Alistan Munroe

2nd April 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

2nd April 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

When Alistan Munroe started producing jerk marinade in 2013, he saw it as a way of reconnecting with a heritage from which he’d been distanced by a series of hops. The big one happened when his grandparents left Jamaica after the Second World War – they came from Morant Bay in the southeast – and settled in London. Alistan’s parents made a short hop north to Luton after they married. Then, in 1997, Alistan moved to Dublin to start a family of his own and establish himself as a designer (he’s known for his exquisite neckties) and a DJ. Creating a food product was a new step for him but he spent over a year researching his roots and updating his grandmother’s recipe for jerk. The finished product, which comes in various strengths and combinations, can be found on the shelves at Fallon & Byrne in Dublin1 and – a recent coup – Harrods in London.

We meet Alistan at a halal shop on Thomas Street, a short walk from his home in the Liberties – he’s picking up some fresh herbs for lunch. On our way down Meath Street, a stretch of the city that’s retained its independent retailers and much of its old character, he’s greeted by every second person we pass: the whole neighbourhood seems to know him. His wife Anita grew up around here – on the same street of terraced houses, in fact, where she and Alistan now live with their four kids.

Anita joins us midway through the interview and we all sit down together afterwards to eat in their low-lit dining room. They are opposites in many ways. She loves poking fun at his foibles – he obsesses over details and has a bit of a hoarding issue – and he rolls his eyes at her scattiness: she disregards measurements and can never produce the same dish twice. But they make a great team. “His design’s amazing isn’t it,” she says, proudly, when we admire the coolly understated packaging he created for Munroe’s. She’s right – and his marinade tastes pretty damn good too.

Continued below...

You’re known for your very stylish neckties – and now you’re producing jerk marinade. How do the two things connect?

Well I’m basically a designer. For the marinade, I did loads of research and I designed the packaging but I’ve got professionals helping with the actual production. It’s going really well at the moment. We started Munroe’s in 2013 and last year we won a Great Taste award. Now we’re in Harrods, which has given the brand a bit of a boost. So we’re growing.

What’s the story behind the marinade?

This recipe goes back to my grandma, who moved over from Jamaica in the 50s and settled in London. It didn’t come to me first-hand: my mum gave me the recipe, although it wasn’t easy because my folks never kept track of exact measurements. I spent a year or so developing it and adding some new elements.

The main one is soya: I wanted to get rid of the salt and I found that soya gives the marinade more body and a really nice darkness. There’s another crowd out in Jamaica using soya in their marinade, so we’re not the only ones, but we pride ourselves on using all-natural ingredients.

What are the ingredients, or is it a closely-guarded secret?

There’s onion in there, and ginger, garlic, scallion, thyme, and of course scotch bonnet peppers – and a few other things: sugar, nutmeg, ground pimento, olive oil… We don’t use any colourings or preservatives, and everything apart from the nutmeg is fresh. The difference when you don’t use dried products is massive.

“When people think of jerk, they think chicken – but there’s so much more to it. In Jamaica, we cook amazing jerk seafood.”
Alistan on making jerk prawn pasta – see Recipe

What does jerk actually mean?

Jerk was originally a way of cooking that incorporates spice and preservatives – a way of preserving meats. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that it’s become known as a product. People think that the name comes from “charqui”, an old Spanish word – and the word “barbecue” may be connected with that. I ended up reading a lot about the Tainos, Native Americans who originally settled the island and who were wiped out by the Spanish – their drawings inspired our logo. And of course there’s the West African influence that goes into jerk as well. So there’s a whole history behind it.

You mentioned that your grandparents settled in London in the 50s. Is that where you grew up?

No I grew up in Luton. I’m a Luton geezer innit – born and bred. My parents moved there when they got married and my dad got a job with Vauxhall. Luton was an industrial town back then: either you worked in beer [at the Whitbread brewery] or you worked in the car industry.

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At home, was it mostly Jamaican food on the table?

Oh yeah, that would have been the staple. Fridays was fish-and-chips day but on Sundays we’d have a very traditional Jamaican dinner – and we’d have the leftovers on Monday because food like that always tastes nicer the next day. I think that kind of Jamaican culture is being lost now. My brother always says: “We’re the last generation of the rice-and-peas crew”, because rice and peas used to take 48 hours to cook. The process is just unbelievable: kidney beans steeped overnight, then pressure-cooked; the jerk chicken cooked for 24 hours. Any food of that calibre has a real emphasis on time.

So food was a big deal at home.

Oh yeah. We’d have parties in the house and people turning up wouldn’t really be happy unless they could smell the cooking.

