Melissa runs the food and recipe project Fowl Mouths (fowlmouths.co.uk). In 2014, she started a supper club, serving Japanese comfort food that grew into a successful pop-up, which only ended after the birth of her daughter in 2018. She’s been a vocal advocate for the promotion of black and minority ethnic people in food, and now provides advice on all aspects of the industry. @fowlmouthsfood.
No New Year’s resolutions here
Not anymore. I’m old enough to know that I never, ever stick to them, so I save the effort and inevitable disappointment of failure, and instead channel that energy into positive things. I see each year as an opportunity to fill the following 12 months with new delights – adventures, education and, of course, food. The pursuit of foods unfamiliar to me has enriched my mindset and diet. Some are completely new, while others re-imagine familiar ingredients in completely different ways. I live in a city and realise that not everywhere has access to global foods. But, the internet is essentially a massive larder, and most things are available there. If not, there are shops serving diverse communities. Here are some of the ingredients that bring me joy, and I would love to see them enjoyed by more people, whether it’s through experimenting with different cuisines and dishes, or just incorporating them into familiar dishes to introduce a new dimension of flavour.
Native to Africa, tamarind grows on trees in brown pods. Split open, the seeds are covered in a brown, sticky pulp, which is the good stuff. You can buy the pods and snack on them as they are, or it also comes in a block or a jar, which will last for ages. It’s a great ingredient for introducing a bit of a tang to food. It’s enjoyed across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. It’s even in HP Sauce, but its potential for incorporating into everyday cooking is huge. During Veganuary a couple of years back I used it to make a vegan fish sauce and it was perfect. A spoonful in stews adds a brilliant depth.
This green leafy herb is most commonly associated with Japanese cooking. Its strong fragrance is reminiscent of a mixture of different herbs, but totally unique. I used it during my restaurant pop-up days, most notably in a dish with hake and clams over udon noodles. It’s great sliced in salads, or added to brown butter or béarnaise sauce. Even better, it grows brilliantly in most UK climates – one plant kept me well supplied throughout the summer.
Allspice is not unknown here, but is often reserved for sweet dishes. The spice is a cornerstone of Caribbean cuisine, and fundamental in jerk dishes, where it’s better known as pimento and even Jamaica pepper. I love it in savoury dishes – as part of a crust for white fish and in stews. Just a touch adds a beautiful fragrance and gives dishes body.
It’s hard to walk past a shop that’s fronted with boxes of plantain without buying a couple. Well, three – it would be foolish to resist the bargain three-for-a-pound. The first time I had it at my grandparents’ house in Darlington, it was done in the classic Jamaican way that is seen across the Caribbean. Black-spotted fruits sliced at an angle and fried until golden in caramelised sugars, then served with ackee, saltfish and dumplings. As I’ve travelled and eaten at different places, I’ve been amazed at the variety of plantain’s preparation, such as the green, unripe fruit sliced thinly and fried until crisp. Or, cut into thick slices, fried, squashed and then fried again in the way of Latin America. Now, a host of brilliant chefs, bakers and cooks are further pushing the boundaries of this wonderful fruit’s possibilities, and I sincerely believe that 2021 could be plantain’s year to hit the mainstream.
Roasted then fried, breadfruit is something else – robust, crispy in bits, yet yielding in others, with a solid, earthy flavour that takes on a slight sweetness. As a carbohydrate, it’s up there with the best. My favourite way to cook it is to roast it whole, close to flames so the rough green skin blackens while the white flesh cooks, and then to fry it. If a fire isn’t possible, it can be fried from raw or roasted in the oven before frying. Serve it as a side for brunch or with jerk meat.
Holding a fresh ackee in my hand for the first time was so strange. Up until that point, in my early 30s, I’d only ever seen the pale yellow fruit in a tin. They’re quite expensive – a 500g can will set you back at least a fiver – but in Jamaica, they litter the ground as casually as windfall apples do in the UK during autumn. I wanted to pick them all up and bring them home with me. Ackee is a fruit that grows on a tree, with a mellow, creamy flavour that’s quite unique. It’s most famously known for its association with saltfish, and a morning feasting on dad’s ackee and saltfish with my mum’s cornmeal dumplings is the best start to the day. It just needs a warmthrough – the tinned fruit is very delicate and breaks up easily – but one of my favourite ways to eat them is in a fritter.
7. Grains of paradise
I first came across this spice a few years ago and was smitten. The small dark seeds have a mild heat and are often likened to black pepper with notes of citrus. They’re native to West Africa, a part of the world where they are still most commonly used, as well as North Africa where it is used in tagines. It’s a great addition to curries, stews and sauces, and as part of a dry rub for meats before grilling.
8. Hibiscus (roselle or sorrel)
Hibiscus, also known as roselle or sorrel (not to be confused with the wild green herb sorrel) is a glorious red bloom. Dried and made into a drink, it’s even better. Used throughout Africa, South-East Asia and the Caribbean, it’s enjoyed hot, or as iced tea. It has a tartness to it, like redcurrants, and it’s packed with antioxidants, so it’s raved about for its apparent health benefits.
9. Gram flour
Chickpea flour is a South-Asian staple ingredient used for pakoras and bhajis. It crisps beautifully and is naturally gluten-free. It also has all of the health benefits of chickpeas, too – fibre, iron and other vitamins. In the last year, a whole world of possibilities opened up. Thanks to Burmese food heroes MiMi Aye and The Rangoon Sisters, we were made aware of shan tofu. Made from chickpeas, in a relatively quick process compared to its soy namesake, shan tofu can be eaten sliced, cold or fried, then topped with ingredients of your choice. It can also be toasted or used as a thickener, adding a delicate nutty note to dishes.
Whether you know it as cassava, yuca, manioc or tapioca, this is a delicious, versatile root. There is the small matter of it being toxic in its raw state. It contains cyanogenic glycosides, a form of cyanide, which can be poisonous if eaten at certain levels. But don’t let that put you off, as peeling and cooking removes the toxins. It can be mashed, grated, served as fries or fritters, and turned into flour. My favourite is cassava fritters. I can make good ones, but no one does them better than Adejoké Bakare at the West African restaurant Chishuru in Brixton, London. Outstanding.
More from Melissa…
This article was published on 6 January, 2021.