Sumayya Usmani visits Haiti
STROLLING past the chameleon premises on a busy corner of Edinburgh’s Tollcross, I see that they have another new proprietor. I’ve lost count of the businesses that have come and gone here – Italian, Iraqi, Indian, Sri Lankan – and now it’s Jamaican, or at least Caribbean, in the form of Trenchtown Social. Big and bold, its window signage promises “Riddims”, “Rum”, and “Jerk!”. One big expansive sign asks: “Wah gwan?” (what’s going on) in Jamaican patois. There’s a confidence about this place, as if it’s here to stay.
I walk inside to check out the menu. Internally it’s been transformed. There’s a bar now, and the whole place has been made over like a weathered rum shack on some heavenly Caribbean beach, a touch of Death In Paradise, spiced up with graffiti that Banksy might approve of: giant images of Bob Marley, and the strutting cockerel from Cockspur rum. It’s blasting out dancehall: Konshens’s Bruk Off, if I’m not mistaken. I’m welcomed by two very cool guys who might even be Jamaican, as opposed to playing at being Jamaican, and within seconds, my nostrils start twitching. This place smells so damn good, of freshly roast and ground spices. Because I recently made my own Jamaican curry powder from scratch, I’m picking out similarly earthy notes, of dried ginger, mustard seed, fenugreek, allspice. It’s overlaid with the unmistakable aroma of intoxicatingly addictive Scotch bonnet chillies. My mouth waters. I return that evening.
I relish the way Caribbean cooks season up a fish with wet spice pastes – they make European treatments of fish seem boring – but even so, I’m wondering whether the red snapper, which is unlikely to be fresh, is a wise choice, but the risk pays off. It’s amazing how we can still taste the thick, fresh-tasting fillet under this explosion of thyme and yellow Scotch bonnet inside the parchment and foil package. When the chilli heat builds up, we turn to the juicy slices of fresh mango and crescent moons of fresh coconut, or the aromatic rice, and the minty, still piquant, but overall cooling, pineapple and lime “chow” that accompany it.
The jerked pork belly takes me right back to the jerk I tasted at the world renowned jerk pits of Boston Bay, in Jamaica: that melt-in-the-mouth spiciness, that lingering aroma of charred wood. Its vinegaredged, amber-hued sauce and slippery pink pickled onion cuts the richness of the sizzled fat, and soak into the sweet potato mash. Emollient, crunchy coleslaw dotted with seeds (nigella, perhaps?) mellows the proceedings. Trinidadian green seasoning, a gingery coriander sauce, freshens it up. It amounts to another plate and a half of wonderfulness.
Curry goat – here anglicised to “goat curry” – is more of the genuine article. The meat is gelatinous enough to remain succulent even though its lean flesh is tender. Its turmerictinged sauce has a lusty masculine quality that suffuses the customary chopped potatoes in it. We soak every last bit of gravy up with “rice and peas” (long grain rice and red kidney beans cooked in coconut milk with thyme, spring onions, peppercorns, and garlic).
Of course, we most certainly don’t need to eat the “festival”, Jamaica’s famous cornmeal dumplings, but we have to check them out. They’re dense and stick to the teeth, with greasy, crunchy outsides, exactly how they should be. And as an antidote to this fried carb, a staple in Caribbean cooking, we demolish a salad with avocado, ribbons of raw carrot and squash, mango, golden beetroot and crunchy gem, dressed with fresh lime and orange. Caribbean food is definitely stick-to-the-ribs stuff, but leavened by the “ital” (vital) thinking of the Rastafarian plant food diet, Jamaica’s contribution to “clean eating” long before that term became fashionable.
If you’re a wimp with chilli, Trenchtown Social’s uncompromisingly authentic heat might tax you, but I recommend that you go into training; it’s worth the effort because this food is the real thing. The playlist is banging – dancehall, Afrobeats, Hip Hop – and the rum cocktails are guaranteed to kick start the proceedings. As they say in “Ja”, Trenchtown Social is now serving “big tings”; you’d be advised to get along there.