We chatted to Dragon’s Den star and Reggae, Reggae Sauce-master, Levi Roots, about all things Jamaica – think everything from traditional Jerk chicken, why Bob Marley’s recording studio is a must-visit, where to find the best hidden gems on the island, and his brand new album, Reggae Reggae Hits…
Hi Levi! Tell us about your new album.
Music has always been a big inspiration to me in my cooking, especially when I’m just playing my guitar at home. The songs on the album are ones that have inspired me throughout my whole life, so it’s been a fantastic opportunity and I’ve relished every moment creating it. In terms of the album, I would say there’s something for everyone on there, and the beauty is that they’re all happy songs, so I loved curating them.
Bob Marley is your musical inspiration – have you visited Nine Mile or the studio where he recorded?
I’ve visited Nine Mile many times. I’ve even recorded some tracks at Tuff Gong, where Bob Marley did, so it was really inspiring, especially as there are so many photos of him around the place, so I would definitely recommend reggae music fans paying the studio a visit. I’ve written music and played my guitar in the same yard as him, so it was a very emotional experience – his life changed my own and I am very grateful for that.
If people want to experience reggae in Jamaica where should they go?
Where do I begin! Absolutely everywhere in Jamaica plays reggae music. Even if you’re just listening to Top 100 on the radio station in your house, that’s a good enough excuse to party. Most locals have sound systems in their yards, so people come together to have a good time. It’s more loving that way, too, spending quality time and cooking with friends and family. But, if you are looking for a specific cocktail bar, then any of the ones in Kingston are great.
Are there any local festivals or events you’d recommend?
The main one out there is called Junkanoo, which is celebrated at Christmas time in Kingston. It’s a music festival dedicated to up-and-coming artists and Jamaican bands who put on great shows at the end of the year. It’s one of my favourites as it’s really lively and flamboyant. The locals dress up in cool costumes, too, so it’s great fun.
How often do you go back to Jamaica?
I get to visit Jamaica quite a lot – maybe three or four times a year. When I’m chilling out, I’m down in Farringdon just taking it easy, visiting my friends and family, and cooking. But I think wherever you are in Jamaica, you’re guaranteed to have a good time – whether you’re down in Blue Mountains enjoying some lovely coffee up in the hills, or visiting Port Antonio for its beautiful waterfalls.
What three things would you recommend doing or seeing if you’re a first-timer in Jamaica?
I would recommend going on a local food hunt. When you’re eating out, it’s the conversations and banter with local people that give you a real connection with Jamaica. One thing you have to do is visit the capital city, Kingston. It’s the home of reggae, baby! If you want to experience the essence and heartbeat of Jamaica then you have to go to the bars and clubs there. Happy Mondays Street Party 2, in Kingston, is great for when you want to go out and have some fun. And for chilling out, I’d suggest going for a mud bath at Bath in St Thomas. You have to walk maybe two or three miles to get there, but it’s really worth it. When you arrive, you get to bathe in organic clay which you can use as a body scrub, so it’s really relaxing.
Are there any hidden gems you’d recommend?
My personal favourite is YS Falls. It’s one of the most beautiful natural falls in Jamaica. I’d definitely recommend it if you’ve already been to Dunn’s River Falls and are after something more mesmerising and off-the-beaten-track. While you’re there, you can jump into the waterfalls, go on a canopy ride, or relax in the gardens.
Moving onto your passion for food, where can you try authentic Jamaican food on the island?
There are many authentic places in Jamaica – you’ll never run out of choices. It’s not like here in the UK, where you have to search for a specific shop or restaurant to enjoy great food. You must go out and enjoy the authentic street food. You’ll find many stalls just pitched up outside and you can just go and eat and have a chat with the locals.
I would definitely recommend going to Jolly’s Restaurant in Portmore. It’s a seafood restaurant, and as a Rastaman I love fish – especially steamed snapper. You can choose which fish you want to eat, as well as the seasoning, so it’s a really personalised experience. You also get a Jamaican Festival served with the fish, which is a deep-fried doughnut that’s covered in cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar, so it’s really tasty. Plus, the restaurant overlooks the beach, so it’s really stunning in the evenings when the sun goes down. I always eat there when I’m visiting Kingston.
What Jamaican dishes should everyone try?
Even though it’s cliché, jerk chicken is definitely the best dish in Jamaica. You must also try swordfish, as that’s Jamaica’s national dish. It’s usually served with ackee, which is a bright-orange, pear-shaped fruit that tastes really delicious. Ackee and swordfish is definitely one of my favourite dishes on the island. And when it comes to having dessert in the Caribbean, it’s all about keeping it simple with mango sorbets and fresh fruit.
What spices or ingredients should people bring back from their holiday if they want to try some Caribbean cooking at home?
Most of the spices that you’ll buy in Jamaica will taste very different to the ones you can buy in a shop in the UK. The first one that springs to mind is pimento, otherwise known as allspice – it’s the king of Caribbean spices. Jerk is another key spice on the island, and you can buy huge bags of it which will last you a very long time. There are about five different flavours of jerk in Jamaica, so it’s awesome. I’d also recommend buying fresh Jamaican mint, it’s delicious.
What do you miss about Jamaica when you’re at home in the UK?
The food is what I miss most. When I’m in Jamaica, I love that I can source all of my food locally – I can even trace right down to the very black pepper that I would like to season my meat with.
Besides Jamaica, where do you like to go on holiday?
I most recently went on holiday to Dubai, where I crossed a sky dive from my bucket list, and it was fantastic. I also really enjoy going to Cape Town in South Africa, it’s just an awesome, inspiring place and one of the best I’ve ever been to so far.
Where would you love to visit?
I’m thinking about delving into Australia as I’ve never been there before. I’m hoping to go there to promote my new album and the genre of reggae music, too.
And finally – besides Caribbean food, what’s your favourite international cuisine?
I have quite a wide range, actually. Nowadays I can express myself in different ways, and can experience different cultures and food, so it’s great that my taste buds can now go beyond Caribbean food. One of my favourites is a dish I call Rasta pasta – it’s made from tuna, spring onions, olive oil, grated cheese and pasta so it tastes really good. I love to merge Caribbean food with other cuisines, so that I’m always discovering new tastes. I also love Thai food, and of course the British classic, fish and chips – that is one of my favourite foods and one that always goes down well.