Roderick Grant could cook before he was taller than the kitchen stove.
"From as young as age 10, I was standing on stools cooking in our home kitchen, mostly because my father Dalton was working overseas and as the eldest of five boys, I naturally became my mum Jacqueline's main kitchen helper," Grant says of his childhood in Jamaica.
In Jamaica, there are no household traditions that limit cooking to women. "From early on, grandparents and parents begin instilling in us boys that we have to be able to feed ourselves if we need to. So, we're taught cooking skills as part of our upbringing and consequently, almost every male in our country can cook," Grant explains.
"From as young as age 10, I was standing on stools cooking in our home kitchen."
Jamaican food is predominantly healthy, made from scratch and dependent on seasonal availability. "Our meals were always made from native food sources we grew in the plot of land in our back yard, such as coconuts, ackee fruits, mangoes, yams, bananas and sweet potatoes," he says.
On a daily basis, his cooking chores began before school. As early as 7:30am, he helped his mum prepare breakfast, which was sometimes boiled bananas, other times sauteed callaloo: green leafy vegetables, cooked with onion, garlic and tomatoes. If they were lucky, they'd make slated cod or fried dumplings.
School canteen lunches consisted of only high quality, traditionally cooked food, instead of the packaged, processed kind. This meant that as a student, you could enjoy rundown stew, jerk pork or chicken, goats head soup and even fried chicken with rice and gravy.
"These same recipes were also prepared at home for dinner, so our sustenance revolved around traditional Jamaican foods which were very flavoursome and kept us satisfied and healthy," says Grant.
Grant's mum was heavily involved in the church, which meant that she attended board meetings during most weekday nights and almost always on weekends, leaving dinner duties to him.
"On the nights mum wouldn't attend church meetings, I would still help her cook dinner and together we would enjoy those rare moments of sitting around as a family on the couch or the veranda, eating and catching up," he says. "On the nights she wasn't there, I would save a plate and keep it warm for her to enjoy when she returned home."
Grant's most memorable childhood food adventure took place on Saturday and Sunday mornings. "It's part of our social upbringing to do something outdoors on the weekend and for me, that was going down to the river fishing with friends," he says.
"We would take a pot, some spices, some plain flour and we would cook whatever we caught at the river."
"Fish was expensive, so the only way to eat it was to actually catch it. So, we would take a pot, some spices, some plain flour and we would cook whatever we caught at the river." They would also forage for wild spinach, known as river callaloo, combine it with their catch of the day in a pot and spend the day, swimming, cooking and eating.
"We called this 'running a boat', which in Jamaican vernacular means cooking some food. Everyone would put in some money to purchase the ingredients or bring an ingredient each and then we would cook in the bush or river."
Cooking curry chicken back
The dinner Grant made most frequently during his childhood was curry chicken back with rice. "Every household has their version of this recipe and ours was handed down from my grandmother Enid to my mother and finally to me," he says. They taught him when he was 10.
"I often frequented my grandmother’s house who had a small supermarket out the front of her home selling fruit, packaged goods and cooked foods, one of which was the curry chicken back," he says. "By observing her prepare it and also through my mum's instructions, was how I learned all my cooking really."
The recipe includes the back of the chicken, which has little meat but is the cheapest cut.
The chicken back is marinated in a flavourful Jamaican curry paste, which contains spices such as all-purpose seasoning and all-purpose spice, fresh herbs and paprika, and soy sauce. It's then slow-cooked in a Jamaican Dutch pot.
On weekdays, the dish is served with plain boiled rice and if available, boiled dumplings, yam, pumpkin or bananas — essentially fruit or veggies that they could grow themselves or afford.
Sunday dinner, which in Jamaica is known as the best meal of the week, was the only time they'd make the dish with a whole chicken. They'd accompany it with rice, peas and cabbage slaw.
"I really couldn't tell you how old I was when I first tried this dish and loved its taste, because it was one of those dishes I was given as a baby," Grant says.
"In Jamaica, we grow up eating real foods — essentially whatever the family is eating, not baby food. This dish is just one of those meals that always brings me back to my roots of cooking and eating at my grandmother's house or with friends."
