Brown stew chicken, corn fritters, Guinness punch pie – Melissa Thompson’s Jamaican recipes

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“I’m really excited,” says Melissa Thompson, on the eve of the publication of her first cookbook, Motherland, before slightly changing her mind. “When I was a journalist and had a big story breaking the next day, my anxiety levels would be really high.” Motherland’s arrival, she says, is even more nerve-racking. It’s about her Jamaican heritage and, because it’s such an underrepresented culture in publishing, Thompson can’t help but feel the impossible responsibility to speak for everyone, and cover everything. “I’m terrified,” she says.

Motherland is the culmination of a busy few years. Thompson currently writes a column for BBC Good Food magazine, cooks at food festivals, and this summer was the co-curator of the British Library’s annual series of food talks and events. She trained as a journalist and worked for national newspapers, but began to lose her passion for news, instead discovering one for food. In 2014, she began to host supper clubs and events, building a reputation for her riff on Japanese flavours, including karaage-style fried chicken.

The following year, Thompson left her newspaper job for one in marketing. During lockdown she lost much of her work, but found she was cooking for pleasure for the first time since her daughter was born. Then came the news of the murder of George Floyd. She still feels emotional talking about it.

“What bothered me was the reaction from white people who were like, ‘Oh, fuck, I guess racism is a thing,’” she says. “I ended up crying all the time. Proper sobbing.” She began to use her Instagram account to champion the work of Black chefs, cooks and other food professionals of colour. She wrote pieces for Vittles on the lack of Black representation in the portrayal of London’s food industry, and for the Guardian on racist attitudes surrounding fried chicken. A spark was reignited. “I thought I’d left journalism behind,” she says. “Now, I was getting to write stuff I actually cared about.”

The daughter of a Maltese mother and Jamaican father, Thompson wanted Motherland to reflect her own family’s cooking, but also tell the story of Jamaican food. “The indigenous people never had a written language,” she says. The enslaved people who came later weren’t permitted to write. When researching, she had to interpret historical texts written from a white European perspective.

“Context is so important when you’re talking about food,” she says, adding that a lack of it is why Caribbean food in the UK doesn’t receive its due. “I think that feeds into so many different things, like people think Black food should be cheap, and that it’s a lesser gastronomy than French, Spanish or Italian.”

Alongside Motherland’s strong sense of place and history – there are essays on life in Jamaica under British rule and the significance of the Rastafari Ital diet – it is filled with recipes for the food Thompson grew up with and has eaten on trips to Jamaica, as well as new creations from various stages of her life.

The Guinness punch tart came from her love of playing with unusual flavours for custards; a saltfish, red pepper and bean stew is based on a dish eaten at a roadside stall on holiday. Curry fried chicken is an evolution of her show-stopping supper-club karaage, with coconut and spices. TheA coffee and pimento rub she’s been demonstrating at cooking festivals this summer is, she promises, worth the book price alone.

She’s also keen to showcase family recipes such as her grandmother’s chicken curry. “I watched her make it when I was a kid because I loved it so much,” she says, adding that no dish is definitive. Her grandmother’s curry recipe might be different from how her uncle, or great-great grandmother made it. Recipes change within families and across diasporas. “That’s part of the beauty of food – it’s forever changing. But as long as people are true to its origins, I think it’s quite a beautiful thing.”

Toasted corn fritters with avocado salsa (pictured top)

A few years ago, I experimented with browning corn in butter before adding it to fritters. It gives a lovely, subtly toasted corn flavour that reminds me almost of popcorn.

The avocado salsa is a refreshing, delicious side to many seafood or vegetable dishes, and is quick and easy to make. It won’t keep for ages, but to stop it oxidising and going brown get a damp piece of kitchen paper and lay it on top of the salsa, so it is making contact. Then place the covered bowl in a sealed container and it should last at least 6 hours.

Serves 4-6 as a light meal
For the corn fritters
plain flour 150g
baking powder 1½ tsp
egg 1, lightly beaten
milk 150ml
sweetcorn kernels 200g
unsalted butter 75g
red onion ½, finely chopped
spring onions 3, finely chopped
red pepper ½, finely chopped
yellow pepper ½, finely chopped
sea salt 1 tsp
freshly ground black pepper 1 tsp
vegetable oil for frying
eggs 4-6, poached, for serving

For the avocado salsa (makes enough for 4)
avocados 3 ripe
spring onions 2, finely sliced
tomatoes 2, deseeded and chopped
scotch bonnet chilli ¼, deseeded and finely chopped
limes finely grated zest and juice of 2
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the salsa, peel, pit and chop the avocados into small pieces. Mix with the spring onions, tomatoes, scotch bonnet, and lime zest and juice.

Season to taste and mix gently, being careful not to mash the salsa.

