Sometimes, when you’re away from everything you call home, even the things about home that you complain about become strangely comforting.In a similar way to when you start secondary school and the girl who bullied you all through year 5 and 6 becomes your firm friend – for the first week at least – not because you like her, but because you like her familiarity.
That’s how I feel about the Caribbean takeaway experience. When I’m in England, I sometimes leave a Caribbean takeaway with a huff of annoyance, sighing, and wondering why I’m made to feel like the entire establishment is doing me a personal favour by taking the time out to fry a dumpling and sell it to me. Now that I’m in Nepal, nearing the end of my stay and beginning to feel a bit more homesick the closer it gets to my leaving date, somehow, the thought of a slightly overweight West Indian woman waddling at 0.55 miles per hour to the microwave to heat up my patty while I frantically glance at my watch praying that the train to London Bridge is slightly delayed, gives my heart a warmish glow.
You see, Caribbean takeaways, in general, offer a unique consumer experience.
Your first time in a Caribbean takeaway might be a bit baffling if you aren’t used to the protocol. You might be used to your more mundane takeaway experience. Stroll in, squint at the blinding fluorescent light and smell the slightly gone-off hunk of kebab meat rotating on the metal pole,glance up at the menu emblazoned in bright colours and then order. The guy at the counter might then smile at you, ask you if you want anything else, shout your order back, take your money, and ask you to wait briefly. You take you items (just as your eyes have become acclimatised to the light) and then stroll out of the takeaway. Pretty run of the mill right? Right.
This is not what typically happens in Jerk Island, Mango Paradise, Plantain Party or any other Caribbean takeaway of your choosing.
What typically happens is this:
You walk up to the takeaway and as you approach, you begin to wonder if there is some kind of function happening. It sounds terribly busy in there, in fact, there are quite a few men hanging around outside -they eye you up as you walk in. “Pssstt psssssttt..Empressss..”, one of them drawls. “Pretty girl..” another whispers. Don’t be alarmed, you can either take it as a very nice compliment or as street harassment depending on your feminist leanings that day. As you enter, you realise that out of the multitude of people inhabiting the takeaway, possibly around 50% of them are actual customers. The rest are just well wishers, there to provide ambience.
Don’t expect to be served quickly. Relax, talk to the person in front of you in the queue, pick up one of the multiple flyers on the counter, enjoy the music, soak yourself in the atmosphere.
Finally, it’s your turn.
“Yes darlin'”. This will probably not be said with a smile, but with a straight face, or what appears to be a scowl. Again, don’t be alarmed. This isn’t personal. It’s not because you’re white and in a Caribbean takeaway. It’s not because she doesn’t like your weave. It’s not even because she’s in a bad mood – in fact for all you know, she’s as happy as a lark. It’s just the way things are done round here.
You then proceed to look at the menu. First mistake. Let me let you in on a little secret – menus in many Caribbean takeaways are mere formalities. Of course they have a menu, beautifully done, perhaps with creative names for the dishes, even the odd picture of a palm tree in the background and a little collage of Carribean flags with the Jamaican one in the middle. However, once you become a regular at that particular restaurant, you’ll begin to cotton on to which dishes make regular appearances, and which dishes are actually limited editions delights that come out once every 2 years.If you were listening to the people around you while you were waiting though, you would have heard them ask one key question on repeat “What do you have today?”. This is your best bet for getting food quickly.
If you’re like me though, forever the optimist, you’ll probably still go through the menu, listing the items that you would like…”Roti?” “Sorry, not today darlin'”. “Macaroni cheese?”. “That finished around lunchtime”. “Parlori?” (Knowing full well they have NEVER had parlori, yet living in hope) “Sorry, not today darlin'”. “Do you have anything vegetarian?” you ask. “Do you eat chicken?” she replies. You eventually settle on the usual patty and cocobread, or stew veg and rice.
You watch as she slowly, slowly, very very slowly, almost deliberately slowly, makes her way to the kitchen. Along her 5 metre journey, she might stop to share a joke with one of the other customers or one of the other servers. You laugh along. You wait. Your wait could be 20 seconds, it could be 20 minutes. The unpredictability is all part of the experience.
You pay and receive your yummy goodies. You pick up a flyer from the counter as you leave, and scoot past the men who are still hanging round the entrance – they nod at you to wish you well for your journey home.
Then you open up your bag of food, and the smell of home cooking and taste of everything that is good in the world hits your senses. It was all worth it.
And that my friends, is the unique Caribbean takeaway experience. We complain, but really, we love it. Have I missed anything?