Making curry chicken in Australia
At 15, Grant arrived in Melbourne, Australia, with his father who had a work opportunity there. It was 1995. "My dad was working a lot and once again I found myself cooking often for my dad but also my 18-month younger brother Andrew who also decided to move to Australia at the time," says Grant.
They kept cooking curry chicken in their new home, although they incorporated locally available ingredients such as Indian-style curry powder. Australia's cost of living also meant they could regularly buy a whole chicken.
"It still was a great hit, as 'til this day I have friends from high school that talk about coming over and eating my curry chicken. They always say, 'How good was your curry chicken, man? The flavour — I can't believe you cooked like that when we were in school'."
Now as a dad of two kids, Luther age 5 and Khaleesi age 6, who have also eaten curry chicken from birth, he continues to make this dish at least once a week.
Sharing Jamaican food with Australia
Grant's first hospitality job was at KFC when he was 15. It gave him the experience to join his friend to run a Jamaican restaurant called Yeah Man in Melbourne's South Yarra at age 18. "I would go to school in the daytime and cook in the restaurant in the evening," Grant says.
A year and a half later, Grant bought the restaurant, just as his mum and siblings arrived to settle in Australia. He hired his mum to help him run it.
Keen to learn more about business, he transitioned in 2003 to a human resource role during the day while he worked at the restaurant at night. He eventually sold his share of the restaurant to his mum in 2007 to focus on a business degree and corporate work.
A few years later, he used his new knowledge to begin an import distribution business on the side. After selling Yeah Man in 2011, Boss Man Food was born and began importing goods from Jamaica, like spices and marinades. However, it has since evolved into a casual food and catering business. In 2016, Boss Man Food ran its first food truck called The Real Jerk; a second truck followed with the same name the next year. They are both now part of a food hub through which he sells dishes that he's called the Famous Sandwich, Boss Man Caribbean Curries and Churro Churro.
In 2020, he partnered with a friend to form The Food Truck Collective in Melbourne's Malvern East. The collective features the items served at his food trucks. In May 2021, he opened a restaurant in South Melbourne called Khalu, which serves traditional Jamaican cuisine with a dab of classic pub food.
"I never studied cooking, but I have this ability to understand flavours and fuse ingredients that work really well together. Based on that, I create dishes that represent my food and my culture well," he says.
"When Jamaicans go to a foreign country the first thing, they look for is their foods, so I put a lot of emphasis on doing everything correctly and making sure that when Jamaicans come to Australia and try my food it reminds them of home. And so far, I feel I've achieved that."
Images courtesy of Roderick Grant.
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Curry chicken back is a classic everyday Jamaican dish because of its flavours and affordability. In Australia, this chicken cut is uncommon, so any chicken cut is suitable.
- 2 kg chicken back or alternative
- 3 tbsp Jamaican curry powder
- 2 tsp all-purpose seasoning
- 1 chopped medium onion
- 1 spring onion
- 2 finely chopped garlic cloves
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- ¼ tsp allspice
- 1 ½ cups water
- 3 chopped potatoes
- ½ chopped scotch bonnet chilli
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 20 ml soy sauce
- 2 star anise
- Finely chopped fresh ginger
- Add the washed chicken to a large bowl.
- Add the curry powder, all-purpose, paprika, soy and allspice.
- Thoroughly rub the seasoning into the chicken with your hands. Wrap in cling wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- On medium heat, add oil to a heavy-set pot.
- Once the oil is hot, add chicken carefully to the pot, try not to overcrowd.
- Brown each side of the chicken. Once fried, transfer to your container.
- Once all chicken pieces are brown, return to the pot along with the onions, spring onions, garlic, thyme, cinnamon stick, star-anise and scotch bonnet peppers. Stir for 2-3 minutes to release flavour.
- Add water and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 10 min with the lid on.
- Add potatoes and simmer for another 20 min, until the potato is cooked. Add a little extra water if the curry has reduced too much.
- Add salt to taste and serve.
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