Food, like spaces, can hold significant memories. In an interview with Dezeen earlier this summer, Sumayya Vally, this year’s Serpentine Pavilion architect said, “Recipes are such important archives in telling us where we come from and how we’ve evolved.” Vally’s design for the pavilion is based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods. These locations include cafes, bookshops, bars, community centres, hair salons – and of course, restaurants. Inspired by Vally’s long-term interest in recipes as maps for human evolution, the Serpentine asked three chefs to also share a recipe that reminds them of their community.
Marie Mitchell is a writer, chef and co-founder of Island Social Club – a “soul-lifting” space that aims to fill the void left by the erosion of London’s once thriving Caribbean social scene. Mitchell makes a considered effort to create space in which she can explore Caribbean culture and food with authority and without limits. Developing dishes by focusing on history, geography, and contemporary ingredients found in her locale and home, London. Mitchell is conscious of driving the conversation about British Caribbean cuisine, and thus culture, forward.
When is your earliest culinary memory? How has this memory informed your practice?
If I’m honest, I don’t have one. I have memories that are scattered and they all centre around the maternal parts of my family, namely my mum and nan. My mum was never someone who cooked for pleasure, yet she instilled a curiosity in us by always making sure we were involved. My nan was a cook and still is, but with her, I would bake. Notably, a sponge cake as I was a fussy eater but she knew I loved it and would always make one for me for my birthday specifically, with lemon icing. The rest of the family had and still get fruit cakes for their birthdays of which I now partake.
This connection to mothering becomes more poignant as I lost my mum during the pandemic weeks before becoming a mum myself. I find myself looking and longing for connection and more often than not it takes me back to a time or place where it was centred around food. Whether that be eating it, preparing it, or simply sitting in the kitchen in my parents’ home. There’s something so sacred about that space.
Can recipes hold memory? Do they have the potential to heal ancestral trauma?
I think anything creative has the capacity to heal. Ancestral trauma is complex, painful and personal. Many share the experience, in that there is trauma that has been passed on generationally, though how that has affected you and your own family differs. Food is history, and thus intrinsically holds memory – the process of showing one’s recipes rather than documenting them through writing, often seen in diasporic communities means we have to commit it to memory. We then secure that memory through practice and repetition. That in itself is healing. It’s a chance to hold on to and maintain ancestral practices. In many ways that can be, and is painful, but it’s also incredibly powerful to maintain who you are, and what came before. Specifically in Caribbean culture, being viciously torn from your homes or tricked based on promises left undelivered, crossing seas and being forced into servitude, our ancestors were able to maintain ownership, of a part of their legacy. That is the fabric of our food, our past, our being.
How can food act as a catalyst for self-exploration and community building?
On a basic level community is about sharing, commonality leads to bonding and from there you build to create stronger bonds. Food is something we all have in common, yes the kinds of food differ but the need for sustenance is universal. Food is outwardly, but when you search to understand its origins, you invariably go within yourself, especially when it comes to the food of your heritage. The same can be said when exploring food from other cultures, particularly when there are parallels. The Caribbean is incredibly diverse, it’s the amalgamation of multiple cultures and so you can see threads of those cultures. Being able to see and explore those naturally allows for you to explore oneself. To then know you share elements of that with others is a way to forge such strong connections and communities. It’s powerful and incredibly special.
How has the British Caribbean social scene shifted throughout the years?
It’s diminished. The erosion of once existing social spaces created specifically for those who were excluded from other places, to have spaces where you could easily identify and belong. What does still exist has evolved into umbrella spaces of the African diaspora, becoming Black British cultural spaces more often. That’s not to say that more defined spaces don’t exist but there are definite crossovers with elements of the cultures that you’re seeing more seamlessly. That unity is beautiful to see and we need to see more of them.
Island Social club fosters a connection to British Caribbean culture but how can we build bridges of cross-cultural understanding and respect that last beyond the dinner table?
