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Written by Michael Bateman

At no other time of year do the colours and flavours of the Caribbean seem as tempting as they do in the middle of a grey British winter. So, in the first of a new occasional series exploring the more unusual ingredients now available in our street markets and stores, we take a look at the Caribbean Kitchen. Our guide is Brian Benjamin, the chef of the London restaurant BB's Crabback, and winner of last year's UK Afro Caribbean Masterchef award. His native Grenada, known as "the Spice Island", has a reputation for the best cooking in the 'West Indies. Its cuisine, though predominantly African in spirit, also reflects the character of its many conquerors Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and British.

Brian Benjamin came to Britain when he was 12, but h, was taught to cook at an early age by his grandmother, and he remembers the food very clearly. "There was no need for fridges," he recalls, -because everything we ate was so fresh. You only have to stretch out a hand to find something to cat, There are spices and fruits on every tree; roots and vegetables growing all around." The tropical climate of the Caribbean produces an abundance of starchy roots including cassava, tannia, dasheen, yams, sweet potato and plantains; vegetables such as okra, christophene and callaloo (the leaves of the dasheen root), and fruits including pineapples, papayas, guavas ugli fruits, soursops, green mangoes and ackee - a scarlet fruit prized in Jamaica as a breakfast dish, which splits open to reveal a yellow jelly-like substance reminiscent of scrambled egg in both flavour and appearance. And, of course, a primary crop is sugarcane, which provides not only sugar, but also molasses, treacle and dark rum.

But the single most important ingredient, according to Brian is coconut. Its sweet flesh is grated and then steeped in boiling water to produce coconut milk for sweetening dishes such as the famous "rice'n'peas". In addition, many a meat dish is prepared by first browning some chopped meat in a caramelised mixture of coconut oil and sugar.

The meat used may be pork sheep or goat. Unlike cattle, these last thrive on die islands. "Goat is a little gamey and can be tough, so we leave it a long time to marinate, and then cook it very slowly for three to four hours." As for fish, Grenadians cat whatever is caught that day, which might be swordfish, mackerel or flying fish. Foodstuffs weren't always in such abundance, though - at least not for the slaves - which is why dried fish from Newfoundland, originally traded for sugar and spices, is a common feature of Caribbean cooking Pickled pigs' tails and snouts are another reminder of Grenadians' heritage. These items, which were discarded by their slave masters, were commonly added to stews to contribute a savoury touch, and they still are. The Caribbean greengrocer opposite BB's Crabback, which is in West Ealing, stocks them.

Freshness aside, what really distinguishes Caribbean food is the use of spices. Brian makes jerk pastes with a mixture of spices and chillies, and rubs them on to pieces of chicken and pork before putting them in the pot (in the West Indies most meat is boiled, rather than grilled, roasted or fried).

Brian always makes his own chilli sauces; a mild one and a searingly hot one, made with the notorious Scotch Bonnet peppers. "We use seven or eight different kinds of chilli," he says, "and some are quite mild."