How Roti Helped These London Chefs Reconnect with Their Caribbean Roots

"I had to step out my house to find my Caribbean culture."

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08 March 2019, 10:23am

There was a time when the Caribbean community in East London was well served with places to socialise. From the 1960s right through to the late nineties, R & JJ West Indian Restaurant, the collectively-run bookshop Centerprise, and iconic nightclub Four Aces Club provided safe spaces for British Caribbeans to eat, learn, and dance. Now, thanks to years of urban renewal and hostility from the local authorities, the number of Caribbean establishments here has waned.

Island Social Club, a contemporary Caribbean dining concept, aims to counteract this erasure of the Caribbean diaspora from Hackney’s streets and continue the legacy of older generations.

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Marie Mitchell and Joseph Pilgrim, founders of Island Social Club in East London. All photos by the author.

Founded by Joseph Pilgrim and Marie Mitchell, who previously ran a Caribbean supper club, Island Social Club began its residency at Dalston cafe Curio Cabal last month. The menu focuses on roti and curries, incorporating flavours from various Caribbean cuisines—as well as an extensive rum list.

Both Pilgrim and Mitchell have mixed Caribbean and Jamaican heritage, and when I meet them at the cafe during a rare quiet moment in their first few weeks of opening, they tell me that Island Social Club has helped them connect with their roots.

“Because I grew up in a single-parent British home, I had to step out my house to find my Caribbean culture," says Pilgrim. "I did that when going to my grandmother's house and hanging out with my friends at their houses.”

He adds: “The new generation is more investigative to explore the nuances of Caribbean culture that wasn’t necessarily given to them by their parents.”

Mitchell agrees: “I want to understand where I’m from and what my history is steeped in.”

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Diners at Island Social Club, which launched as a residency at Curio Cabal cafe.
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Cassava and plantain fries.

They clearly aren’t the only ones intent on using food to learn more about their family and history. Nyamming, the supper club series that Mitchell ran with collaborators including chef Nimatu Owino, proved hugely popular due to its use of food as a way to explore Afro-Caribbean culture and its place in the London food scene.

“After Nyamming, it became apparent that people wanted to engage with us on a permanent basis,” Mitchell says. “For us, it was about creating a space that we ourselves would want to engage in and one that furthermore is necessary within London and the UK.”

Both Mitchell and Pilgrim were familiar with the Jamaican strand of Caribbean cuisine, but wanted Island Social Club’s menu to showcase dishes from across this part of the Americas. There’s colombo de poulet, a rich chicken curry made with coconut, pumpkin, and cho cho that’s popular in French Caribbean islands; Trinidadian-inspired tamarind dipping sauce; and the ever-popular jerk, made with jackfruit to appease East London’s large vegan contingent.

“The menu covers a lot of bases because we wanted to introduce to various things to everyone," Mitchell notes.

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Curry mutton.

Alongside such experimentation, the menu also includes old favourites. The curry mutton has been on the Island Social Club menu since Mitchell’s supper club days.

The star of the Island Social Club menu, however, is undoubtedly the roti. A staple of Indo-Caribbean cooking, roti are traditionally filled with curry stew or used for mopping up sauce. Pilgrim and Mitchell serve their roti as a “buss-up-shot”: torn up, slightly flaky, and perfect for scooping huge mouthfuls of curry. The kitchen makes them from scratch before each service.

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Buss-up-shot roti.

"Everyone back home makes things themselves and it’s a way to maintain that element of authenticity and tradition,” says Mitchell.

Pilgrim adds: "[Roti] is absolutely delicious but it’s still relatively unknown. People are like, 'What is it?' and I find that mind-blowing.”

As Jamie Oliver’s attempt at "jerk rice" and the “insulting” rice and peas dish served at a recent Nottingham food festival show, Afro-Caribbean cuisine is often misrepresented in mainstream food culture. Mitchell and Pilgrim are all too aware of this, and tell me they have tested their recipes on local “aunties” with knowledge of traditional Caribbean cooking methods.

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Jerk chicken.
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“They’re the ones who ask, 'Why have you tried this?' or 'What’s that?'" says Mitchell. "Thus far, the feedback has been amazingly honest.”

For any diaspora community, food is a vital way of communicating memories, culture, and history. Pilgrim and Mitchell hope to harness this, making Island Social Club a force to match the pioneering East London Caribbean venues that came before it.

“We want to program events that further the conversation of Black British and Caribbean culture," says Pilgrim. "We’re talking to poetry collectives, we’re talking to supper clubs that put a microscope on Caribbean cuisine. We want to be a culture centre for all those things.”

Mitchell adds: “But all of those things need to make sure that people can come and just have a good time and understand and engage with the culture.”