May Walker, who was born in Montego Bay, a popular beachside resort on Jamaica's north coast, used to enjoy good food cooked at home during her childhood, although her family also liked to try a new restaurant or revisit a favourite every weekend.
"The food scene where I grew up is really popular for its seafood," Walker says. "It's typical that you would walk into a restaurant, pick from the catch of the day and decide how you want it cooked: steamed, grilled or fried."
Accompanying the main meal were side dishes such as coconut rice and what is known as ground food, which is essentially root vegetables like roasted pumpkin, boiled yam and dumplings.
When in the early 90s they moved as a family to the UK, their tradition of eating out continued to evolve.
"Both my parents love trying different cuisines, but it's my Zambian-born mum, Josephine, that loves getting new ideas to play in the kitchen the most. And with the UK being such a melting pot of cultures we were always out as a family trying new flavours," Walker recalls.
She describes her mum Josephine as a bit of a master when it comes to food flavours, a skill she developed out of necessity once she got married.
"When my parents first got married, mum would ask the women around how to make Jamaican dishes because she wanted to impress her husband," Walker says. "But the women notoriously guarded their recipes and would either never tell her or leave an ingredient out, so mum had to figure out the recipe through tasting it."
Subsequently, that's how her mum Josephine developed a strong palate for recognising flavours for her home-cooked family meals. In time, Walker also developed a sharp palate.
Learning to cook
"I actually didn't realise just how good my mother's food was until she went away for a month to visit my grandmother in Zambia, and an aunt came to help dad cook our meals," Walker says. "I must've been six or seven, and I so strongly remember thinking at the time, I can't wait for mum to come home so I can start eating nice meals again."
During that period, Walker remembers how for the whole month, her aunt Katherine cooked the same meal every day. The same tomato sauce with rice and only swapping the different proteins every three days.
"Desperate to eat her food again, as soon as mum came back, I started asking her to teach me how to cook," she says. "But [mum] would always say, 'I can't teach you until you learn how to clean', and in hindsight, I can see how it was a trick to get me to do chores but also maintain a neat kitchen — a quality I'm today known for in my professional capacity. Nevertheless, I started helping her clean the house and then she started teaching me how to cook."
The first thing Walker learnt from her mother was the importance of tasting when cooking. "I would finish my task as her helper and ask, 'How's that?' She would always reply, 'Taste it and tell me. From there I learnt how to adjust and change flavours."
By the time she went to high school, she had developed her own palate for flavours and recipes so much that compulsory cooking lessons were a breeze.
At age 13, she drew up her own home menu and took dinner orders from family members. By age 15, she cooked family meals from scratch and when her school friends came over for study sessions, she would make them home-made snacks like buttermilk fried chicken with a ranch dressing, salmon and broccoli quiche or salt fish fritters.
A flavourful oxtail curry
Red Stripe oxtail curry with coconut rice and peas is her ultimate comfort food. "It was a go-to dish for my mother during winter at least every other Sunday," Walker says. "A key part of the dish is that the meat is seasoned and left to marinade the night before with fresh herbs and spices. That was always my job," she adds.
"The next day it was slow cooked for hours filling the house with scents of Jamaican spice such as nutmeg, allspice, thyme, pimento and cinnamon."
Red Stripe, the national beer and first choice of beverage in Jamaica, is used as part of the stock to bring all the flavours together. "When the curry is cooked, the meat is cushion soft and sweet with flavour and spice, so it would be blasphemous if you didn't try to suck the spiced marrow out of the bone.
"As a finishing touch, my mother would add some dumplings, made from flour and full-fat milk, which slowly boiled in the curry and when you came across them in your served dish it was like stumbling on gold."
She perfected the art of making this dish once living in Australia and missing her mother's cooking.
After graduating school, Walker moved to Paris to study finance, and to support herself she began working in kitchens but never considered becoming a chef at the time.
"I decided to become a chef a year after full-time work in the corporate sector both in London and Paris. When I saw my boss go through a breakdown and lose his job, I made a list of all the things I loved doing and made a commitment to myself to only make money from those activities. One of which was cooking."
"When the curry is cooked, the meat is cushion soft and sweet with flavour and spice."
Walker arrived in Australia in 2015, after living in France for five years to visit a friend and ended up staying after undertaking apprenticeships to become a professional chef.
