Plantains sizzle on the pan, sounding like the crackle of needle on vinyl as it merges with the hum of a TV show jingle playing the background. I’m in the Croydon house of Lurline, grandmother to Craig and Shaun McAnuff. It’s in this homely setting that the brothers started their hugely successful Caribbean food platform, Original Flava.
Back in 2016, the pair began uploading simple recipe videos—filmed in Nan’s kitchen—for staple Caribbean dishes like jerk ribs and brown stew. Intended to share with friends who wanted to learn more about Caribbean cooking, the videos soon amassed a large online following. One month in, and the brothers had more than 70,000 Facebook followers.
Today, Original Flava is a food empire, with 38,000 Instagram followers, a bestselling self-published cookbook, YouTube channel, and live cookery demonstrations.
“We just wanted to show our friends how to make Caribbean food, initially, so we put some videos online,” recalls Shaun. “Then all our friends started sharing it, and their friends shared it … before we knew it we had a massive following!”
Craig and Shaun credit Lurline and their mum for teaching them not only how to cook authentic cuisine from their heritage, but for instilling family values by bringing people together through food.
“It’s the feeling they gave us, more than anything, that came from cooking food,” says Craig. “When we were growing up, the kitchen was their space, and they allowed us into it and showed us—and we saw the excitement their cooking brought people.”
Shaun adds: “It always brought a sense of happiness, the food on the table, family coming round. Food brought the family together—that’s what we always remembered.”
Last week, Craig and Shaun launched Vegan Flava, a cookbook of vegan Caribbean recipes—much to the delight of their online fanbase. When they started out, vegan Caribbean options were scarce, and the pair’s early videos focused on the traditional meat and fish-based dishes they grew up with, such as curry goat, ackee and saltfish, and chicken foot soup.
“A lot of our dishes had meat to begin with, but I wanted to eat more veg and have a balanced diet, so we tried to offer that to our followers too,” says Shaun.
Here, you might think, is the part of the story where Original Flava hops on board the vegan hype train. But this isn’t a token thing. The South London brothers’ foray into veggies goes deeper than that—Shaun’s decision to become vegan last year prompted the shift.
“I wanted to do it for a month at first, just before Christmas because I knew I’d be stuffing my face,” he says. “A month came, and I was enjoying it so much that I carried on for eight months. It’s the healthiest I’ve ever been.”
Shaun is “80-percent vegan” now, mostly because he often has to taste their non-vegan dishes at Original Flava events. Even the brothers’ mum has joined in, he tells me, embracing a plant-based lifestyle after seeing the health benefits it had for her son.
“My mum’s type 2 diabetes is basically gone, and her blood pressure is down. The diet changed her life,” Shaun says.
The brothers continue to do all their cooking and filming in Lurline’s house. I watch as they record each step of a vegan recipe from their book: the breakfast bowl. It doesn’t sound mightily Caribbean, but they explain how the fusion of British and Caribbean flavours combine into one massive bowl to give it a modern twist: mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, and vegan sausages cosy up next to homemade dumplings, plantains, and cooked down ackee—a fruit with a similar texture to egg, made with a blend of herbs and spices including thyme and scotch bonnet pepper.
Plantains fried, they move on to making dumplings. Next to me, Lurline—who I’m completely in awe of after hearing about her influence and popularity with both her grandsons and the internet in general—is looking on. Every so often she pipes in with a suggestion (“Just a tip of salt… don’t put too much water.”)
Shaun adds salt to plain flour, Craig pours water, and they stir the mixture together and create balls of dough, which they fry until golden brown. I ask Lurline if she likes Original Flava’s food.
She nods approvingly. “Especially the meat because I can put in in the freezer and have it later.”
“Nan, what about the vegan food?” asks Shaun.
A pause. She looks baffled. “I never eat that!” The guys erupt in laughter.
Nan is old school, preferring traditional Caribbean dishes to vegan ones, but she’s also woke. She’s tuned into the growing uptake of veganism (“There’s a lot of people doing this now,” she tells me), plus she loves avocados.
In the book’s introduction, Craig and Shaun talk about how their tongues have been “trained in rich flavours and meat textures” and that growing up in a Caribbean household meant that “a non-meat diet was alien” Did this make it harder to come up with an entire book of vegan recipes?
“We had to take some out!” reveals Shaun. His vegan experience meant he wasn’t worried about their dishes lacking flavour. “There’s no staple vegan Caribbean dish, so we created our own thing.”
By reworking traditional dishes with vegetables and fusing flavours from different countries, they came up with more than 40 recipes.
“The textures of the vegetables are all different and you can have more fun with it, bring more flavour,” Craig explains. “Our version of ackee and saltfish, we swap the fish for jackfruit because it has a similar texture but it’s more flavourful.”
While Caribbean at heart, the book takes culinary detours through Britain, Spain, and Morocco.
“That’s how Jamaican food is created,” says Craig, quoting the country’s national slogan “Out of Many One People.” “Escovitch fish, for example, got inspiration from the Spanish, and Jamaican patties take influence from Cornish pasties.”
Their vegan versions include Escovitch tofu, brown stew broccoli, and rice and peas.
“That’s what the future of food is all about, fusing foods together,” adds Shaun. “That’s how food is gonna grow.”
They also looked closer to home for inspiration, using natural ingredients found in Rastafari ital food, which is largely vegetarian.
“The first vegan video we did was ital coconut soup and it got a million views in a week,” Craig recalls. “From that people were like ‘please bring out a book!’”
They listened, and the recipe book racked up more than 200 sales in its first two days.
“It’s popping off, man!” exclaims Shaun.
“People who are intrigued about veganism but think it’s just salad or potatoes,” adds Craig. “We’ve come to show you how easy it is to make vegan Caribbean dishes that are just as satisfying as meaty ones and healthier. We’re about fun in the kitchen.”
“And bringing the flavour,” says Shaun.
This is Original Flava’s motto, it’s stamped on their aprons and in their minds. Smiling, as if on cue, they repeat it almost in unison: “Bringing the flava!”