Plantains for Breakfast? In London?

Caribbean chef introduces a taste of the tropics to conservative British palates

After working for 15 years in a large London hotel, chef Brian Benjamin finally decided enough was enough.

Armed with a lifetime of culinary experience and the ability to convince banks to lend him money, he decided to open his own restaurant - one that would reflect a childhood of spicy, home-cooked fare in his Caribbean island home of Grenada.

Three years later, Mr. Benjamin is the proud owner of BB's Crabback Caribbean Restaurant, a small eatery tucked away on a tiny side street in a West London suburb. Business is good, and his income is improving month by month. Most important, for a country with a large Afro-Caribbean population and few Caribbean restaurants, his clientele is a mixture - albeit an uneven one - of black and white.

"My Caribbean cooking came directly from my grandmother, who worked in a hospital kitchen in Grenada," Benjamin says in his orderly kitchen, where bowls of tropical fruit compete for space with plates of imported fish and curried goat.

West Indian food relies heavily on spicy fish and meat dishes served with side platters of tropical produce. Vegetables abound, like plantain, green banana, pigeon peas, dasheen (a starchy vegetable similar to a potato), yam, and breadfruit.

But despite the palatability of Caribbean cuisine, it is not nearly as popular in London as other ethnic foods, such as Indian, Thai, and Chinese.

"That's the difference between Caribbean people and the English," jokes Benjamin. "If you ask an Englishman about the Caribbean, he'll talk about the sun and the sand and the beach. But a person from the Caribbean will talk about the food."

Benjamin hopes to change all that. His food has captured the attention of several London-based publications, which have praised the authenticity of items ranging from seasoned parrot fish in lime sauce to "crabback," his specialty crab with cream and two cheeses.

The key to his success, Benjamin says, is the quality of his ingredients - and the fact that he does all the cooking except on weekends when an extra chef helps out. "It's important to me the message I'm trying to get across," he says. "The reason I entered the restaurant business is because people are traveling more away from home, and they need a place to come to relive their experiences. So I try to keep the food as Caribbean-orientated as possible."

His recipes, are "98 percent Caribbean" and come from a number of islands. "The food is very authentic," says patron Agnes Quashie, whose family runs a catering business that specializes in Caribbean food. She was enjoying a fillet of red mullet served on a bed of spinach-like callaloo, with a side order of plantains. "It is very, very good," she says.

Initially Benjamin thought that getting fresh conch and exotic fruit would be a major stumbling block, but that hasn't been the case. He buys most of his produce from central London wholesalers who ship it in from tropical climes, although he occasionally relies on local suppliers if he runs out of a specific ingredient.

Munro's African-Caribbean produce stall, for example, can be relied on to supply fruits and vegetables at the last minute. Located a few blocks from BB's, the stall offers mounds of spotted plantains lying alongside stacks of dried fish, coconuts, ginger, bamboo shoots, breadfruit, and other produce. It is the only such supplier in the area.

Like Benjamin, Munro Bedeau also has high hopes that Caribbean food will become more popular in London - and looks forward to healthy competition. In the not-too-distant future, he predicts, the typical English breakfast will consist of orange juice, bacon, eggs, and fried plantains instead of potatoes.

"The whole world likes bananas, but they haven't yet discovered plantains," says Mr. Bedeau, a native of the Carriacou Islands, as his boom box bleats a steady rhythm from the main table in his stall. "You can fry them like chips, mash them, boil them, or add them to soups."

Most plantain lovers, however, are pessimistic about the fruit's future here, saying it won't become more common until the initial perception of it is put right. "A lot of Europeans won't necessarily go into an African shop. And when they see a plantain, often black, they think it's gone off," says Dennis McIntosh, BB's assistant manager. He adds with a chuckle: "If the European market started to use green bananas as a staple instead of the potato, the economy in the Caribbean would improve rapidly."

But perceptions work both ways. Benjamin says most of his sit-down customers are European, while the bulk of clients ordering take-away food are Afro-Caribbean. "For Caribbean people, eating is the means to an end. 'I'm hungry, I eat,' where for others it is a social thing," he explains. "The first year was a nightmare, but now things are going well. I only wish we had a wider audience," he adds hopefully.


BB's Crabback

This simple dish may be served as an appetizer, or an entree with a salad or vegetables, or served on a bed of rice or cooked spinach. It is based on chef Benjamin's own recipe, but originates in his native Grenada. It is very rich, but can be made less so by cutting back on the amount of cheeses, and cream. The spiciness is up to you.

1 pound crab meat (Preferably fresh. If canned, drain thoroughly)

1/4 pound butter

4 spring onions, (scallions) finely chopped

2 to 4 dashes of hot sauce, or to taste

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 bay leaf

2 to 4 teaspoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

4 teaspoons grated sharp Cheddar cheese

Salt and ground pepper to taste

Chopped parsley (optional)

Melt butter in pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook slowly until slightly wilted. Stir in crab meat and hot sauce to taste. Add cream and bay leaf and bring slowly to boil, being careful not to burn. Stir in both cheeses, reduce heat, and let mixture cook to thicken. When consistency is fairly thick, add salt and pepper to taste and remove bay leaf.

Spoon into 4 crab shells, or similar-sized dishes. Top with parsley.

Serves 4.

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