Or how Chicken ‘Caribbean’ changed my entire life forever
My assumption is that my functionally single-parent mother must have found the recipe for ‘Chicken Caribbean’ on a recipe card. As with ‘Queer and Paki bashing’, incarcerating innocent Irish and West Indian men, labour strikes, celebrity paedophiles, studs-up football, avocado green bathrooms, actual avocados, smoking cigarettes onto your children, bellbottom jeans patched with beer mats, hairy genital regions, power cuts, inflation, comprehensive secondary school, and the constant threat of mutually assured destruction, recipe cards were all the rage in the 1970s.
Cheap chicken, a flat pan, an Electrolux cooker, sandy breadcrumbs, pineapple rings and their syrup from a tin with white vinegar added. It changed the way I thought about the world as teenage kicks kicked in.
One evening in 1976, I’m going to imagine it was a Saturday evening probably after Dr Who (sic) and before the BBC 2 classic Universal Studios Horror film starring Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff/Lon Chaney, was when I first saw Chicken Caribbean in the wild.
It was in a burn-flecked Pyrex baking pan. It was all dark and red – well in my mind now it was red. There were circles of pineapple, some broken, mingling with chicken breast and thighs. My mother, or Mutti as we called her, had shown me how to butcher a chicken when I was eleven. I was just a bit older now and I recognised how perfectly these pieces had been parted from their torso.
Everything was submerged in a translucent sauce that I discovered was made of pineapple ring juice (now that sounds strangely unappealing), soya sauce and vinegar. To all intents and purposes Chicken Caribbean was an ersatz Sweet and Sour chicken, but I didn’t know that. I was young, naive. I lived in a village in Hampshire. I dreamed of getting on a train for the first time for god’s sake.
Now, some of you may have noticed that I wrote, “Soya Sauce” rather than “Soy Sauce”. That’s what we called the lovely, salty kitchen essential even before it became essential to our kitchen. By ‘we’, I mean every single ethnic English person I knew… in the world. We also called avocados, ‘avocado pears’, the Labour Party was ‘electable’, The Children’s Film Foundation was ‘The British Film Industry’ and Punk Rock was ‘genuinely shocking and subversive and not mostly full of small ‘c’ conservatives who would later live in abject terror of any change whatsoever’.
We got many things wrong because, unlike now, all of reality was awry back then.
There it lay. Breaded chicken that had soaked up the sweet, salty and sour sauce. Its unsubmerged surface slightly burned by the extremely uneven heat of the old Electrolux oven. I suppose now I’d call that burntness ‘caramelisation’ even though I’m fairly sure you can’t caramelize a breadcrumb. It was glorious. It smelled glorious. It tasted better, but that’s for later.
But hold on I thought… chicken is savoury and goes after soup or prawn cocktail and before pudding.
Pineapple is sweet. Pineapple rings are sweeter still. They go in pudding, or more likely on cake, which is not pudding but an entirely different class of sweet thing.
There are rules after all. Especially in rural England in the 1970s as Punk Rock rose to grasp us from New York in the form of Plastique Bertrand, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Lurkers. And without rules, where is rebellion, eh?
This illicit combination of chicken and pineapple rings (let alone Soya Sauce) was the equivalent of capital ‘D’ Drugs. It was both alluring and terrifying.
Pineapple rings: Sweet. Came on cakes. Maybe in a glass bowl-with-a-stem, doused in Carnation ‘milk’.
Chicken: Savoury. Came with chips. Served in a basket.
Soya sauce: God only knows.
White vinegar: No, no ‘wwwwhite wane vinegar’ just ‘white vinegar’. It went with chips when real vinegar was not to be had.
Who would dare change their mind – and possibly their body – by trying this combo? Who would be mad enough?
I doubted even David Bowie would, and Bowie (it was decades before we referred to him as ‘David’) would do anything.
“Tuck in”, I want to remember Mutti saying to me and my two brothers as my father dribbled and rocked back and forth in his hospital bed a few miles away in Southampton.
Bear in mind that all of this is served up to you from slaughtered memory.
“Tuck in and tell me what you think!”
I picked up a leg, its top still crunchy and salty with Soya Sauce, its underside wet, and sweet with pineapple. I bit into it. My life changed forever.
More than my first hearing of Did You No Wrong at Jonny’s house on the hill.
More than my first kiss with tongues with Helen next to the cathedral on a Saturday morning in front of the College boys and tourists.
All sort of rules were broken in that one mouthful. Nothing made sense any more. There was no food or combination of food that could be out of bounds again. The Caribbean must be a magical place I figured. Therefore The World must be amazing. Nothing could ever be the same.
“So, what do you think?” asked Mum, the real risk taker here.
“S’alright I s’pose’, I shrugged, and I took another bite into forever-more and drifted away as happy as I’ve ever been or might ever be again.
Don’t expect me to write down a recipe for this moment. Just add the ingredients until you get it right.