Levi Roots: singing for his supper

UK-based singer and chef Levi Roots is as hot as his Reggae Reggae Sauce. Franka Philip joins his fan club

  • Photo taken from Caribbean Food Made Easy with Levi Roots. Photograph courtesy Octopus Publishing Group/Chris Terry

Green banana and celery soup; sweet lime and Angostura Bitters chicken bits with saffron rice and salad; and a dessert of boozy bananas, guava and pineapple. That was how I treated myself recently for Sunday lunch. I’ve decided to cook that Caribbean vibe back into my life and breathe some sunshine into these bleak, wintry days. The inspiration for this amazing (if I may say so myself) meal came from one of last year’s best cookbooks – Caribbean Food Made Easy. This sumptuous book was written by Levi Roots, the Rastafarian singer-cum-chef who has put Caribbean cuisine squarely in the mainstream in the United Kingdom. The television series on which the book is based was a huge hit last autumn. It’s not surprising, because the Jamaican-born Roots is one of the most passionate and charismatic people you’ll ever meet.

He describes his decision to get into the food industry full-time as a “divine action”. He was already known in the Caribbean community for the excellent food at his stall at the Notting Hill Carnival.

“I had another job, a 9 to 5, and one day I just got fed up and said, ‘Levi Roots, you can do more than this, you are better than this.’ So I just gave up my job and decided I’m going to do my sauce now!”

He first won the hearts of the British public in 2007, as a hopeful on the TV show Dragons’ Den. The programme gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of cynical, hard-nosed established business people who, if they like the idea, agree to give funding and assistance in exchange for a stake in the business. Roots took the Dragons by storm when he came in with his guitar singing about his creation, Reggae Reggae Sauce.

That night he walked away with £50,000, and there began a multi-million-pound success story. After the show, a top supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, ordered Reggae Reggae Sauce for more than 600 of its shops across the UK. Now it outsells Heinz ketchup. Virtually every Caribbean person I know went out and bought a bottle or two of the sauce just to support Roots, if only because in the UK, stories of black success are still quite rare.

When I met him at his restaurant, Papine Jerk Centre in Battersea, south London, I was struck by Levi Roots’ joie de vivre and his positive attitude. He left an “idyllic childhood” in the village of Content in Clarendon to come to England to join his parents and siblings.

“It was a culture mash-up, not just a culture shock,” he said, laughing. “I came in November and it was really freezing cold. The place looked like the Petrified Forest! I never saw moulting trees, and all the trees were bare. No one explained that to me about the seasons, and I wasn’t happy to come to this dark and gloomy place.” For the 11-year-old Keith Graham (his real name), it was a rough start, particularly at school, since he came from Jamaica barely knowing how to read and write.

Now, 40 years later, he’s the face of Caribbean food in the UK. What gave Roots’ series the edge was that it was presented by a real Caribbean person who was able to engage the audience. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a trained chef, because his knowledge of and passion for the food was so obvious. The four-part series was filmed in Jamaica and the UK, and in the opening episode he visited Usain Bolt’s aunt, who revealed the secret of the Olympic hero’s success – Jamaican yellow yam. He also introduced a “sunshine kit” of ingredients that are essential for the real Caribbean flavour.

“The sunshine kit is made up of the typical ingredients that we always have in the kitchen as Caribbean people, those ingredients that give the food real Caribbean flavour,” he explained. “Like our peppers: we in the Caribbean know we’re not just going to use chillies, because they don’t have the flavour, just the heat. Our pepper is the Scotch bonnet. That gives lots of flavour.

“Also no soup or stew is complete without thyme, and at home, no backyard is without thyme. And of course, the pimento (allspice) – it represents jerk, it’s key to the jerk recipe.”

Though the programme was well received, some Caribbean folks complained that it didn’t represent enough of the wider Caribbean, since it mainly focused on Jamaica. But the book includes recipes from other parts of the region, like Martinique coconut chicken curry, Puerto Rican chicken and rice, and Haitian roast chicken – strange that they’re all chicken dishes.

I love the cookbook because it feels totally Caribbean. I think all the recipes would fit in any kitchen in any country in the region. It’s also the perfect book for those of us in the diaspora, because none of the ingredients are hard to get. I strongly recommend you start by exploring the fish and seafood section. Recipes like Jamaican Rundown (made with fresh mackerel), Escovitch Trout, Golden Tilapia in Lime and Thyme, or Hot-Hot Prawn and Potato Curry are unbeatable, especially if you’re using fresh seafood.

In between promoting his new album, Red Hot, and giving talks to young entrepreneurs about succeeding in business, Roots is working on the second series of Caribbean Food Made Easy. He’s quite curious about the food from other Caribbean countries, and is keen for the programmes to illustrate more links between history and food culture.

“It’s a dream job. After all, who wouldn’t want to go round the Caribbean and nyam food all day? The Caribbean is a plethora of islands, and as a whole, the cuisine is the greatest fusion food in the world.”

Levi Roots website: www.reggae-reggae.co.uk

Recipe: Hot-hot Prawn and Potato Curry

Serves 4

800g (1lb 12 ozs) potatoes, peeled and cut into big chunks
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
6 cm (2.5 in) piece of root ginger, finely chopped
2 tsp all-purpose seasoning
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, finely chopped
½ green pepper, deseeded and cut into thin strips
½ x 420g can chopped tomatoes
300g (10.5 oz) cooked, peeled king prawns
Salt to taste
2 tbsp torn fresh coriander leaves to garnish

Put the potatoes in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes until partly cooked. Drain

Heat the oil in a big saucepan and fry the onion, garlic and ginger over a low heat until soft. Stir in the all-purpose seasoning and cook for a couple of minutes

Add the Scotch bonnet pepper and as many seeds as you dare, along with the green pepper. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally

Add the part-cooked potatoes and the tomatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are cooked and the sauce is thick (about ten minutes)

dd the prawns and heat through in the sauce (about three minutes)

Season with salt and garnish with the chopped coriander

Serve with rice and salad

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