In 2019, when the chef and musician Denai Moore was operating a stall at the London Jerk Festival, a celebration of that cherished Jamaican cooking tradition, people looked askance at her, as if they were wondering what she was even doing there. She was the only vegan vendor that day, hawking her plant-based jerk ribs to stares of bewilderment.
Get the recipe: New Potatoes With Herby Crema and Cashew Chile Nori Oil
“A lot of people just didn’t get it, or didn’t understand what I would be cooking,” Moore, 29, said one day in April from her home in Margate, the seaside hamlet in southeast England. Perhaps they thought that vegan food was bland by design, that it couldn’t be flavorsome. That the Jamaican food she’d been eating all her life couldn’t possibly be malleable to vegan interpretations.
This impulse — to challenge expectations, sometimes even from within her own community, of the stereotypes bracketing Jamaican cooking — forms the lifeblood of Moore’s debut cookbook, “Plentiful: Vegan Jamaican Recipes to Repeat,” out now in the United States from Hardie Grant. No matter where a cook is on the spectrum of plant-based eating, Moore makes room for everyone. Some recipes lean on supermarket simulacrums of meat and dairy: A jerk “pork” gyoza incorporates store-bought vegan minced pork, for example, while patty recipes call for vegan chicken and vegan beef; vegan cheddar is also an abiding presence in these pages, slipped between those flaky patty crusts.
Yet many of Moore’s recipes imaginatively take advantage of the bounties of Jamaica. She pounds the silky flesh of ackee with nutritional yeast and miso paste and threads it into a carbonara so that the fruit mimics the feel of egg yolks. She blitzes lagoon-green leaves of callaloo into a pesto. She puckers a glossy hoisin glaze with sorrel, a hibiscus-forward drink common in the island nation.
Moore’s cooking is, in many ways, aligned with her life’s other artistic practice, music. Her third and most recent album, 2020’s “Modern Dread,” earned praise from critics for the way it wandered between R&B, electro-pop, and folk influences without sacrificing cogency. She describes her music as “genre free,” a label that might apply as readily to her food. One sees that allergy to categorization quite clearly in a dish like her new potatoes with herby crema and cashew chile nori oil. It’s a recipe she feels best embodies the book’s vibrancy, with its careful harmony of sweetness, salt and spice. “I ask myself the same questions when I wrote this book [as] when I’m making an album,” she said. “I just want to be myself.”
Moore was 9 when she and her family moved to England 20 years ago from her birth country. (She is matter-of-fact about the reason for this migration: “My family wanted to move out here to expand the possibilities of what me and my siblings wanted to do.”) But she still remembers the mango trees, the ackee trees, the coconut trees of her Jamaican youth; she remembers de-seeding tamarinds so her mother could make juice to serve with Sunday dinners. Music ran through her veins — her father was a musician, and she picked up her first guitar at 12 — but so, too, did food. She savored the pleasures of rice drenched in oxtail gravy. As she grew older, though, she gravitated toward vegetarianism, keeping eggs and dairy in her rotation, until, one day, she started to feel even those weren’t “necessary,” as she put it.
Plantain gnocchi turn familiar Caribbean flavors into something new
It wasn’t until Moore was closer to adulthood that she really started to cook for herself with conscious intention. Transitioning to veganism forced her to become a more agile cook. She began to nimbly reimagine foods that had ferried her through her childhood. Her experiments to preserve her taste memories began with perfecting a patty, veganizing the Jamaican snack she’d enjoyed as a kid with cartons of chocolate milk. “I think a lot of people fear that they’ll kind of leave behind all the cultural foods that they had, or the things they had growing up, but you don’t have to miss out on that when you go vegan,” she said. Soon enough, her experiments grew more ambitious, and the thought of taking on intricate cooking projects consumed her. She was waking up every day wondering what she’d cook next. She started devising menus; she started hosting elaborate dinners for her friends.
