When cooking, there is one fundamental question to ask: do I want to emphasise one flavour, one note, one ingredient or do I want a cacophony of flavours and textures?
Neither answer is right or wrong but having a preference gives a great deal of insight into your heritage and– if you’ll forgive me for my pretentiousness – your cooking identity.
My experience of European food and cooking culture acts as a stark contrast to what I grew up with at home, where the head chef was a bright, bold, and wildly talented Jamaican woman.
Her recipe for Jerk Chicken has no less than 16 different ingredients, and half of this list was purely dedicated to an incredible combination of spices and seasonings.
This may seem excessive and unnecessary to some, but the experience of biting into that crispy, smoky outer layer is unlike any other.
There isn’t just one note for my taste buds to hum along to. Eating Caribbean cooking is like going to see a symphony – there is a huge band of flavours complimenting each other and fighting for your attention.
The question is one of transportation. By having so many flavours, all encompassed in just a thin layer of crispy chicken skin, my palate goes on a journey.
With the squeeze of lime, I’m sipping a mojito on a beach in Montego Bay.
There is a distinct taste of sea salt, as if I’m swimming through the Blue Lagoon.
Smokiness transports me to the burning of last autumn’s crops in Cockpit Country.
And then there’s the spice. A few scotch bonnet peppers, and I might as well be sunbathing in the 35-degree heat of Ocho Rios.
This is not to say that simplicity is a bad thing. But, you must understand that when it came to going to a friend’s house for a humble (but still delightful) roast chicken I was surprised to see only salt, pepper and lemon on the side.
The question is can simplicity ever really outdo the symphony? There are more than a handful of dishes that I can name which I wouldn’t dare to overcomplicate.
A good steak needs only salt, pepper and garlic – the iron tang of a good cut is flavourful enough. When it comes to seafood pasta dishes, you only need lemon, piccolo cherry tomatoes, and a little black pepper to keep it fresh and light. And yes, a roast dinner doesn’t need much more than a killer pairing. You wouldn’t mess with lamb and mint, beef and horseradish, or a delicious chicken paired with a lovely onion gravy.
The truth is that there is beauty in both simplicity and complexity – but a true master has got to be able to manage both.