To make the corn fritters, mix the flour, baking powder, egg and milk together to form a stiff batter. Leave to rest while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Toast the sweetcorn in a dry pan for a few minutes over a medium heat, then add the butter. Fry the sweetcorn until the kernels start to brown and the butter begins to smell nutty. Remove from the heat.

Mix the onion, spring onions and red and yellow peppers into the batter along with the toasted corn, and season with the salt and pepper.

Add enough oil to a deep frying pan so it’s 2.5cm deep and heat over a medium heat until a piece of batter dropped into it will sink and then rise, bubbling, after a couple of seconds.

Scoop a heaped tablespoon of batter and drop it into the oil, then another, working in a clockwise direction round the edge of the pan, but not overcrowding it.

Cook for 4 minutes, then turn in the order they were added and cook for another 3 or so minutes. Remove the fritters, again in the order they were added, and place on a wire rack, with kitchen paper underneath to soak up the oil.

Repeat until all the batter is used up. You may need to add a little more oil.

Serve with the avocado salsa and poached eggs.

Curry fried chicken

Curry fried chicken.
Curry fried chicken. Photograph: Patricia Niven

This dish is the culmination of my deep love of two things: fried chicken and curry chicken. The addition of coconut milk enriches the flavours while also mellowing them. Although I would always usually choose chicken on the bone, this works better with boneless thighs.

The Jamaican curry powder is the spice blend I use for many of my recipes including curry goat and grandma’s curry chicken, as well as for many other Jamaican dishes such as patties. You can use a shop-bought curry powder too, that’s fine; I’d go for a madras variety and add a bit of extra turmeric. But it’s always pleasing to put together your own, and it’s really easy. Make a load of it, it’ll keep for months.

Not many spices are native to Jamaica, save for pimento and perhaps a type of bay. The majority of other spices in the food were brought to the island aboard ships, either those of the early colonialists during the transatlantic slave trade, or those of buccaneers after looting enemy ships. Their use became more widespread, thanks to immigration from India through indentured servitude.

Serves 4
chicken thighs 6 skinless, boneless
Jamaican curry powder 2 tbsp (see below)
garlic 3 cloves, crushed
ginger 5cm piece, finely grated
thyme leaves from 3 sprigs
sea salt 1½ tsp
coconut milk 150ml
vegetable oil for deep-frying
freshly ground black pepper

For the coating
potato flour 100g, or plain flour
fine cornmeal 100g
sea salt 1 tsp
ground ginger 1 tsp
ground cumin 1 tsp
ground turmeric 1 tsp

For the chilli and lime mayonnaise
shop-bought mayonnaise 4 tbsp
lime finely grated zest and juice of 1
scotch bonnet chilli ¼, finely chopped

For the Jamaican curry powder (makes about 100g)
ground coriander 1 tbsp
ground cumin 1 tbsp
ground pimento ½ tbsp
fenugreek seeds ½ tbsp
ground cloves 1 tsp
paprika 1 tsp
ground turmeric 2 tbsp

To make the Jamaican curry powder, mix all the spices together and store in an airtight container until needed. It will keep for up to 3 months.

Cut each thigh into 2-3 pieces, each about 4cm. Put the pieces in a bowl with the curry powder and mix well. Add the garlic, ginger, thyme, salt and a pinch of pepper, and mix well, then add the coconut milk and mix to coat completely. Cover and marinate for at least 4 hours in the fridge, but ideally overnight.

To make the coating, mix the flour, cornmeal, salt and spices in a bowl. Remove the chicken from the marinade, scraping off any big bits but otherwise leaving everything where it is, and place in the flour mix.

Turn the pieces over and press down, ensuring every nook and cranny is exposed to the flour. Remove and rest on a plate for at least 5 minutes, giving the starch enough time to adhere to the chicken.

Mix together all the ingredients for the mayonnaise in a small bowl.

Set up a wire rack over a tray lined with kitchen paper. Following all the usual precautions for deep-frying, pour enough oil into a saucepan to lie at least 10cm deep. Heat it to about 140C. If you don’t have a thermometer, a sprinkling of flour should sizzle gently a few seconds after being dropped into it.

Place a few pieces of chicken into the oil, making sure you don’t crowd them. Fry for 3-4 minutes, until they start to colour, then remove with a slotted spoon to the wire rack. Continue until every piece has had its first fry.

Now increase the oil temperature to 180C, or until a pinch of flour sizzles almost immediately on contact with the oil.

Add the chicken pieces, starting with those that went first into the oil before. Fry for a further 2 minutes or until they have turned a deeper golden brown and are crisp. Remove and drain on the rack, continuing until all pieces have been fried twice.

Serve the chicken with a sprinkling of fried chilli, and the chilli and lime mayonnaise.

