Thursday, 23 November 2006
No.17: Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago and Me
Alex Horne – 23rd November 2006
On the day after Owen's birthday we'd headed (un)steadily down to the very end of the East London line, confident that we could get our total up to the required monthly rate of 16 by the end of a day spent in a famously multicultural corner of town.
I had lived in New Cross for a year whilst doing an MA at Goldsmiths College. After a sheltered childhood in the picture postcard Sussex town of Midhurst and four years locked in the fairytale castle that is Cambridge University, I relished the gritty atmosphere of this East London Borough. People often call it a vibrant place to live. What they really mean is it's a violent place to live. And for a young adult one step away from real life, this was dangerously exciting.
Of course, I could afford to relish this lively/deadly ambience because I was a student. I wasn't really living there. I was staying there. But I liked to kid myself that this was my spiritual home; that the seedy bars and dodgy minicab (so nearly cannabis) offices were where I belonged. And so did the many other arty students who floated along the Old Kent Road towards Deptford Broadway wearing clothes so trendy that they often looked like idiots.
In my compact but adequate flat above Icelend on New Cross Road, I shared a kitchen with two Danes, two Brits, a Greek and a Belgian. This was highly unusual. In almost every other flat, the Brits would have been in the minority. If ever the phrase "melting pot" could be used without patronising or simplifying a situation, this corner of South East London was the place to do it.*
Typically, however, I didn't really sample the delights of that pot at the time. I never ate in the Thai restaurant opposite the library where Owen bagged us our most recent find at lunch. Nor did I have my haircut in the Caribbean Paradise Hair Salon. I mainly ate insanitary food purchased impossibly cheaply from the country/supermarket below us (£5 for two enormous turkey crowns, three bags of ready roasted potatoes, ten fish fingers, a pack of viennetta, 3 litres of coke and a pack of double funsize mars bars) and drank in the scarily British Marquis of Granby.
And, most regretfully, I never ever even set foot inside the legendary Caribbean restaurant "Cummin Up" which I passed every single time I caught the tube, and whose food I could smell from my very doorstep. Why not? Like all normal people I love fast food and often succumb to the "Perfect Chicken" sold at various Turkish eateries round the corner or the best kebabs in the world cooked in the Maroush on Edgware Road, but for some reason I never dared go into "Cummin up". I didn't think I was meant to go in there. I thought it was a Caribbean thing for Caribbean people.
Luckily, that was exactly why we had to go in there today. And surprise surprise, we were made to feel entirely welcome. If only I'd had the courage to cross that threshold five years ago, I'd have had a much more satisfying nutritional experience whilst learning very little about the world of Broadcast Journalism.
For while things like "Curried Goat & Rice, (The most typical festive dish)", "Cow Foot & Rice (Shin area very gluey, again generally prepared with butter beans)", "Ackee & Saltfish & Rice (Jamaica's National Dish. Very delicate yellow fruit prepared as a vegetable with saltfish generally cod)" may not be my normal lunch fare, they did look incredibly appetizing (and reasonably priced too – as one would expect from an establishment whose motto is "The taste without the expense").
Carol, the duty manageress and our representative for Trinidad and Tobago, was very patient with us. As the never-ending stream of customers placed orders and picked up dishes she told us that she'd swapped the West Indies for Eastenders in 2002 to work alongside her husband of fifteen years. She now lives in Brixton, hates the cold but loves the atmosphere at "Cummin Up" where traditional Caribbean recipes are made with all the customary ingredients and where people from all different communities can enjoy either a taste of home or the flavours of a far off land.
So, whoever you are, next time you're in New Cross (or Catford, Forest Hill or Sydenham) look out for the "Cummin Up" sign and order something exciting. For a first-timer like me, even the beverages like 'Irish Moss', 'Soursop Juice', 'Baba Roots', 'Jamaican Bigga Soda' and 'Magnum Force' sound exotic. And even if nothing on the menu takes your fancy, don't worry: as the colourful notices explain, "Anything you don't see and like, call us. No request too strange, whilst edible!"
*By the way, one of the Danes, called Theis, inspired my favourite joke about the area thanks to his brilliantly Danish pronunciation: "Which is the only London station to be named after a baby crab? New Cross Station (New Crustacean). Maybe it works better out loud…