|Trinidad chicken curry with coconut milk is a crowd favorite.|
A culinary entrepreneur taps her Trinidad roots to bring new flavors to Beijing's food scene, Mike Peters reports.
Jerk chicken lovers in Beijing, rejoice!
While the Chinese capital has developed an international restaurant scene fairly quickly, especially since winning the 2008 Olympics, some flavors have remained elusive. Latin and African eateries, for example, have often struggled to find authenticity, an audience and staying power.
Both of those food cultures come together in the Caribbean, a regional cuisine that has been particularly hard to come by in China. That makes Gail's Caribbean Cuisine, a catering venture taking a giant step to a formal restaurant, particularly welcome.
Canadian-born Gail Ramroop grew up in a kitchen afloat in the spicy aromas of Trinidad and Tobago, where her parents are from.
"It's what I grew up on, and what I will die eating," she says after her recent opening party at The Hatchery, the Beijing restaurant incubator where she's set up shop until mid-January. Prior to this, she's been doing home delivery of her home-style cooking from a small kitchen for several months, as well as several pop-ups.
Among the challenges has been finding the ingredients behind the flavors she loves.
"Our curry is very different from the way it's made in other places," she says. "I've tried to adapt with spices used in India and Thailand, for example, but the results is just not the same." Luckily, there are Caribbean grocery stores in Canada, so she stocks up on trips home and sweet-talks her parents to send a box of spices like Scotch bonnet peppers as needed. Friends traveling from the Caribbean tote back care packages, too.
If you know your chilies, your senses may be on high alert at the mention of Scotch bonnet peppers. They are rated among the world's hottest, but Ramroop assures me that her jerk chicken and Trinidad curry chicken are not going to scorch the roof of my mouth.
In fact, the dishes pack plenty of the roasted chilies earthy flavor without being incendiary. If you want the full-wattage pepper, however, she provides it on the side. A little goes a long way.
Jerk is a style of cooking native to Jamaica but widely adapted across the Caribbean. If it looks like barbecue, well, it is: Meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a spice mix that's primarily allspice and those sneaky Scotch bonnet peppers. The seasoning is traditionally used on pork and chicken, but it finds its way to fish, beef, sausage, veggies and even tofu.
Other jerk-spice ingredients may include cloves, cinnamon, spring onions, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, garlic brown sugar, ginger and salt.
Another hard-to-find flavor is sorrel (jamaica in Spanish), which comes from a small type of hibiscus flower. It packs a distinctive tart punch and a rich red glow, which find their way into a robust rum cocktail now on offer at her venture in The Hatchery.
On offer are sharable platters of Trinidad chicken curry with coconut cream, pork-rib stew, curried sweet corn and channa aloo (curried chickpeas and potatoes). You can also order individual meal plates for about 70 yuan ($10): choose one of the above entrees (or jerk tofu) and enjoy with sides of stewed red beans, rice and peas, pickled pineapple chow and coleslaw.
That's a generous amount of food that may not leave room for dessert, but we're glad we were convinced to try it. Rum and raisin ice cream arrives on a round of spiced rummed pineapple and dusted with allspice and coconut. You'll want to lick the empty plate before they take it away.
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If you go
Gail's Caribbean Cuisine
From 6 pm daily through mid January at The Hatchery, 88 Dongsi 9th Alley, Dongcheng district, Beijing. 010-8950-8065.