Smoky aubergine rundown and fried dumplings
Smoky aubergine rundown and fried dumplings.
Smoky aubergine rundown and fried dumplings. Photograph: Patricia Niven

This aubergine is smoky and sweet and the creamy coconut just makes every mouthful a delight.

Of all the dumplings in Jamaican food, fried are my favourites. During weekend breakfasts when I was growing up, Mum would be in charge of the dumpling making. Sometimes she’d sneak cumin seeds in there and wait to see if we noticed, then make us guess what she’d used. Unconventional, but tasty still. They have the loveliest texture: chewy yet light. They’re great to make with kids too, so get them involved.

Serves 4
aubergines 4-6
onion 1, sliced
vegetable oil
garlic 3 cloves, crushed
ginger 2.5cm piece, grated
red pepper 1, sliced
yellow yam or pumpkin 200g, peeled, deseeded if needed, and chopped
tomatoes 2, chopped
thyme 3 sprigs
ground pimento ½ tsp
ground cumin ½ tsp
coconut milk 1 x 400g tin
bay leaves 2

For the fried dumplings (makes 8-10)
plain flour 200g
fine cornmeal 100g
salt 2 tsp
baking powder 1½ tsp
water about 100ml
vegetable oil 2 tbsp

To make the fried dumplings, mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Gradually add the measured water, bringing the mixture together until it is smooth and not sticky. Leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Now take a plum-sized amount of dough, roll it into a ball, then squash it into a disc about 5cm across. Repeat to shape all the dumplings.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the dumplings for 6-8 minutes until they turn golden brown. Turn and repeat. Don’t be tempted to increase the heat, as they burn easily and the inside won’t be cooked through. Depending on the size of the frying pan, you may have to cook these in batches.

To make the rundown, grill the aubergines whole over a naked flame – either on a gas stove or a barbecue – until the flesh is just soft, the skin is burnt and the air smells smoky. Place in a lidded container and, once cool enough to handle, peel. If you don’t have a flame, you can cook them under a grill until they start to smoke, or even do it in a dry pan over a high heat, turning frequently to blister the skin. Once peeled, roughly chop into big chunks.

Fry the onion in a splash of oil in a frying pan for 5 minutes until it starts to soften. Add the garlic, ginger, red pepper, yam or pumpkin, tomatoes and thyme, and fry for another 5 minutes, then add the spices and fry until they are aromatic. Pour in the coconut milk and add the bay leaves. Add a splash of water to loosen, put a lid on it and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the pumpkin or yam has softened.

Remove the lid, stir in the aubergines and cook for another 8 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Pick out the thyme sprigs, if you want.

Serve with the fried dumpling.

Brown stew chicken with rice and peas

Brown stew chicken with rice and peas.
Brown stew chicken with rice and peas. Photograph: Patricia Niven

A classic recipe across the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica, this gets its name and colour from the browning, a mix of browned sugar and vegetable stock. The dish means comfort to me and it’s a meal I always come back to.

Rice and peas began as a Sunday staple, probably because there was more time to prepare it on the day of rest. The grain was grown by the enslaved people, though a 17th-century record states that its labour-intensity made it “too troublesome for its price, and so neglected by most planters”.

The roots of the dish are West African, born out of the Ghanaian waakye, a dish of rice and beans, usually black-eyed peas. Rice and peas takes its name from gungo peas, which are traditionally used, though kidney beans are fine too.

Serves 4
whole chicken 1 x 1.5kg
sea salt 1½ tsp
freshly ground black pepper 1 tsp
onion 1 large, finely sliced
garlic 3 cloves, crushed
ginger 5cm piece, finely grated
thyme 3 sprigs
ground pimento 1 tbsp
all-purpose seasoning 1 tbsp
spring onions 2, roughly chopped
savoury browning 1 tbsp (see below)
vegetable oil 3 tbsp
red pepper 1, sliced
water 300ml
light brown sugar 2 tbsp
soy sauce 1 tbsp
tomato ketchup 2 tbsp
scotch bonnet chilli 1

For the savoury browning (makes about 5 tbsp)
vegetable stock 400ml
light brown sugar 50g

For the rice and peas (enough for 6 as a side)
dried gungo peas 150g, or kidney beans, soaked overnight, or 1 x 400g tin, with its liquid
spring onions 3, finely chopped
garlic 1 clove, very finely chopped
thyme 3 sprigs
vegetable oil 2 tbsp
long grain white rice 300g, rinsed,
then soaked for 30 minutes
scotch bonnet chilli 1 (optional)
coconut milk 200ml
sea salt

To make the savoury browning, reduce the vegetable stock in a saucepan to around 100ml, which will take about 30 minutes over a medium-high heat.

At the same time, heat the sugar in a non-stick pan over a medium-high heat until it starts to liquefy (4-6 minutes). Watch it to make sure it doesn’t catch and burn. Reduce the heat to medium-low, stirring regularly, and once the sugar has fully melted (10-15 minutes), stir continuously until it turns a luxurious dark brown and smells of intense caramel.

