are more prominent around you when you seek help but the truth is people who are happy and content rarely exclaim their joy. As a society, we moan and complain a lot and make our voices heard rather than being grateful for what we have and saying as such.

Yu cyaan siddung pon cow back n cuss cow ‘kin

(You can’t sit on a cow and insult it’s skin)

Following on from the last proverb, don’t take help from someone and insult them. You’ll soon find people help you less if you’re ungrateful afterwards.

Me come yahd fi drink milk, mi nuh come yahd fi count cow

(I came to drink milk, not count cows)

Similar in ways to “curiosity killed the cat”, don’t worry about details which do not concern you.

Chubble deh a bush, Anancy cyah l’kum a yaad

(There is trouble in the business, and Anancy takes it home.)

Anansi is a spider from West African folk legend and features heavily in Jamaican culture. He is never satisfied with leaving things in their proper place and much the displeasure of his family, he often likes to pillage the places he explores. The moral to learn here is to not concern yourself with things you should leave alone.

Wanti wanti cyaan getti, an’ getti getti noh wanti

(Those who want it can’t get it and those who get it don’t want it)

You tend to find people who want things so desperately can’t get them (at least immediately) and those who get it all the time don’t fully appreciate it when they have it. Two lessons to learn here. Nothing comes before its time and appreciate what you have when you have it.

Poun’ ah fret cyaan pay ownse ah dett

(A pound of fretting can’t pay an ounce of debt)

Worrying will only make your troubles worse and won’t solve anything. Use this time to find a solution. In the words of Bobby McFerrin, “don’t worry, be happy”.

Yuh spread yuh bed haad, yu haffi liddung pan it haad

(If you spread your bed hard, you half to lay down on it hard)

A variation of “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it”. Be accountable for your actions.

Ev’ry dawg hav’ ‘im day, n ev’ry puss ‘im 4 o’clock

(Every dog has his day and every cat his 4 o’clock)

Things might be riding high now, but they won’t always last so don’t laud it over people as the roles could soon be reversed.

Tek whey yuh get tell yu get whey yu want

(Take what you get until you get what you want)

When I was unemployed, this was a regular phrases uttered by my mother and it’ll always ring true. An ideal situation may come to you but not immediately (unless you’re lucky). In the meantime, take another opportunity until that perfect job or situation comes about.

If yu cyaan get turkey, yu haffi satisfy wid Jancro

(If you can’t get turkey, you have to be satisfied with John Crow)

There will be times when you can’t have what you want and you have to settle for what you’re given. More often than not, these times come when you least expect them so, again, be grateful and appreciate what you have while it’s here.

Good frien’ betta dan pocket money

(A good friend is better than money)

Money is a tool, not a saviour. People can provide better assistance than financial aids so if you have the choice of both, consider your options carefully.