Why the spice is right for this Caribbean convert

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2012, 12:00am


Since Mandy Nathali opened her private kitchen in 2010, Hongkongers have been lining up to sample her authentic Caribbean fare. Ackee and saltfish (a yellow fruit that 'tastes like scrambled eggs', paired with salted cod), jerk chicken, fish and crab curries, among other exotic dishes, are served at her villa overlooking Sai Kung town.

A Londoner of Indian Punjabi heritage, it wasn't until she married her Trinidadian husband in 1988 that Caribbean cooking became an obsession. Living in Trinidad for five years cemented Nathali's love for the flamboyant cuisine with its myriad influences (European, American Indian, Creole, Indian and Chinese). She is so taken with Caribbean cuisine that she hardly eats Indian food anymore.

Since Nathali arrived in Hong Kong in 2004, friends had been encouraging her to start her own restaurant. The idea for Mandy's Private Kitchen crystallised in 2010.

How did you pick up Caribbean cooking methods?

I married my husband in 1988, but we met five years earlier. While we were dating, my late mother-in-law started teaching me cooking. My aunts taught me, as well. It didn't really stick until we lived in the Caribbean, where I saw the difference between British and Indian food, and how they merged all these different cuisines into Caribbean food. A dish may look just like an Indian curry - or Creole, or Dutch - but it's juicier, tastier and has more aroma and colour.

What's a typical Trinidadian dish?

There's saheena, which is served with pepper sauce. It looks like little fish balls; you can add salted fish if you want. It's made from fresh split peas that are boiled and then ground into a paste. People usually add dasheen (taro) leaves, but I use spinach. Saheena is street food and is sold everywhere in the Caribbean.

Then there's stewed chicken or 'wrap roti'. Caribbean roti isn't like chapatti or pita bread, it's more tender and light. Inside, you put boneless pieces of stewed chicken with a thick sauce, herbs and seasoning, some callaloo (cooked dasheen with coconut milk) and potato aloo (potatoes boiled in curry sauce). Then you add pepper sauce, fold it up and eat it. I make this dish for the Kai Tak Cricket Club.

What's the difference between Trinidad and Jamaican jerk chicken?

Each island has its own version, but jerk chicken originated in Jamaica, where it's much spicier.

In Trinidad, jerk chicken is sweeter and peppery. On other islands, it can have a more honeyed flavour. Jerk chicken involves a variety of herbs and spices, such as pepper, cumin, fenugreek, Scotch bonnet peppers, chilli, nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander.

How did Private Kitchen come about?

I had a small catering company in Oxfordshire in England for a few years doing Caribbean food. But I had to give that up when we came here. For the first two years, I did the lady-of-leisure thing, but I got fed up with it. During that time we hosted many dinners - we barbecue every Saturday - and people kept saying I should open a restaurant.

I had to look ahead because my daughter was about to go off to university. I wanted to start something so I wouldn't be at home with nothing to do once she left. I thought about opening a restaurant, but 2007 wasn't a good year. I went off and did a bit of travelling and finally decided on a private kitchen because so many popular restaurants in Hong Kong started out that way.

Where do you source your herbs and spices? Are they available here?

There's only so much I can find here, so I import spices and some other ingredients mainly from Jamaica, Trinidad and Antigua.

I buy most of the fruits, vegetables and herbs locally, but I try to grow some, such as shado beni, which is similar in flavour to coriander and very aromatic. I couldn't find it fresh here, so I was using the dried variety, but it just wasn't the same. Eventually, I got my hands on some roots and now we grow it ourselves.

Scotch bonnet peppers come from the Caribbean, but they only have a shelf life of a week, so you can imagine the cost. I'm getting a farmer in Fanling to grow them. We did a test crop last year that failed, so we're trying again with just a few seedlings this year.

I believe in sustainable living. Everybody wants to have that 'Made in Hong Kong' label back again. There are very few products that are actually manufactured here, so it's time to bring it back.