Five years ago, Walker began making her favourite oxtail curry recipe. "I cooked it the first time partially by memory and through sending mum pictures of every stage to guide me through it," she says. "It was almost emotional when I sat down to eat it, as being in Australia the closest I could get to her was by cooking her food.
"The curry dish was also the first meal I cooked for my Australian boyfriend when trying to introduce him to Jamaican food. There really is no better place to start. I love cooking this curry on a Sunday winter afternoon, as having my home full of those familiar smells makes a cold day that extra bit cosy.'
Finding satisfaction as a private chef
"I am a passionate chef and working in kitchens started to become a disheartening experience," she says. "I would work endless hours creating amazing dishes, tried and tested to perfection from a menu that's very close to you, but I was never able to see the people I cooked for. There was always a huge disconnect because I put so much into it and I only really got feedback if there was an issue."
When she became a private chef, that changed. Walker says she can now develop a close relationship with her clients and the cooking and working relationship is so much more satisfying.
"There is a legacy of creativity and passion in Jamaica and I like to consider my cooking an extension of that."
"It helped me reconnect with my love for cooking and I'm no longer locked into making meals from the same menu for three months. I get to work with what's in season and serve clients different dishes each time. As a result, I have the freedom to constantly be creating and using local produce in my favour from wherever I may be cooking from in the world for my private clients."
Inspired by her mum's cooking, Walker enjoys creating colourful dishes with strong bold flavours that keep the integrity of the natural flavours of each fresh product.
"I aim to add the colour and vibrancy of Montego Bay to all of my dishes. There is a legacy of creativity and passion in Jamaica and I like to consider my cooking an extension of that," she says.
Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @ellijac. Photos by May Walker.
Serves 5-6 people
- ¼ cup curry powder
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp allspice
- 1 tsp whole pimento
- 3 cinnamon quills
- 6 whole star anise
- 6 cardamom pods
- 2 tsp brown sugar
- 1 bottle red stripe
- 1 cube good beef stock
- 8 bulbs garlic chopped finely
- 1 tsp fresh ginger sliced
- 1 bunch spring onion roughly chopped
- 1 large red capsicum chopped in strips
- 3 large carrots peeled and cut horizontally
- 1-2 whole habanero peppers depending on your level of spice
- 1 large Spanish onion roughly chopped
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
1. Place 2 kg of oxtail in a container. Add the curry powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, pimento, cinnamon quills, star anise and cardamom.
2. Add the chopped garlic, ginger, spring onion, Spanish onion, carrots, capsicum and 2 habanero peppers and fresh thyme.
3. Mix well with a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt. Ensure all the meat is covered in the spice. Cover the container well and leave to marinate overnight.
4. In a large saucepan, add enough oil for a shallow fry. Remove each piece of the oxtail from the marinade and seal the meat so that each side of the oxtail is brown and add to a separate dish.
5. Once this is done, scrape any excess bits that are stuck at the bottom of the pan. Add brown sugar to the oil and stir well until dissolved (it should look like it is caramelising) then add the remaining ingredients from the marinade and stir in well. Add the lid and allow the vegetables to soften.
6. Once the vegetables are softened, add the browed oxtail pieces, one bottle of oxtail and the beef stock. Add enough water so that each piece of oxtail is partially covered.
7. Add the mixture to a slow cooker for 4-5 hours on low, or place the saucepan of very low heat for 4-5 hours
8. The meat should be fall off the bone tender
- 1 ½ cups flour
- ¾ cup full-fat milk
1. Add flour to the mixing bowl with full-fat milk season with salt and mix well until a doughy texture is formed. Allow to rest for an hour.
2. Roll the dough into sausage-shaped dumplings, roughly 15 g each. Add the dumplings to the curry to boil 30 mins before serving.
Coconut rice and peas
- 3 cups long grain rice
- 2 cans coconut milk
- 3 cloves garlic fine chopped
- 6 spring onion finely chopped
- 2 cans red kidney beans
- A few sprigs of fresh thyme
1. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan
2. Gently sauté garlic, spring onion and thyme until soft.
3. Add the rice, coconut milk and kidney beans including the juice from the can and season with salt
4. Place the mixture into a deep oven dish
5. There should be an inch of liquid cover the rice. Add water if needed.
6. Cover with foil and place into a preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. When rice is cooked, break up with a fork.
Serve the rice and curry with a fresh salad of your choice.