On The Menu

Dinner with Alistan and Anita Munroe
Dublin, February 2015

To eat:

Tagliatelle with prawns and jerk seasoning »
Salad with tomato, cucumber, spring onion and jerk dressing

To drink:

Nespresso coffee
Prosecco

How long have you been in Dublin?

I moved here in 1997, so nearly 18 years.

What brought you over?

Anita. We met in the UK.
Anita: I moved back home to have our daughter, Bronwynne. He was like, “You’re going to stay there aren’t you?” I was like, yeah. So he ended up coming over.
Alistan: It’s mental that it’s been 18 years. So much has changed in Ireland… But in terms of food I still think it’s behind the UK.
Anita: I much prefer it here.
Alistan: Over there there’s a real sense of heritage in the restaurants. All the Asian and Caribbean places have been passed down through generations. Here, even Mexican restaurants are run by Irish people, which is fine but it’s not quite the same.

Was it difficult to find Jamaican ingredients when you first moved to Ireland?

Alistan: Yeah, but it’s getting better now. Moore Street’s amazing, you can get anything there. If I want to get some goat, which is big in Jamaican cooking, that’s where I’ll go.

Which of you does the cooking at home?

Anita: Me.
Alistan: I’m not really a cook as such, but I’m always trying stuff out.
Anita: He presents his food beautifully.
Alistan: It’s all about presentation.

What sort of stuff do you cook?

Anita: I cook everything. The biggest thing we have in this house is fish. We cook a lot of fish. On Sundays we try to keep traditional and do Sunday dinner, so roast beef or leg of lamb. But my favourite foods are things that people share – tapas and stuff. We like having people around. Even though this house is small, it’s like a community centre most of the time: constantly busy.
Alistan: That’s why we have such a big table.

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How many people can you fit around it?

Anita: On New Year’s Eve we had…
Alistan: Probably 20 or 30. Anita cooked up two big pots of chile con carne.
Anita: But when the bells go on New Year’s Eve, there’s up to 60 people in this room.
Alistan: Easily. We clear everything out. It’s just the table and the cooker left.

Did you grow up around here Anita?

Anita: On this street. My mam and my aunt still live on the same street, and my other aunt lives at the end of the road. My mam’s house is even busier than ours – her door’s always open, people in and out the whole day.

“In terms of a straight-up pub, Walsh’s would be my local. I’d walk across the river to drink here and watch the football. It’s good, plus the guys who run it are cool.”
Alistan on his favourite places in Dublin – see Address Book

You’ve got lots of interesting objects here.

Anita: Most of it’s Alistan’s. Instead of collecting six or 12 of something, he collects 24… and six for us to use… and four for us to use immediately. He buys all this furniture and puts it in storage, but now the storage is overflowing. I keep saying to him, “Just sell them”. He’s says, “No it’s for the future”. I’m like, “Do you think if you die I’m keeping all this stuff? I’m putting it on eBay, every bit.” That’s his biggest fear.
Alistan: [sighs] It doesn’t matter, I’ll be dead.

How many of these houses could you fill?

Anita: He never tells me. I’ve never seen the size of the storage unit. But I assume it’s pretty large.
Alistan: There’s not that much stuff.

What do you always have in your fridge?

Anita: We always have cheese. All of us are mad about cheese. And salads. Eggs too – Alistan likes ducks’ and quails’ eggs, I don’t.

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How many coffees are you on a day Alistan?

Alistan: Sounds like drugs doesn’t it? [laughs] I try not to have coffee after 2 or 3 in the afternoon. In the morning though, I go mental. I’ve got a Nespresso machine at home, it only takes a couple of seconds to make one.

I notice that you clean up as you cook. Is that important?

Alistan: Ah Jesus Christ it’s essential. I go crazy with the cleaning.
Anita: He’ll be pulling out cupboards and cleaning them when he’s cooking.
Alistan: I just think, kill two birds with one stone, you know?
Anita: Yeah but 16 bottles of washing-up liquid later… Ask any of the local shopkeepers what I have to buy… They’re like, oh is he cleaning the house again?

You two seem different in your approach to a lot of things.

Anita: Everything. I’ll cook something and he’ll go, “That’s delicious, how did you make it?” And I can’t remember. He looks at me like I’m mad.
Alistan: She’ll just walk past dropping stuff in.
Anita: He’s like, “take measurements”. I could never make the exact same thing twice – but it always gets better, that’s what I say [laughs]. It’s almost like me and Alistan are two different brands. You’re Fallon & Byrne and what am I? Lidl.

To find out more about Munroe’s, check out their website

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  1. A high-end food hall in the city centre

Posted 2nd April 2015

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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