It’s not all about jerk chicken: Original Flava invite you to really experience Caribbean food

14th Aug 19 | Lifestyle

Craig and Shaun McAnuff tell Ella Walker about their inspirational nan, and why they’re using food for good in the community.

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Craig and Shaun McAnuff – brothers, YouTubers, recipe writers – are on different phone lines when we chat, and both keep tripping up with static, dipping in and out of earshot. Each time, the other shouts: “Bro, you’ve gone again!”

The South London cooks, aka Original Flava – the name of their hit YouTube channel and debut cookbook – were close growing up, even sharing a bunk bed (although not the same football team, which was “quite intense”), and are just as close now, if not more so.

Dishing up Caribbean food to their legions of online fans, arguments are still rare. “It’s made us very competitive, in a good way,” says Shaun, 32. “We want to make things right and better, and the [recipe] standard has to be really high – it’s brought us closer together.”

The brothers, who have Jamaican heritage, were inspired to cook by their mother and grandmother, and put the increasing popularity of Caribbean food down to a “British acceptance of our culture” combined with staple Caribbean ingredients – from plantain to cassava – being more widely available, and the likes of Levi Roots and Ainsley Harriott having “paved the way”. Original Flava is all about pushing that further.

“We saw that lots of people loved Caribbean food, but were quite intimidated by it because they didn’t know how to cook it,” explains Craig, 29. “So initially, we just wanted to make a page for our friends.” But then their first one-minute video racked up a million views “and everything blew up overnight”.

“It was bit of a shock,” remembers Shaun. “I looked at my brother one day, like woah – everyone’s sharing it. First, all our friends started sharing it, then their friends started sharing it…”

Now they have a mighty 15k YouTube subscribers and more than 58k Instagram followers.

For Craig though, things could have panned out quite differently. “Growing up in [Thornton Heath] South London, you’re faced with that challenge,” he says, speaking of gang culture. “You get caught up in that sort of life, and then you’re affiliated with people outside of your circle, and then you’re known as a gang, and then you have to build up that credibility, and not show your weakness.”

The younger McAnuff brother remembers being on a bus with a group of friends when a guy got on: “He was looking to question us, ‘Why were we here? Where you from, etc?’ I got a bit cheeky, like, ‘Who wants to be a millionaire? Stop asking us questions’ – and then he got a bit rowdy, and then he showed me his gun.

“It just spiralled out, and I started to laugh at him; I thought it was a fake gun,” he recalls. “At the time you’re fearless as a young man.”

However, it was a “turnaround” moment for him and has led to both brothers visiting schools, where some of the kids are facing that choice themselves, to talk about their experiences and run cookery workshops.

“We understand the struggles that young people face when it comes to this sort of thing,” says Craig. “We try to teach young people: Have that no-fear attitude, but put it in a positive place.”

A lot of their own positivity and drive can be attributed to the support of their quite wonderful sounding grandmother.

“Our nan [Lurline] is our inspiration; she’s an amazing lady,” says Shaun reverently, adding with a laugh: “She’s actually more popular than us now! She literally gets stopped on the street.”

A “big part of our journey”, she spent the summer holidays training them up to make staple Jamaican dishes like ackee and salt fish, and mackerel rundown, and then helped make their YouTube careers possible “because she opened up her home” – it’s where they still film their videos today.

And, like any good nan, she’s always pitching in. “She’ll be a bit like, ‘What’s vegan? What’s that?’ She’s still learning, but she’s very open to it,” says Shaun. “It’s like [having] an eagle eye, isn’t it? If you go wrong, she does offer a helping hand and tells us off a little bit, but it’s all good.”

Their food encompasses nan-approved traditional Caribbean dishes like rice and peas, mac and cheese and beef patties, but also ones with a twist, like jerk-spiced lentil bolognese, green banana potato salad, and their jerk burger.

Talking of jerk, the brothers are sanguine about it being many people’s only experience of Caribbean cuisine. “It is so nice,” says Craig. “I’m not surprised everyone wants to know just about that, but there’s so much more to Caribbean food.”

He speaks of the pioneering Rastafarian vegan movement, ital; of Caribbean produce, from mangoes to sugar cane that in Jamaica grow literally on the street; and how while in Caribbean households dinner will feature an almost excessive amount of dishes but, surprisingly, “most of the time jerk chicken isn’t even on the table”.

For the book, Craig and Shaun visited Jamaica together, spending time with family and eating their way round the island. “It was my first time, but it felt like I’d been there for years,” says Craig. “It’s like I almost knew the place already.”

They were both dazzled by how invested and fascinated Jamaicans are by food and ingredients (even if they struggled to eat their aunty’s chicken foot soup: “I couldn’t eat the foot, man!” yelps Shaun).

“Cooking over there’s a lifestyle,” explains Craig. “You’ll see people in the streets selling food and they won’t be alone – they’ll be with their friends, it’ll be like a community, they’re buying food but they’re talking to the shop owner, they’ve got family there, friends, and that’s how it is on every street corner. That’s what we’re trying to introduce with our food as well. It’s about making things together – it’s an experience.”

And so their message is: “Don’t be afraid of Caribbean food man, try it out at home, it’s easy.”

Original Flava: Caribbean Recipes From Home by Craig and Shaun McAnuff, photography by Matt Russell, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20. Available August 22.

© Press Association 2019

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