Once both the stock and sugar are ready, mix together, stirring until there are no lumps. While hot, pour into a sterilised jar – this will keep in the fridge for up to 6 months.

To make the rice and peas, in a large saucepan, boil the soaked gungo peas (or kidney beans, if using) for 1-1½ hours, until tender.

In a separate pan, fry the spring onions, garlic and thyme in the oil for 5 minutes over a medium heat. Add the drained peas or beans (reserve their liquid) and the rice and stir to coat. Add the scotch bonnet, if using, then the coconut milk. Pour in 100ml of bean liquid: either use the bean-cooking water or the liquid from the tinned beans, making the latter up to the necessary amount with tap water.

Add a pinch of salt, but if using tinned beans check whether the liquid they were in was salted, so you don’t add too much.

Bring to the boil, put a lid on and reduce the heat to a minimum. Cook for 15 minutes, then turn the heat off. Use a fork to fluff the rice up, remove the thyme sprigs if you want and the whole Scotch bonnet, if used, then clamp on the lid to continue steaming for 10 minutes before serving.

To make the brown stew chicken, cut the chicken into small pieces: separate the drumsticks and thighs and cut both in half using a cleaver. Divide each breast, on the bone, into 3-4 pieces. Separate the wings into the drum and flat. Remove the skin from every piece apart from the wings and freeze it, along with the wing tips and backbone, for stock.

Mix the chicken pieces in a bowl with the salt, pepper, onion, garlic, ginger, thyme, pimento, all-purpose seasoning, spring onions and savoury browning. Leave to marinate for at least 4 hours in the fridge, ideally overnight.

Put the oil in a Dutch pot or heavy-based pan. Scrape as much of the marinade off the chicken pieces back into the bowl as you can (reserve this) and brown the chicken on all sides, in batches if needed, so as not to overcrowd the pan.

Remove the chicken to a plate and scrape the marinade into the same pan. Cook for 10 minutes over a medium-high heat until the onion starts to colour, then add the red pepper. Mix well and return the chicken to the pan with the measured water and all the remaining ingredients. Include the scotch bonnet whole for flavour, or finely chop ¼-½ of it for heat.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 25 minutes until the sauce is thick, dark and glossy and the chicken is cooked through. Pick out the thyme sprigs, if you want, and the whole Scotch bonnet, if using.

Serve with the rice and peas.

Guinness punch pie
Guinness punch pie.
Guinness punch pie. Photograph: Patricia Niven

If you like custard tarts, you will love this. I first had the idea for it a few years ago, while drinking some Guinness punch and wondering if it would translate into dessert form. The answer was a resounding yes. You can adjust the intensity of the Guinness flavour by using slightly less or more. And if you don’t drink alcohol you can use 0% Guinness: it works, I’ve tried.

Stout is a popular drink in Jamaica, with Guinness and Dragon Stout cornering the market. Guinness followed the British empire – it is also huge in Nigeria – and the company first exported a West Indian porter from Dublin to the island in 1801, with the first export of proper Guinness going out in 1830. The slight bitterness of stout is softened by sweetness here, while the spices in the custard are really reminiscent of the stout itself.

Serves 8
For the custard
Guinness 400ml
egg yolks 7 (freeze the whites for another time)
condensed milk 1 x 405g tin
double cream 250ml
grated nutmeg ½ tsp, plus more to serve
ground cinnamon ½ tsp
vanilla extract 1 tsp

For the pastry
unsalted butter 125g, plus more to grease the tart tin
plain flour 250g, plus more to dust the tart tin
golden caster sugar 45g
egg yolk 1
water 30ml

In a saucepan, simmer the Guinness until it reduces by about two-thirds. Leave to cool.

Meanwhile, make the pastry. Using your hands, rub the butter and flour together until the mix resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar and egg yolk, and then add the measured water a little at a time, until the dough comes together. Don’t knead any more, just wrap in clingfilm or greaseproof paper and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 140C fan/gas mark 3. Butter a 20cm tart tin and remove the pastry from the fridge. Dust your worktop with flour and roll out the pastry into a circle roughly 28cm in diameter. Roll the pastry around the rolling pin and unroll over the tart tin. Carefully push the pastry into the edges of the tin and leave the excess rising above the rim.

Prick the base of the tin with a fork all over, then line with greaseproof paper and baking beans or rice. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Take out the greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

In a bowl, gently beat the egg yolks with the condensed milk, trying not to get too much air or too many bubbles into the mix. Stir in the double cream and reduced Guinness, then stir in the remaining ingredients.

Pour the custard into the pastry case and bake for 40-45 minutes; it should still have a wobble in the middle. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Grate extra nutmeg over the top and chill before slicing.

Courtesy: theguardian