The Spread Eagle pub on Walmgate looks like any other back street boozer. However, this unlikely location is the epicentre of a plot to change York’s takeaway scene and in doing so, alter our palettes forever more.
Adam, the culinary maestro of the pub has, for a year now, been the proprietor of Jamaican Street Food. His utterly evangelical approach to the food he makes and sells should be enough to make any grown food-lover’s ears prick up.
Street food is very much the culinary trend of the moment. Simple rustic dishes and rediscovered foods like pulled pork have moved at once up market and into the mainstream.
Jamaican Street Food can be seen as very much a part of this trend.
Adam’s background is in social work and social care. Having worked in that sector for 23 years prior to starting his cooking business.
Despite this apparently big leap he tells me he’d “always been around food”. “I used to help my mother cook… I was brought up a church goer, so we’d cater for church functions” and when he was a bit older “I’d cook for sleep overs, sometimes cooking for fifteen or sixteen mates at one time”.
Adam’s interest in cooking was truly reawakened after he spent three months living in Jamaica following the death of his father.
He tells me how this altered his relationship with food and cooking:
It was Adam’s experiences with York’s live music scene that led him to start running Jamaican Street Food as a business.
“Having arrived in York, going to Irie Vibes at the Crescent [Working Men’s Club] felt like a homecoming.”
“In the Caribbean with music comes food” as such it was almost instinctive for Adam to begin selling his food at reggae and dub nights like Irie Vibes and Bangarang.Jamaican Street Food has now been a feature of Bangarang events for a year.
“We started off with a tasting event at Space 109 on Walmgate, then we did it at the Rook and Gaskill for seven or eight months. Before we moved here to The Spread Eagle”.
At The Spread Eagle Adam is the “Chef in Chief”, making use of the pub’s kitchen to cater to people attending musical events on Fridays and Saturdays.
It provides the perfect pulpit from which he can preach his Jamaican street food gospel. Alongside “spreading the music and spreading the food”, having done extensive research he is keen to convey the health and nutritional benefits of traditional Caribbean cooking.
Very much excited by the creole nature of Jamaican cooking, which draws upon the culinary traditions of all the groups from the Portuguese onawards, who have “conquered” or settled on the island.
This striking mix of cultures and eating traditions has led to some interesting mixes and innovations. For instance the island’s traditional salt fish dishes are descended from the cured fishes that European explorers brought with them on their long sea voyages, goat curry was brought to the island by Indian workers who migrated in the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries.
In terms of innovation Jamaica was the first place that people mixed hemp into cooked dishes.
Adam tells me about hemp’s health benefits, its especially good for the gut. Adam argues that its properties and those of other traditional Caribbean dishes are far better for you than most western foods. “Hemp is very good for the digestive tract. It helps celiacs and those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome”.
A lot of thought has evidently been put into the menu, Adam explains:
“We have three lines: meat, fish and vegan.”
This ensures that all dietary preferences are catered for.
That isn’t, however, the ingenious part. Having been told by his customers that they were having trouble working out how to “balance” their meals. Meaning that they ended up choosing dishes that were too “wet” or too “dry” Adam devised an ingenious spider diagram, in addition to his set menu. This allows people to choose a main dish, e.g. three bean stew, jerk pork or a saltfish fritter, then an accompaniment e.g. rice&peas, fried dumplings or macaroni cheese, then finally to choose a savoury side e.g. steamed or fried plantain (sliced green banana) or steamed vegetables.
Adam’s diagram is seemingly unique, it clearly allows for a lot of customer control over what they eat. I compliment him on his system and he smiles “people either get it or they don’t”.
I trace a branch of Adam’s diagram and decide that I want to order the goat curry, with rice&peas and fried plantain. Adam vanishes into the kitchen, reappearing shortly with a large steaming plate.
It is incredibly good food, the curry is perfectly spiced to pick out the flavour and texture of the meat, the rice and fried banana are the perfect accompaniment to it. I would definitely order it again or look forwards to trying another dish from the menu.
Adam advises that if you want to cook his dishes yourself, you go to a specialist retailer like Freshways (where he sources his raw ingredients) rather than turning to a supermarket. he told me that several customers had been left disappointed by the quality and flavour of Caribbean ingredients they had bought "off the shelf" from supermarkets in York.
I ask Adam about his plans for the future.
Nick, the recently installed landlord of The Spread Eagle notes that whereas most British cities have several Caribbean restaurants no one in York was serving Caribbean food prior to Jamaican Street Food setting up shop.
He is happy for Adam to use his kitchen to develop his nascent takeaway business. Whilst Adam hopes that by developing his event catering client base, he’ll soon be able to serve Jamaican street food five or six days a week rather than the current two.
Adam is keen to expand his range and has been researching Thai and Singaporean dishes to supplement his Jamaican food offering as well as developing a Jamaican form of tapas, especially suited to serving at lunchtime. He reveals that he has been offering nutritional advice to a University of York prospective paralympian and is keen to hold more events, like his tasting sessions, to allow people to experience Jamaican cooking.
In the future he “wouldn’t rule out” opening his own Jamaican restaurant or takeaway.
However, in the near future he would like to challenge, Yorkshire’s leading Caribbean Restaurant the Discovery Bay in Huddersfield, to a cooking competition.
I think he stands a good chance of winning it. “Bless up dis food!”Jamaican Street Food