From football-sized avocados to being 'too late' for mangoes, the telly chef shares his adventures with Ella Walker.

Ainsley Harriott is munching happily on a bit of toast when he calls, and even talking through crumbs, proves as jovial and excitable as any Nineties kid will remember from his days presenting absolute classics, Ready, Steady, Cook and Can't Cook, Won't Cook.

Is it even possible to look at a random collection of ingredients in your fridge and not think: What would Ainsley do?

The London-born chef is back on screens with a new ITV food/travel series and accompanying cookbook of the same name - Ainsley's Caribbean Kitchen - which sees him visit seven of the Caribbean's sunshine islands: Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Antigua, Grenada, Dominica, Trinidad & Tobago, which are all, he says, "so close to my heart".

"I very much consider myself British," the 62-year-old explains, but his Jamaican heritage is massively significant to him. "It's where your parents come from," he muses, "and as you get a little bit older, we all get drawn back a bit, there's that sort of reconnection." The Caribbean, he adds - where his mother and father were both born - "had that pull for me".

As a region though, however disparate the Caribbean might be, sprawled across the ocean in bite-sized tropical pieces, it's often lumped into one: One climate (hot and sunny); one cuisine (jerk chicken, rice and peas, goat curry) - but that ignores the nuances, says Harriott.

"Everybody is very, very different and has their own style of food," he explains. "Every island you go to, the people have their own personality, their own way of cooking things, and they're very proud of it."

That said, certain ingredients are ubiquitous. For instance, ground provisions - staple items, like yams, sweet potato and cassava - which are used in countless dishes and are thought to be the secret to many islanders' longevity; there's more centenarians living in Dominica than anywhere else in the world ("I was interviewing a 102-year-old woman and her 104-year-old sister came to visit her - it blows you away!").

The pace of life is something shared too - and is something we ought to take more note of, says Harriott. "They do teach us something," says the prolific food writer, "and you have to be slow in heat like that. I tell you what, we are too hectic, we really are rushing around."

Sometimes, however, you can be too tortoise-like - especially when it comes to mango season. "Off the beaten track - I wasn't at the posh hotels [where you can get out-of-season produce] - I'd go and say, 'Can I have a couple of mangoes?' And they'd say, 'Too late'. 'What do you mean?' 'Two weeks, too late - mango already drop from the tree!'

"And literally I was two weeks too late, the mangoes had dropped from the tree and you have to wait - that's it. I was like, 'This is the Caribbean, you should have mangoes everywhere!' You know what I mean?!"

Instead, Harriott was forced to compromise and use papaya, which isn't too much of a hardship when they are "as big as a small rugby ball" - although not as impressive in size as some of the Caribbean's avocados, which are "as big as a football - massive things!"

Talking of which, Harriott adds: "Sometime you get an avocado and it tastes a bit like avocado, it doesn't really hit you, but out there, the flavour of it...

"Just a sprinkling of salt on there and you can actually spoon it out and eat it, it's so wonderful," he shares rapturously.

He calls the food he's created for the book - think Tobago curried crab, chargrilled watermelon with slaw, plaintain and chickpea hotcakes - "nice and casual, it's not too intricate on the plate", and when it comes to controversy over jerk seasoning, and people keeping their recipes top secret, he's magnanimous.

"When my late mother was cooking, I'd say, 'Mum, what are you putting in?' [And she'd just say]: 'A handful'. You have to have a look at the size of someone's hands and guess how much a handful is, because they just don't know," he explains. It's more to do with instinct and 'just knowing', than measuring quantities exactly.

"You know when you're cooking something like onions and you can tell when the sweetness comes out of them, just before they brown, there's a change?" he asks. "It's a bit like that with people, so they don't really know how much of everything goes in there, they just know about a smell, they put a bit of this in, that in.

"Nothing's weighed out, so what's the recipe? It's in their head. And when you taste it, you think: 'My god, there's 40, 50 years or maybe generations of experience in that one little dish', and it tastes great."

Harriott first visited the Caribbean aged eight with his family, and remembers his friends at school being impressed that he was going on a plane. However, it was also the summer of 1966: "Hence I have no recollection of England winning the World Cup, I missed everything!"

Instead, while Geoff Hurst was busy scoring a hat-trick in the final, Harriott was getting his first glorious taste of island life.

"I remember going to see my granddad and asking him for some money to go buy a Coca Cola," he recalls, before putting on his granddad's Jamaican accent: "'Go on, pick two or three fresh limes from the tree, mix them with sugar, ice and water' - that was my first experience of fresh lemonade, literally picking limes from the tree, squeezing out the juice, adding shavings of ice.

"Oh my god. By the time we left, there wasn't a bloody lime left on the tree - it was fantastic!"

Fresh mangoes and pineapple, tamarind pulped into snacks, genips (Spanish limes) and guava made a lot more impact than football on him that summer.

"When I got back to the UK, I didn't want Fruit Salads or Black Jacks anymore," Harriott recalls raucously. "We craved the natural stuff."

*Ainsley's Caribbean Kitchen by Ainsley Harriott, photography by Dan Jones, is published by Ebury Press, priced £20. Available now.


Perfect for those with a sweet tooth.

"This butter rum cake was made for me in the Caribbean and I just had to recreate it when I returned home," buzzes chef Ainsley Harriott. "It's quite possibly the best rum cake ever!