Her first trip back to Jamaica as an adult, not long after she flipped over to veganism, kindled something in her: Moore came back to the United Kingdom and began a pop-up and supper club, Dee’s Table, a way of “revisiting my childhood tongue in a modern-day context.” She was nervous about this endeavor. “I guess I didn’t really feel like it was accessible to me, because sometimes restaurant culture and food culture feels quite alien,” she said. Entry into that world seemed to require access to gobs of capital; it was as if everyone but her was in on some secret. But she worked her way through this agita by just throwing herself into the work, full tilt.
Miraculously, being in a kitchen and cooking for a throng of people “didn’t feel insane,” she said. (If she had to hazard a guess, her first dinner probably had about 40 guests.) The act of feeding others came naturally to her. “It felt like I’ve done this before,” she said of that initial night, “and I want to do this forever.”
As she daydreamed of where to take Dee’s Table in the years that followed, she began to write an early proposal for “Plentiful,” sheepishly showing the draft to her music managers. But the business of generosity was also taxing. She didn’t get to concentrate much on feeding herself. “I’d make these elaborate dishes and specials for people and then end up eating some toast at the end of service,” she remembered. Those supper clubs came to a halt in 2020 due to the tremors of the pandemic, a time during which Moore became reacquainted with the romance of cooking for herself. With that solitude, the book’s purpose came into sharper view.
“Plentiful” belongs to a wave of recent cookbooks that honor the cooking traditions of Jamaica while also reframing the country’s cuisine. The past year alone has seen the emergence of such spiritually simpatico titles as Riaz Phillips’s “West Winds” and Melissa Thompson’s “Motherland,” whose recipes are both Jamaican in provenance.
In an email to The Washington Post, Phillips, who devoted an entire chapter to vegan Jamaican food in his cookbook, said he admires what he calls Moore’s “inventive dishes” that surpass most plant-based offerings at Jamaican spots in the United Kingdom. The very existence of Moore’s cookbook reflects changing industry tail winds. Not every house Phillips met with for his cookbook was as enthusiastic as his eventual publisher, Dorling Kindersley Limited. “Often you got the thought that if they already had a Jamaican book on their slate or one was scheduled then they didn’t want to take on another,” he said. He isn’t sure that he could’ve found a cookbook like Moore’s on shelves, say, five years ago.
Yvonne Maxwell, a London-based writer and documentary photographer, agrees. Moore’s book “is among a number of truly groundbreaking bodies of work that have been released by Black food writers and authors in the past year,” she said in an email. But Maxwell, whose work focuses on migration, identity and culture (including food) within Black communities in the United Kingdom and the African and Caribbean diasporas, tempers any optimism with caution. “However, while it is important to celebrate these wins, it is not lost on me that five years ago, perhaps even less, seeing a book like “Plentiful” come out of a major publishing house would be almost unheard of,” she said. “Prior to this period, publishers were still unconvinced by the desire for and interest in works depicting Black foodways and culture.”
In a food publishing landscape that has, in Maxwell’s view, long been overwhelmed with worn narratives — like touristic travelogues of the Mediterranean — such books as “Plentiful” and “West Winds” strike her as a tonic. She hopes that the industry’s newfound confidence in a wider array of Black voices in food isn’t a mere flash in the pan. “Ultimately, U.K. publishers should be as open and willing to support more Black food writers in bringing these stories and recipes to life in the same way that they have been committed to re-telling time and time again of the story of pasta and caprese salad,” she said.
What distinguishes “Plentiful,” after all, is its decidedly personal slant. That’s how Moore sees cooking: It’s a way to let people hear who you are. Traditions may vary from family to family, from person to person; not everyone’s Jamaican mother will make a dish of rice and peas the same way, she noted. That sort of variation is worth lauding. “I think that’s where food is headed, genuinely,” she said. “I think food is like breaking down the walls of those boundaries of what, how these things should exist. And just telling your story on a plate.”
She hopes that her book might gently push back on the distorted view some might still have of veganism as drab and joyless, or of Jamaican food as uniformly spicy and meaty. Veganism changed the way she cooked; it changed the way she saw where she came from. “So I feel like I’ve opened up a door,” she said. “A portal to a different world.”
Sen is the author of “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.”