Shivi Ramoutar

28th May 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

28th May 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Shivi Ramoutar hasn’t always been obsessed with Caribbean cuisine. Born in Trinidad, she moved to New York aged six and then on to the UK, where her father was working as a doctor. Growing up in Leicester, she was more interested in fast food and Sunday roasts than the traditional fare her parents dished up at home, but that changed after she moved to London. Her epiphany, which spurred her on to evangelise Caribbean food through cookery courses, supper clubs and a vibrant new cookbook called Caribbean Modern, occurred amid the culinary doldrums of student life. “I woke up one day after months of baked beans and chips and thought, I really want callaloo.”

Callaloo is on the menu when we come for lunch at Shivi’s place in west London. It’s a popular Caribbean dish, traditionally made with a green spinach-like leaf of the same name; Shivi serves it as a soup from a Wedgwood tea set with crab biscotti on the side. It’s delicious. She also treats us to buljol, a Tobagonian dish made with salt-cod, tomatoes, peppers and lots of lime juice which we stuff into fluffy deep-fried buns. Shivi says she wants to showcase the colours, freshness and diverse flavours of this underestimated cuisine; there’s a whole much more to Caribbean food than jerk chicken, is her message here. We’re receptive from the very first bite.

She lives in a basement flat on a pretty Edwardian square in Earl’s Court with her husband, Ben, who works in finance, and a Yorkshire terrier named Poppy. The kitchen and living room are open-plan with a counter jutting out between them – this is where Shivi spends the vast majority of her time at home. While she cooks, we chat about her parallel-universe career as a songwriting lawyer, her stint on MasterChef (she made it to the quarter finals in 2013) and how her interest in food was piqued by Roald Dahl. Then, after she has fully converted us to Caribbean cuisine, we head around the corner to Kensington Square Kitchen, her current supper club venue1, for a cup of hot chocolate.

Continued below...

You were born in Trinidad but moved to England when you were eight. Has Caribbean food always been a part of your life?

Before we came to the UK, my mum took me and my two sisters to New York for a couple of years. It was such a culture shock after Trinidad so my grandmother, who was living in New York, decided to do lots of Caribbean food to make us feel at home. She’d go to the Dominican market and bring back dasheen2 and make callaloo. I’m not quite sure when the switch happened but I remember hating this food all of a sudden. Must I? I just wanted a slice of pizza or spaghetti or whatever the kids were eating.

Were you allowed?

No not really. When we came to the UK, we did have fast food sometimes but it was very much the Caribbean staples for our Sunday lunches. Later, when I moved to London for university, I woke up one day after months of baked beans and chips and thought, I really want callaloo. So I started going to Shepherds Bush Market; it was quite a trek from Camden but when I got there I was just in heaven, seeing all these ingredients I used to see as a kid. It was comforting. I felt like I was back at home.

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When you say “home”, where do you mean?

Just being with family. I always class home as very moveable – it’s more to do with food, smell, sound. So I started to cook more and more Caribbean food and it made me very happy. It’s like you don’t like wine, then you wake up one day loving wine. Or maybe I got over the rebellious teenage phase where I wanted to do everything my parents didn’t want me to do.

I only got interested in Caribbean food after I left home, which is so funny because I spent my whole childhood running away from it: “Can’t we just have a Sunday roast?”

So that was first time you saw it as something special?

Well, Caribbean food, yes. The first time I started cooking, or developed a fascination for food, was when I was 10 or 11. My parents got me Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes [see Bookshelf]. I don’t know why they bought me that book – maybe because I used to dye eggs blue – but I went through it cover to cover. I really loved messing around and putting flavours together. There were hits and misses: I remember putting mint yoghurt in a tomato and feeding it to my auntie – she didn’t love it too much. I also remember doing plums, carrots and honey, which was actually really good and I still do it sometimes. So yeah I only got interested in Caribbean food after I left home, which is so funny because I spent my whole childhood running away from it: “Can’t we just have a Sunday roast?”

Is the food you cook specifically Trinidadian?

