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Is Caribbean Food The Next Soft-Shell Taco?

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When a new cuisine catches on in Australia, it catches on like wildfire. A few years ago, Mexican food meant a plate of sloppy nachos and a jug of dodgy margaritas, if you were very lucky. But then we discovered real Mexican, and in no time at all there were burrito bars and taco trucks lining the streets of every major city. Soon after came our love affair with Southern-style barbeque — people who once mocked Texans for their big gulps and gallon hats suddenly had some very serious things to say about pulled pork, hot sauce and hickory-smoked ribs.

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Like any sane person, I’m in favour of this. The greater the variety of international cuisines that catch on, the more places we have to eat tasty, tasty food. The question is: what’s next? We’ve had spicy Brazilian-style churrasco, and regaled our friends with stories of the catfish po’boys they just have to try. We’ve chased dumpling trucks up and down the streets of major cities, and eaten enough tofu tacos to feed a small army. We’re all old hands when it comes to Philly cheese steaks. Where will the next big flavour explosion come from?

Australia’s next food boom is from the Caribbean

For a large number of Australians, the phrase ‘Caribbean food’ immediately evokes memories of London. Thanks to its large immigrant population, the city is dotted with Caribbean takeaways – seriously, who among us has done the London pilgrimage without stumbling drunkenly into a jerk chicken place and experiencing the food epiphany to end all food epiphanies? If you can elbow your way through the crowds at the Notting Hill Carnival, there are numerous stalls offering Caribbean delights, and Brick Lane is another major area.

New York also has a wealth of authentic Caribbean, with hundreds of restaurants and street food stalls dotted all over the five boroughs. The most celebrated of them all, of course, is Miss Lily’s in Greenwich Village. It’s one of the city’s most crowded and popular Caribbean hangouts, serving up fritters, curried shrimp and spicy jaquitos to its hipster crowd, alongside a soundtrack of reggae and soca music.

Then there are those of us who’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to the Caribbean and experienced the wealth of local flavours and styles there, from Jamaica to St Kitts and the Dominican Republic. If none of these things describes you, though, then you need not worry, because it’s likely there will be a Caribbean joint opening near you very soon. In Sydney, Melbourne and even Brisbane, Cuban and Jamaican-influenced restaurants and bars are opening for business, and many are calling it the successor to the down-home Americana influence that has been so prevalent in food for the last few years.

So what is Caribbean food all about?

Caribbean cuisine takes in a whole mess of different cultural and ethnic influences, ranging from African and East Indian, all the way through to Asian. Every part of the region has its own signature dishes and flavours, and every town has its own secret blend of hot sauce made with its own very special peppers. Jamaican jerk chicken is probably the most widely-known dish, but salt fish, ackee, okra and sweet potato are all staples from the region.

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That’s a lotta jerk chicken. [image via jp3g]

Many of the most popular street foods are of the ‘so delicious they might actually kill you’ variety. There’s Trinidadian pholourie, which are balls of fried split pea batter topped with tamarind sauce, and Cuban chicharron, which are essentially spicy, deep-fried pork rinds. The fish cakes come with a serious kick, and the spicy meat parcels known as empanadas are about the best munchies you can find after an evening of rum-based cocktails.

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The innovators who are making it happen

The Lobo Plantation, which opened last month on Clarence Street in Sydney’s inner city, is one of the places at the forefront of the Caribbean movement. The bar has more than 150 hand-picked varieties of rum to choose from, and the décor is a throwback to the decadent Cuba of the early 20th century. General Manager Jared Merlino tells me that the venue was named after one Julio Lobo, a powerful sugar baron from the nation’s pre-revolutionary era.

“It was a period of extreme decadence in Cuba,” Merlino explains. “People dressed up to the nines, they ate the best food and they drank the best rum. It was a time when people were really able to enjoy themselves. Julio Lobo was one of the defining figures from that era, and we find him to be a very inspiring figure.” The interior of the bar — red leather chesterfields, and an intricate mosaic of flamingos — draws on the decadence of the era, and the drinks and comestibles do the same.

Visual representation of 20th century Cuban decadence.

The Lobo Plantation’s focus is on cocktails, but its food offers a sampling of various authentic Caribbean delights. “One of our best dishes is a Cuban-style empanada,” Merlino says. “It’s a light, flaky pastry square, and inside is slow-cooked beef with raisins, done over a couple of days. It’s fried and baked, and it’s amazing.” Then, you also have the Tamales en Cazuela — corn husks filled with polenta, smashed corn and spicy pulled pork, topped with black beans and a freshly-made salsa.

Tamales

The Lobo Plantation’s ‘Tamales En Cazuela’. Mmm, bright and blurry. [image via Facebook]

“The Ropa Vieja is also great,” Merlino says. “It’s a shredded flank steak that has been slow-cooked for two nights in a mixture of dark beer and brown sugar. We serve it with chick peas, and it just melts in your mouth, it’s so good.” Every dish comes with The Lobo Plantation’s signature hot sauce, made in house. “Everywhere you go in the Caribbean, you’ll find someone has a unique local hot sauce,” Merlino continues. “Ours has a nice bite, and it really brings out the spicy flavour of the tamales, especially.”

What happens now?

There are Caribbean-inspired places springing up all over the country, joining the few already established joints, like Sassy’s Jamaican Kitchen in Melbourne’s Fitzroy. Fitzroy also has Los Barbudos, which runs a Cuban food truck out the back, while Queenies Jamaican Bar And Kitchen runs Tuesday to Saturday at The Forrester in Sydney’s Surry Hills. Brisbanites can sample jerk chicken at Jamroc in The Valley.

While The Lobo Plantation’s focus is on drinks, the food is a big draw, and Merlino says that one of his dreams for the future involves a more Caribbean-focused restaurant. He sees a bright future for Caribbean food in Australia, as long as it’s done right. “When Australians find something we like, we go gangbusters for it,” he says. “As long as the people who make it do it justice, as long as they do it with the flavours and spices of the Caribbean, then I feel like it could be a brand new take on something that hasn’t been done here before.”

Alasdair Duncan is an author, freelance writer and video game-lover who has had work published in Crikey, The Drum, The Brag, Beat, Rip It Up, The Music Network, Rave Magazine, AXN Cult and Star Observer.

Feature image via Valters Krontals

  • Rob Newcombe

    There was a bloke called Rasta Bob with a food truck who briefly set up shop at the West End markets back around ’09. His jerk chicken was amazeballs (it was marinated in jerk spices but then deep fried), but his stall disappeared after only a few weeks. I hope he didn’t completely miss the boat and can capitalise on this emerging Caribbean thing, because that chicken was damn tasty and I want to eat more of it.

  • Steph Harmon

    chickens are such jerks