2nd April 2015
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin
2nd April 2015
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Oh yeah. We’d have parties in the house and people turning up wouldn’t really be happy unless they could smell the cooking.
I moved here in 1997, so nearly 18 years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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