It’s more generally Caribbean. The buljol I’m making today is a Tobagonian dish. Callaloo, they have in Jamaica as well… I try to focus on fresher flavours and vibrant colours: there’s more to Caribbean food than jerk chicken and mutton curry – so much more. It’s not all brown. And it can be good for you!

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How would you define Caribbean food?

By its immense diversity. So many different cultures have settled in the Caribbean: African, Chinese, Indian and European. All these cultures brought their own ways of cooking and adapted it to fit what was available in terms of ingredients. I’m always asked what’s the thing that unites Caribbean food and I think it’s the fact that we’re such a melting-pot of influences.

Where did your family come from originally?

I’m very mixed – I’m the mongrel of all human beings. My father is sixth generation Trinidadian, but I believe his family came from Uttar Pradesh in India. My mother has Hispanic and Latin American roots. I believe there’s some Chinese in there as well. My sisters and I, we all have slightly different coloured skin and eyes: it’s quite a nice little hotchpotch.

Most people use Angostura bitters in cocktails but it’s also a gem to cook with. It works really well in desserts – I add a dash to a tamarind caramel crumble or a banana tarte tatin
Shivi on her favourite ingredients – see Pantry

How long have been in London?

Twelve years. I came here for university, which was just the best time. I’m from a very strict background so moving to a big capital city was freedom. And 10 years ago it was relatively cheap. Still, I love what London has to offer now. Back then, cheap food was cheap food, whereas now there’s a middle ground and there are so many new things happening.

Do you eat out a lot?

A fair amount. I use it as an excuse to see what other people are doing. The whole sharing plates appeals to me because that’s how I like to eat, and actually that’s how a lot of Caribbean food is: feasting and sharing.

Do you know any good Caribbean restaurants in London?

There aren’t many in central London. When I was a student I used to go to a place in Tottenham called Caribbean Blue. It was brilliant. There’s a place on Clapham High Street I go to called Roti Joupa, which is great. And there’s a place in Croydon called Roti Masters

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You get around.

I do. I will travel to east London – half an hour on the tube – and say it’s local. Half an hour isn’t too bad.

What did you study in university?

Law. I qualified and did two years, specialising in securitisation, though I couldn’t tell you what that means now. It wasn’t the career for me. While I was still working as a lawyer, I set up a supper club with a friend. I always love that Robert Frost poem, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”3. My life feels a bit like that sometimes. When I came to London, I set out to be a songwriter and a lawyer. Who knew I’d end up doing this?

On The Menu

Lunch with Shivi Ramoutar
London, March 2015

To eat:

Callaloo with crab biscotti »
Buljol with fried bakes »
Baked split peas
Sweet potato pone

To drink:

Water
Hot chocolate

You wanted to be a songwriter?

Yeah, I was doing that at the same time as I was lawyering. I didn’t have a manager. The thing is, I’m a total geek. It’s fine to say that in your 30s, but in your 20s you’re trying to be this other person – in my case a girl with white blonde hair flaunting about in a leotard and nine-inch heels. Keeping up that façade was really difficult and it’s a relief not to have to do it anymore. I’d love to be cool but I’m not [laughs].

Do you still write songs?

Yeah, but I do it for fun. In my 20s it was life or death, but now it’s not. And cooking is just as creative.

Tell me about your supper club.

It’s called Lime and I’m doing it every other week at the Kensington Square Kitchen. It sits 17 to 20 people. I start with callaloo and biscotti, then we have buljol, Jamaican patties, two fresh salads, baked adobo chicken and pumpkin, and a few other things. Dessert is a lime polenta cake. It’s quite a lot of food! I love the social element, people coming together, meeting each other. Every time I come down the steps with the food, I love seeing who’s talking to who.

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Would you want your own restaurant?

I derive so much pleasure from the supper club, but if I had to start doing it every day and worrying about service, I wonder if my pleasure would diminish. I love being in control of everything, being there with every dish. That wouldn’t be possible if I ran a restaurant. I don’t think it’s my calling in life. I’m very happy with my little supper club.

You entered MasterChef in 2013. Was it a good experience?

