LONDON – Many visitors erroneously compare Brixton, a bustling Afro-Caribbean neighborhood south of the River Thames, to Brooklyn, simply because the London neighborhood is gentrifying. A more apt comparison might be Harlem, substituting the jazz and hip-hop with reggae, and the soul food with the complex curries, stews, and jerks of the West Indies. Brixton’s lively spirit is such that it can’t truly be compared to anywhere else. You have to go there to find out what’s really cooking.
Brixton is not typically at the top of most tourist itineraries. Much is happening in this electric community, where old and new Caribbean restaurants serve the bright and satisfying food of their home countries to locals and, increasingly, hungry visitors.
Underneath the railway arches in a tiny stall on Atlantic Road, Maureen Samuel is quietly serving hearty, home-cooked meals as delicious as they are cheap. Originally from Guyana, a tiny South American-Caribbean nation bordered to the west by Venezuela, Samuel arrived in London 13 years ago. The motherly cook has served her Guyanese comfort food from a few locations in Brixton, including a bright blue caravan painted with Guyana’s angular flag. But after the local council forced her out, she moved to her present location, which she calls Guyana Roti. Because her new stall is so small, she wakes up at 4 a.m. daily except Sunday to cook the heady Guyanese curries she learned at home from her grandmother.
Guyanese-style curries carry the history of both British and Dutch colonialism, which brought indentured servants and with them, culinary practices, from the East Indies to the Caribbean. The new flavors mixed with indigenous produce and food traditions, and a hybrid cuisine was born. The result is a mishmash of influences from the Caribbean, the East Indies, even neighboring Brazil, which itself has influences from Africa and Portugal.
In her stall, Samuel offers many kinds of curry, served beside or stuffed inside flaky and delicious homemade roti, a typical flatbread which shares both name and lineage with the common Indian version. Meat curries, served with optional vegetable sides (about $8), and vegetarian options (about $5) are an outstanding value in an expensive city.
The curried goat is salty, meaty, and pungent with earthy spices, absolutely falling off the bone. A shot of Samuel’s addictive scotch bonnet-based hot sauce is the perfect foil. Accompanying potato curry is satisfying in every way, and sauteed spinach is an excellent green counterpoint to the meat and potatoes. Stewed chickpeas and spinach is a good vegetarian option, and benefits from being washed down with sweet ginger tea, offered free for eat-in customers who sit at the single two-person table next to the stall. Surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of Brixton, it’s a coveted table.
Tucked away from all the excitement of central Brixton is Latanya Christie’s cozy Jamaican restaurant, Negril. Christie grew up in Jamaica until age 11, when she moved to East London. But once she moved to Brixton after graduating from university, she fell in love. Apart from serving some of the best jerk chicken in the neighborhood, Negril is notable for having extensive vegetarian and vegan options, inspired by Christie’s five brothers, all Rastafarians, and all strict vegans. In Rastafarianism, this style of cooking is referred to as “ital,” which is slang for, and rhymes with, vital. ”I don’t think a lot of people realize just how many Jamaicans are actually vegetarians and vegans,” says Christie. “It’s a huge amount!” The menu features ital stew, a coconut-based soup with mixed vegetables, and a number of vegan curries such as mixed bean with spinach and pumpkin.
Negril is also known for its weekend brunches, a great time to eat the Jamaican national dish of ackee and saltfish — the marriage of a fruit brought over from Africa and fish from Portugal — as well as a killer jerk chicken sausage made specially for Negril by the celebrated butcher shop M. Moen & Sons in nearby Clapham.
Down the road at the hip Brixton Village market, Trinidad-born Brian Danclair is attracting eaters with his takes on dishes from across the Caribbean. At his restaurant Fish, Wings & Tings, which opened in early 2012, the bright yellow walls and colorful tile mosaic in the small open kitchen are very welcome on a typical gray London day. Danclair’s jerk chicken is smothered in a sweet, sticky tamarind barbecue sauce, and served with addictive pineapple-ginger-mango chutney, and sweet potato-studded rice.
A starter of salt cod fritters is crisp and delicious. And of course there is roti, with the aromatic curries of the Trinidadian tradition, perhaps a little closer to their South Asian counterparts because of Trinidad’s significant Indian population. Danclair, who lived in the US and worked in some serious restaurant kitchens there as a young man, has an interesting heritage. “I have Chinese in me, black in me, Indian, my great-grandfather was from Lebanon . . . of course the Spanish is inside of me, because my grandmother is from Venezuela,” he explains. “It’s just a whole conglomeration of every culture you can think of.” It’s this multiculturalism that informs his creative take on the foods of the Caribbean.
“I represent the whole region,” says Danclair. “It’s fantastic, I just wanna represent, that’s all I wanna do.” Whole region? In the diverse Caribbean eateries of Brixton, you can taste the whole world.
Fish, Wings & Tings, 96 Coldharbour Lane (Brixton Village), Brixton, London, 011-44-07453-748797
Guyana Roti, 24 Atlantic Road, Brixton, London
Negril, 132 Brixton Hill, Brixton, London, 011-44-02086-748798Luke Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.