Through respect, understanding and appreciation. Some think appropriation is an appropriate response but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. With true appreciation, there is an acknowledgment of the culture or influence, while also understanding how to engage in that section of the culture while being sympathetic to those who belong to it. We often see that when something is expressed by the culture it’s from, it’s not seen in the same way until it’s been repackaged, (or on occasion, a blatant copy) and whitewashed. To build bridges, we have to be respectful of one another and listen to the voices of those from that particular community, especially marginalised ones.
How can we begin to unpack the complicated and incomplete histories of the diaspora through collaboration in cooking?
Through honest, raw, conversation. Use cooking as the catalyst for that conversation. To open your mind, to listen and learn! The beauty of collaboration is perspective, we’re able to see things from someone else’s position. The combination of that alongside cooking can be harnessed to teach others, and in my own experience, myself.
How does the recipe you have chosen act as an archive for your own cultural experience?
It’s gently sweet, a little warm and layered with depth. The Caribbean is more than a little warm but it feels like a genuine nod to both my upbringing and my culture. I hate being cold, hate it, and I think that’s where my obsession with not eating cold food came from. It’s something I’ve gotten over in recent years but if someone tried to serve me food cold that had been warm when first cooked, I refused to eat it. Soups are warm in a bowl and they’re often served at the start of any cultural event, in a cup, still my preferred way of eating it. Funeral, wedding, christening – soup. These events are where I first learnt about my heritage, my community and so it felt fitting to create something with that in mind.
Recipe: Marie Mitchell’s Sunday Soup, serves 4
The beauty of this soup is that you can interchange the vegetables based on seasonality. When fresh corn is no longer available you can use frozen corn or swap it out for squash. Plantain can be swapped with yellow yam or sweet potato. Simply adjust your seasonings to make sure you’re still achieving the balance of flavours.
20g ginger, half minced, half finely chopped
20g garlic, minced
2 small onions, minced
½ scotch bonnet, deseeded and minced
1 celery stick, minced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, seeds and pith removed then diced
200g new potato, peeled and diced
1 ear of fresh corn, shucked or use 100g frozen corn
1 plantain, peeled and cut into 1cm coins
Approximately 12 dumplings* (*see note below)
1 tsp mild curry powder
2 tsp ground coriander
2tbsp olive oil
1 vegetable stock cube
3 tbsp coconut cream
Lime, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 bay leaves
100g plain flour
½ tsp fine sea salt or kosher salt
- Blend garlic, onions, scotch bonnet, celery and half of the ginger in a food processor until minced.
- Finely chop the remaining ginger.
- Wash, prep and dice the carrots, pepper and potatoes, you want them to be even in size, around 1cm diced is ideal. Then peel, wash and shuck your corn if using fresh.
- Heat the oil in a wide saucepan over a medium heat and once warm add your minced mix, fry for a minute or two to release aromas and then add your curry powder of choice and ground coriander. Fry for a minute before adding the coconut cream – you want the thick cream, not the watery part. Add a little more oil if anything starts to stick.
- Add the carrots, potatoes and red pepper and remaining ginger and fry for a few minutes.
- Add your vegetable stock and bay leaves. You’ll be using one cube for 1 litre, not the usual recommended amount of 500ml.
- Bring to the boil and turn down to a simmer with the lid on, for 10 minutes.
- Peel and chop the plantain into coins and prepare the dumplings.
- For the dumplings – place the flour in a small mixing bowl and add the salt, mix. Make a well in the centre and add your water, mix until formed and then knead to a soft dough. This doesn’t take long, maybe a minute or two.
- Split the dough into 12 pieces, if you want your dumplings larger divide into less pieces. Roll each piece in between the palm of your hands until you form a ball, then roll your top hand over the bottom one to form a sausage-like shape. Repeat until finished.
- Add your dumplings, corn and plantain after 10 minutes of simmering, season to taste and cook for 15 minutes.
- Add a squeeze of lime and serve.
Marie Mitchell is due to publish her first book in spring 2023, Kin: Caribbean Recipes for the Modern Kitchen, (Particular Books, Penguin), which will feature a collection of recipes from the Caribbean and its diaspora, celebrating the powerful connection food gives us to our families, culture, and to places and people around the world.