"It calls for a packet of instant vanilla pudding, which is quite usual in the Caribbean and America, but not so easy to get hold of here. You can use instant custard powder or an instant dessert mix like butterscotch Angel Delight, instead. Yes, I know it sounds strange - but it really does work!"


(Makes 8-10 slices)

125g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the tin

250g self-raising flour, plus extra for flouring the tin

60g walnuts, chopped

30g cornflour

3tsp baking powder

1tsp salt

4 eggs

200ml whole milk

200ml dark rum

1tbsp vanilla extract

6tbsp vegetable oil

300g granulated sugar

1 x 75g packet instant vanilla pudding mix

Creme fraiche or ice cream, to serve

For the rum syrup:

125g unsalted butter

75ml water

150g granulated sugar

A good pinch of salt

100ml dark rum


1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4.

2. Grease and flour a 27-cm bundt pan or fluted cake tin and sprinkle the bottom with the chopped walnuts.

3. In a large bowl, combine the self-raising flour, cornflour, baking powder and salt.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, rum, vanilla extract and three tablespoons of the vegetable oil.

5. Cream the sugar and butter in a food mixer fitted with a balloon whisk until pale and fluffy. Slowly add the dry ingredients and the remaining three tablespoons of vegetable oil and continue to mix for a few minutes on a medium-low speed, until the mixture looks like sand. Add the instant pudding mix and the egg mixture, scraping any mixture from the sides back down into the bowl with a spatula, and mix again on medium speed until well combined. The cake batter should be thin and smooth.

6. Pour the batter into the bundt tin and bake for 50-60 minutes, until an inserted skewer comes out clean.

7. Meanwhile, make the rum syrup. In a saucepan set over a medium-high heat, combine the butter, water, sugar and salt and cook, stirring, until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and slowly stir in the rum. Set aside to cool.

8. Remove the cake from the oven and let it rest in the tin for 10 minutes. Loosen the cake slightly from the tin (inverting it onto a plate works best), then place it back in the tin. Poke several holes into the top of the cake with a skewer to help the syrup seep in, then slowly pour half of the rum syrup over the cake. Let it stand for 15-20 minutes, then invert onto a serving platter and slowly pour the remaining syrup over the cake until it is all absorbed.

9. Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche or ice cream. Delicious and naughty... enjoy!


(Serves 4)

Juice of 2 limes

1 large cauliflower with the stalks and outer leaves removed

4tbsp coconut oil

1tbsp black mustard seeds

4cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and finely chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely chopped

2tsp turmeric powder

1 x 400ml tin coconut milk

1 x 400g tin black beans, drained and rinsed

A handful of coriander, finely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2tbsp toasted coconut flakes, to garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6. Bring a large saucepan of salted water, acidulated with the juice of one lime, to the boil.

2. Add the whole cauliflower and blanch for six minutes. Drain and set aside. Place an ovenproof saute pan large enough to hold the cauliflower over a medium heat.

3. Add the coconut oil and allow to melt, then add the black mustard seeds and cook for about one minute, until they begin to sizzle and become fragrant.

4. Add the ginger, garlic, chilli and turmeric and continue to cook for two minutes, stirring continuously.

5. Add the coconut milk, season with a pinch of salt and black pepper, and bring to the boil. Add the blanched cauliflower and baste with the coconut sauce.

6. Transfer the whole pan to the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, basting every 10-15 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender and cooked through.

7. Remove the cauliflower pan from the oven, gently lift out the cauliflower and set aside.

8. Put the pan back over a medium heat, add the black beans, the remaining lime juice and coriander and stir together until thoroughly heated through.

9. Portion the cauliflower into wedges and place in serving bowls.

10. Spoon over the black bean and coconut sauce, top with toasted coconut flakes and serve with some flatbreads.


1kg beef sirloin, cut into 2.5cm dice

3tbsp olive oil

2tbsp minced garlic

2tbsp minced ginger

1tsp dried red chilli flakes

3tbsp poppy seeds

3tbsp white sesame seeds

1tbsp cumin seeds

4tbsp desiccated coconut

For the roasted chilli salsa:

3 long green chillies, tops trimmed

6-8tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled

A large handful of flat-leaf parsley

A handful of mint

Juice of 1 lemon

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat barbecue. Place the diced beef in a large bowl. In a separate small bowl, mix together the olive oil, garlic and ginger and pour over the beef. Mix with hands to ensure beef is well coated. Cover and marinate in the fridge for one hour.

2. Next, make the salsa. Place the green chillies on a small baking tray and lightly drizzle with oil. Place the tray under the hot grill for five to 10 minutes, until the chillies are charred and blistered - they should be nice and soft. Alternatively, this can be done directly on the barbecue.

3. Put the garlic, parsley, mint, lemon juice and charred chillies into a food processor and pulse for four to five seconds. Add the oil and pulse again until well combined but still quite coarse. Season and set aside.

4. Heat a small dry frying pan over a low heat, add the chilli flakes, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and desiccated coconut and lightly toast. When coconut turns golden, remove from the heat and tip into a pestle and mortar. Grind to a coarse texture.

5. Remove the marinated beef from the fridge, add the spice mixture and massage the spices into the beef. Thread the pieces of beef onto skewers.

6. Place the beef skewers on the barbecue turning frequently. Once cooked, remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

7. Place the beef kebabs on a board and spoon over the salsa.

*Ainsley's Caribbean Kitchen by Ainsley Harriott, photography by Dan Jones, is published by Ebury Press, priced £20. Available now.