There are always limitations on what you can do, with food or otherwise. Sometimes it’s a question of produce, sometimes facilities or even learning. The obvious concern in cooking a particular style of food is authenticity: You don’t want to be barking up a blind alley. Do your reading; don’t treat anything like it’s from another world (even if it appears to be). Chances are if you are adopting a cuisine those staples will not necessarily be native to you. Sometimes they are easy to get, sometimes expensive and occasionally impossible – fresh ackee, for example, can kill if unripened so that’s unlikely to be making its way onto Tesco’s increasingly cautious shelves. Sapodilla, anyone? Export and import has seen many advances so much so that these once far flung live things are appearing everywhere opening up new possibilities for the mixing and matching of tastes and culinary styles unprecedented since the discovery of the new world.
The new world is where Soul Food comes from. The roots are dark, marred by oppression. Soul food rose from it, like blues and jazz; it defines part of colonial America. The complex histories and feeling go on and on, and so does the food, but If you’re going to talk politics or history, eat first.
From a European perspective there is a lot to consider in writing a menu rooted in this. The simple presentation of home-cooked soul food, utterly focused on hearty tastes, can clash with what people in Europe have come to expect from even their most casual dining experience. In the UK more people have turned away from the deep fried and stodgy for lighter, less heavy meals; America is thought of as a fast food nation, which is only partially true. The food in America is as varied as the cultures comprising it, often of the highest quality and affordable. England, fortunately, looks more like America all the time.
In writing the menu I had to think of what would appease those tastes whilst imposing something of my own. I conceived the menu as if I were cooking at home – assuming I had a handful of chefs and a full-on working kitchen at my disposal. You want to impress your friends and loved ones with a little soulful cooking when you can.
Chef Niki Astley