• Nelly's ginger chicken rolls (Adam Liaw)Source: Adam Liaw
The UK-born chef, Nelly Robinson, may have a reputation for creating complex degustations. But bring him a slice of traditional Jamaican ginger cake, laced in memories of nanna love, and you'll hit his sweet spot.
By
Yasmin Noone

20 Jan 2022 - 2:05 PM  UPDATED 20 Jan 2022 - 2:05 PM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw features Nelly Robinson cooking ginger chicken rolls in the ginger episode, streaming free on SBS On Demand.  ---

 

No matter how many exquisite dishes you create or eat in adulthood, there’s nothing quite as extraordinary as the comfort dish your grandmother used to feed you as a child.

For chef Nelly Robinson that special treat was Jamaican ginger cake, served with a side of nanna love on a cold winter’s day in Manchester, UK.

“Food can evoke emotions, just like a song,” says Robinson, head chef and owner of nel. “When I think about ginger, straight away my mind is taken back to the times I spent with my nanna. It’s a lovely feeling.

“I remember sitting at my nanna’s place, having a cup of tea and a piece of Jamaican ginger cake. The cake was very sticky because it had treacle through it, and it was delicious.”

“When I think about ginger, straight away my mind is taken back to the times I spent with my nanna. It’s a lovely feeling."

It’s this food memory that inspired Robinson to design a melting ginger milk pudding for the British degustation menu at nel. in 2018. The dish was a sell out and the moment was defining, as it solidified the success of ginger as an ingredient and his personal interpretation of ginger cake. The recipe incorporated different shades of the pungent ingredient, mixing fresh ginger, stemmed ginger and ginger powder.

“I remember how it was a big thing for these puddings to melt in the middle and a lot of them were chocolate. So we designed one around ginger and made it with a milk ice cream.”

Ginger chicken rolls taste like home

Robinson's homage to ginger has remained strong throughout his career. Featuring in SBS’s The Cook Up with Adam Liaw, the experimental chef showcases a recent recipe for ginger chicken rolls.

The dish focuses on the power of ginger, which infuses the chicken during the marinating process. The chicken is then dressed in a charcoal powder crumb and fried. Finally, the protein is served on lightly toasted brioche buns, dressed with generous dollops of Japanese mayonnaise, and finished with pickled ginger and apple batons. 

Get the recipe
Ginger chicken rolls

For these soft and crunchy rolls, you'll be making Japanese-style fried chicken, then assembling it together with yuzu mayonnaise, pickled ginger and fresh apple.

"This dish has got a bit of everything," explains Robinson. "The first thing it hits you with is flavour. You get a sweet and salty taste when you eat it but a fresh flavour too."

Robinson's ginger chicken roll creation celebrates the spice's sweet and peppery sensations. But it's also meant to act as a nod to his UK home and all the countries where ginger hails. 

“When people think of ginger they often think of Asia because it’s used a lot in Asian cooking,” he says. “But it’s a popular ingredient all over the world.”

Versatile, culturally diverse and celebrated

Ginger is actually one of the most used spices across the globe, revered for centuries because of its medicinal and culinary potential.

“The Caribbean uses so much ginger in their cooking. As so many Jamaicans settled in the UK, it’s also used a lot in English dishes too.”

The European love affair with the ingredient started in the first century when traders brought ginger to Europe from India and China. The Spanish, who occupied Jamaica, introduced ginger plantations to the island in the 1500s. The supply of ginger to the UK increased after Jamaica became a British colony in the 1600s and the English demand for the staple has continued ever since.

"As so many Jamaicans settled in the UK, it’s also used a lot in traditional and modern English dishes too.”

Robinson recalls how ginger has traditionally featured in sweet recipes throughout the UK, as well as in hot toddies as a treatment for the flu.

Get the recipe
Ginger ale hot toddy

I adore the occasional warming alcoholic drink in winter. The use of ginger ale in this hot toddy gives it a lovely, calming, therapeutic quality. Or is that the whisky?

“These days in the UK, you’re starting to see ginger being used in soups, like spinach and ginger soup, or added to chicken broth. That’s not something you would have seen 30 years ago. It’s the influence of the younger generation who has travelled abroad and brought back international ginger recipes.”

Currently at Robinson’s restaurant, ginger is a regular feature favoured for its pungent aroma and powerful taste: “it might used be in a ceviche, cake, or even in a cocktail. It’s such a versatile ingredient”.

“But my advice is if you want to cook with ginger, always use fresh ginger [rather than with a paste].

“Don't put too much into a dish initially, because you won’t be able to take it out easily. Just add a little bit at a time and taste test your dish as you go along. That way, you can make sure your palate can take it.”

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