It was a great experience. I was at a crossroads, wondering if I should commit to doing food, and it gave me a lot of confidence. There’s sometimes a stigma with those programmes, but I think MasterChef is a wonderful thing. It made me realise how much I love being elbow-deep in some kind of sauce. If I hadn’t done it, I’m not sure I’d be doing this now. If you can cook on national television in a kitchen you’re not used to with Greg shouting “You’ve got 10 minutes left” and be judged for it, I think you can believe in yourself.

My death-row dessert would be banana split with peanut butter chocolate-fudge sauce, condensed milk, coconut ice cream, buttered rum ice-cream and a little corner of rum-soaked raisins

What do you cook on a night off?

It varies. I’m obsessed with pasta. Last Sunday I had pasta with garlic and chilli flakes fried in olive oil and a couple of pomodorino tomatoes crushed in – it was sublime. I love spicy food: Thai green curries, Indian curries, Chinese food… My death row meal – do you ever have that conversation? – would be doubles to start. It’s a Trinidadian street food, basically fried chickpea dough stuffed with a chickpea curry – it’s beautiful, spicy, wonderful, and it’s the first thing we eat every time we get out of the airport at Port of Spain. My main would be a big bowl of pasta, half really spicy penne arrabiata, the other half a really simple truffle pasta with butter. Dessert would be banana split with peanut butter chocolate-fudge sauce, fried plantain as the banana, condensed milk, coconut ice cream, buttered rum ice-cream and a little corner of rum-soaked raisins. I haven’t thought about that very much, have I?

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Clearly not. Do you have a sweet tooth?

I have the biggest sweet tooth in the world. I was watching a programme about sugar addiction on Sunday night while eating a tub of Ben & Jerry’s peanut butter cup ice cream – I know it’s bad but I don’t want to know it! Peanut butter is probably my crack, as it were. If I’m not cooking or writing recipes, I have to be running.

Tell us about the snacks we’re eating.

These are baked split peas, which we have a lot in Trinidad. They taste better than crisps and they’re better for you. You soak dried split peas overnight in a bicarb, then bake them with lots of seasoning: salt, pepper, dried thyme.
And this is sweet potato pone. They’re like flapjacks crossed with cornbread. Normally we make them from cassava but I use sweet potato instead.

Fried bakes is the world’s easiest bread to make. It’s lazy man bread: if you knead it too much, it doesn’t work
Shivi on her dishes for the Gannet – see Recipes

How often do you go back to Trinidad?

At least once a year. My dad’s back out there now. I went recently for carnival with some British friends. I think they all loved it. Buljol was one of their favourite dishes. There’s a little place called Rosie’s on the main road in Bon Accord. You go in, queue up with all the locals in the morning and get buljol and corned beef and chicken vienna sausages. Opposite, there’s a guy selling bottles of coconut water. You get great street food in Trinidad, that’s our forte – nobody goes out to fancy restaurants.

Share a cooking tip with us.

If you want to get the beautiful flavour of Scotch bonnet without any of the heat, add the whole pepper – unpierced and unbruised – to the pot. You have to be very careful with it though, because if you pierce it, that’s it – you may as well throw whole thing out.
Another chilli-related tip: never put a metal spoon into your hot pepper sauce – it reacts with the vinegar and makes it go off. Use glass or plastic instead.

To find out more about Shivi and what she’s up to right now, go to her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram

You can buy a copy of her book Caribbean Modern here from 4 June

  1. Her supper club, Lime, derives its name from the Trinidadian practice of liming, which Shivi describes as “the purposeful art of doing nothing” except drinking beer and eating good food. As a sidenote, Kensington Square Kitchen don’t serve marshmallows with their hot chocolate so Shivi smuggles in her own (see bottom of Q&A for incriminating evidence)
  2. An alternative name for callaloo. The root of the plant is known in southeast Asian countries as taro. Confusingly, several other plants are used to make the callaloo dish, including water spinach, and the dish doesn’t always in the form of a soup.
  3. She’s referring to Frost’s The Road Not Taken

Posted 28th May 2015

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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