Curried goat, spicy oxtail and other Jamaican gems are being served in the Jewellery Quarter, writes Richard McComb.
Big Nanny pops out of the kitchen and says she won’t be a minute – she’s just getting the coffee ready.
When I spoke to her earlier on the phone, I told her not to go to the trouble of cooking. The last time I saw her, three years ago, she laid on a banquet for one at her home in Dudley.
There was red bream cooked with onion, peppers, tomatoes, and lime juice; curried goat, cooked on the bone; callaloo, a green vegetable, sautéed with peppers, onion, garlic and coconut cream; and sweet potato pudding.
I have eaten some very good food at some very swish places and I’ve forgotten a lot of those meals but I haven’t forgotten Big Nanny’s great home-style cooking.
Today, we are meeting at mid-afternoon and she’s got an evening service to prep for at her new restaurant in the Jewellery Quarter.
She’ll be busy, which is why I told her not to prepare any food.
“I’m going out for dinner,” I added.
Five minutes pass as I sit in the dining room. Then 10. Then 15. We’re on Jamaican time, the island of Big Nanny’s birth a mere 70 years ago.
I am talking to her great nephew, Michael Edwards, who has come over from Jamaica to help open Big Nanny’s Caribbean Restaurant in Warstone Lane, Hockley.
“She’s not cooking, is she?” I ask Michael.
He raises his eyebrows and smiles. “You know what she’s like,” he says. “It’s a Jamaican thing.”
And there it is: the unmistakable aroma of cooking. Big Nanny, also known as Veda Sampson, just can’t help herself.
She appears with a dish of lobster and a smile as wide as Montego Bay. It’s just a taster, she says – lobster sautéed with peppers, onions, tomatoes, Scotch bonnet, herbs and spices, in a reduced creamy coconut sauce. It is served with rice and boiled green banana.
“I think the green banana goes well with the lobster. But you have to eat it while it’s warm,” says Veda, gently chivvying me along, not that I need much encouragement. The dish, of course, is a delight, a splash of Caribbean savoury verve on a dank late summer day in Brum.
The coffee is from Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, one of the most sought after coffees in the world. Nothing is left to chance and Veda roasts and grinds her own imported beans.
Veda had always dreamed of running her own restaurant, setting it up as a showcase for authentic, traditional Caribbean food. The dearth of good Caribbean restaurants is one of the great puzzles of Birmingham’s culinary scene, not least because of the city’s huge cultural ties to the West Indies.
Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese restaurateurs have enjoyed success by catering outside their ethnic groups to the broader community.
There are Italian and French restaurants (authentic or otherwise) dotted throughout the city centre and the suburbs. But the move has not really been replicated by the Afro-Caribbean community. All that could be about to change.
Veda opened Big Nanny’s last month and no one was more surprised than me. I didn’t for a moment doubt her abilities as a chef. But at 70? Who really wants to be bothered cooking for huge numbers?
“If I stop going, I will die. I am a workaholic,” says Veda. “Producing good food keeps you alive. It is my nature. If I am not in the kitchen cooking I am in the garden growing food.”
Veda, who is assisted in the kitchen by her daughter Tara, grows all the herbs for the kitchen at home in Tipton, or at her nearby allotment in Cradley Heath. It’s a long way from Kingston but the tarragon, thyme and mint grow just as well in the Black Country.
The chef insists there is no great secret to her style of cuisine.
Veda says: “Sadly, people don’t really know how to cook Caribbean food. There is this myth that it is hard, but it isn’t. If you are doing Caribbean cooking it pays you to get the right ingredients. And then it is simple.”
Basically, watered down Caribbean food, with inferior ingredients and spices, just doesn’t work. It’s all or nothing.
“I like fresh ingredients,” says Veda, a former auxiliary nurse. “I go back to my culture and how my mum and dad and grandparents used to cook. I like putting different food cultures together. It is magic really.”
Hence her special crumble – made with pineapple and mango, not blackberry and apple.
Food from Veda’s childhood meant jerk pork, pepper pot soup, rice and peas, pork ribs, fried dumplings, fritters and “fish of all descriptions.” The menu at Big Nanny’s draws on this heritage. Starters include patties filled with goat, saltfish and ackee or spinach-like callaloo and Caribbean fish and chips, the chips made from oven-roasted, spiced sweet potato.
Veda’s version of “chips” illustrates another misconception about Jamaican food – that it is heavy in fat and salt and therefore unhealthy. In fact, the cook says she uses little salt, allowing herbs and lemon to flavour the food naturally. There is only minimal frying.
Veda, who has written a cookbook and worked on healthy eating plans for the NHS, says: “We do a lot of steaming, roasting, baking and boiling. You can make boiled food tasty with herbs and spicing.”
The list of main courses is like a run through a family recipe book, loaded with satisfying rustic dishes such as curried goat, beef stew peas (beef with red kidney beans slowly cooked in a rich coconut cream sauce with dumplings), oxtail (with herbs, spices, dumplings and butterbeans), jerk chicken and the Jamaican national dish of ackee and saltfish.
It is a traditional style of cooking that is under threat. Port Elizabeth-born Veda, who came to the UK when she was 19, is worried that traditional dishes may die out because of apathy among the younger generations
“I think it is because some people can’t be bothered to go through the process. The younger ones grow up with their mum cooking all of the time and they don’t take notice.
"The reason why Caribbean restaurants fail is because of the preparation. It is the food, the flavour, the taste and the ambiance that will sell a place.
"As someone from Jamaica, I think there are too many take-aways. It is a cop-out. Who is going to take their family to a take-away? To enjoy food you have to sit down. When Jamaican people sit down to eat they don’t have a clock. That is how it is suppose to be.”
* Big Nanny’s Caribbean Restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday, 6.30pm to 11pm. www.bignannys.co.uk