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Caribbean cuisine gets national nod

CHEWING THE FAT: Ainsley Harriott and Michael Springer

WHEN MOST think of British independent takeaways, the local chip shop springs to mind, as well as the Chinese place, Indian spot and the revered chicken shops with all-important ‘boss man’ at the fore. In addition, Caribbean takeaways are opening up left, right and centre to meet the appetites of an increasingly multicultural, globalised society.

In its infancy, the prestigious British Takeaway Awards have cottoned on to this fact. Over the last two years, in association with food delivery giant Just Eat, the event has risen to prominence as the first multi-cuisine takeaway awards in Britain. Some are even calling it the Oscars of the UK food industry. This year’s judging panel consisted of celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott and star of BBC2’s Dragon Den, Sarah Wilingham.

Taking place at the plush Savoy Hotel in London on Tuesday December 6, the ceremony acknowledged some of the country’s finest takeaways and history was made as Michael Springer – aka Big Mike – became the
first Caribbean recipient of the prestigious ‘Takeaway Chef of the Year’ gong for his handy work via Croydon based takeaway – Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen.

Springer was among the 13 regional winners - out of some 26,000 - to pick up a prize. As part of the victory, his Calypso Kitchen was awarded £2,500 and reimbursement of their initial Just Eat set up fee.
The Londoner wowed the judges by, as he put it, “staying true to his roots” with a literally flaming mulled sorrel with Caribbean rum on top, Bajan fishcakes seasoned with top secret ingredients, a shrimp and mussel coconut sauce served in the shape of Barbados alongside plantain. It was also a deliberate and delicious ode to the island’s 50th independence anniversary.

Springer’s culinary journey stems back to his formative years, spent in Barbados, a country in which “everything is celebrated with food and rum”. He credits his mother and wife with providing the inspiration and groundwork for him to launch his own takeaway. “My mum always bubbled pot. You’d wake up in the morning to the smell of fish- cakes, that kind of things. Having two boys [my brother and I], she insisted that we learned to cook because she knew that, eventually, we’d leave. That sets a foundation.

“I am stoked, absolutely flying” says Springer, of this monumental accomplishment. “I think people thought we’d just come with a lump of rice and peas but we come from the sun and the fun – if we can’t be creative, who can?”. Springer’s win demonstrates the growing credibility of Caribbean cuisine within the mainstream sphere, where it has previously been side-lined as an unpopular, unknown, foreign entity. “We [Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen] have helped to put Caribbean food out there and people are starting to ask the actual questions.

PREP: Mike in action

“Caribbean people understand what our food and culture is all about, whereas many people in the UK are still a bit confused about what it is Caribbean food and I think that this is a great platform to showcase and let people taste what we are good at”. Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen has significantly grown in popularity since opening its doors just 20 months ago. From earning £84 in the first week and eagerly anticipating – or praying for - new orders to now, being inundated with custom, the establishment boasts a vibrant menu of various delights from sweetbread and fishcakes to jerked chicken and curry goat.

With a wide menu, there’s a wide appeal which Mike can testify to, “our food is being eaten by all the masses – not just ethnic minorities which people would assume. I’ve got English, Euro- pean, Turkish, Italian customers, from different backgrounds”.

And yet, the term ‘Caribbean’ is often shrouded in ambiguity, particularly in the culinary context. What does it mean exactly? Are there key differences between say, traditional Jamaican cuisine and such from any other part of the Caribbean which dictate a specific taste, flavour and style of cooking? Springer pauses briefly before launching into an insightful and eloquent reply, peppered with a bit of spicy Bajan twang. "Every island has their own unique dish which they can claim and specialise in, whether it’s the jerk from Jamaica, the buss- up shot from Trinidad, Doubles from Guyana or Bajans and their sweetbread”.

Mike's Bajan fish cakes

He continues: “With that said, I don’t think there are key differences. We all give a similar type of love to the food because we all come from the Caribbean. I have taken inspiration from my Jamaican friends, Trinidadian friends and Bajan friends and whatever’s left – is mine. If you look at the West Indies cricket team, it’s a mixture of players from different islands and we won the 20/20 World Cup. When we divide and play football individually, it’s a different story! [laughs]”.

“Why should there be a distinct difference when if you put us all together, we’re all making similar food because it’s the same area. I do think that there’s more of a distinct demarcation of lines in the UK, when it comes to that question”.

Michael was recently diagnosed with type two diabetes. The traditional starchy food and sugary drinks which underpins many West Indian dishes prompted the chef to make healthier adjustments to his menu. “I have, without the loss of taste, adjusted the menu and a lot of that is about bringing it up to modern day. For example, if I am doing oxtail and braising it off – we only need two tablespoons of olive oil to do that. It’s things like that which have made a significant difference”.

Serving up that personalised touch is pivotal to the success of Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen, as the owner explains: “The challenge was always how you get the food to transcend from the pot with that authenticity for the general public? I think we’ve perfected that. “I want to do home cooked food in a fast food way.”
With long terms plans to open up a restaurant, kick-start an in-house delivery service and launch a book, the future looks extremely bright for Big Mike.

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