Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
Every now and then a meal becomes more than just a meal. It could be innovative and exciting – the kind that shapes your cooking going forward – but there’s something equally magic about the dish your mum used to cook you growing up, or even the reliable weekly staple you knock together on repeat.
In this new series, Time’s Table, we chat to people about the food that has left an impact on a time in their life – be it their past, present or future. Trust us, you can learn a lot about someone through what’s on their plate.
Time's Table with... Denai Moore
Denai Moore isn’t here for lazy stereotypes around Jamaican food. As a vegan, she’s constantly been a champion for the ‘naturally plant-based’ dishes her heritage boasts, and how easily adaptable several of the classics can be.
Born in Jamaica, singer and cookbook author Denai moved to the UK when she was nine, and was raised in multicultural east London. The food she loves is a combination of nostalgic flavours from her roots and the global dishes that inspire her – plantain gnocchi, ackee potato salad and rice and peas arancini.
Denai Moore is a celebrated musician and chef (Credit: Plentiful/ Yuki Sugiura)
A food obsessive who grew up watching Saturday Kitchen and eagerly absorbing the culinary influences around her, Denai is all about taking dishes that excite her and fusing them with a little bit of home.
She launched her pop-up concept, Dee’s Table, in 2017, two years after making the decision to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. It began by selling Jamaican patties at a local market (a resounding success), before hitting the supper-club scene with a bang. Then, last year came her cookbook, Plentiful, which Nigella Lawson “fell in love with,” and Rachel Ama dubbed a “true homage to Jamaica”.
But what makes a quintessential Dee’s Table dish? To dig a little deeper, we asked Denai to talk us through one special meal from her past, as well as a present staple and a recent inspiration.
Past - Patties and red pea soup
“If I had to pick one nostalgic dish, it would be patties and soup. To me, it’s just something that I love; it's something that I crave, especially if I'm feeling homesick.
“We’d have soup on a Saturday, even if it was really hot in Jamaica, so I grew up kind of resenting it. It’s so funny, because now I practically beg my mum to make it!
“My favourite one is red pea soup. It's made from quite humble ingredients – there’s kidney beans, soaked, and then you boil it with all these wonderful aromatic flavours like thyme, pimento and scotch bonnet, which you leave in whole… all the usual suspects!
Today, Denai is a pro at making her own patties (Credit: Instagram/ Dee's Table)
“Traditionally it has cured and salted pork or some kind of meat in it, but my mum makes it vegan for me. It also has ground provisions, so, plantain, or yam and potatoes. Potatoes in that soup are so delicious because they soak up all the wonderful broth, which has coconut milk in it. It’s just the best thing to eat!
“To get it right it's all about the texture. I don't really like red pea soups that are runny. It has to be the perfect viscosity. My mum’s is amazing, but then maybe it's just the fact that she's cooked it that makes it taste so much better.
"Growing up, food was always centred around the women in my life. My mum and my grandmother were such great cooks and I just love the way that a meal brought my family together. I think that's when obsession with food first started! For me, it’s a love language – it's about sharing with someone else.
“We’d always have patties with the soup. Growing up in Jamaica, patties were an affordable food that everyone ate. It’s just ingrained in me to love them! Everyone has different ideas of the perfect patty, but for me, it has to be flaky and full of an umami, savoury flavour – not too spicy.
“I loved eating beef and cheese patties as a kid, which had that creamy, cheesy texture. So, that was a big change for me when I went vegan, especially in the UK! Even now I feel like there's no vegan beef patties I can just go to a store and buy. That's why I wrote two patty recipes in my cookbook.
"When I started Dee’s Table, I was actually trading patties and soup at a market in Hackney. It’s something I'm deeply nostalgic about. [A beef and cheese patty] was one of the first recipes I developed, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it taste the same. When I did, I got really emotional. I couldn’t believe I could have those flavours again.
"I try not to eat a lot of meat substitutes often, but for this specific recipe you need that meaty texture, so I use vegan mince and it just works so well. It's got that meatiness and the richness that I remembered."
Denai says that patties remind her of home (Credit: Plentiful/ Yuki Sugiura)
Present - XO pasta
“I only really started eating pasta in my early adult life, because I didn’t eat it in Jamaica at all. We ate mainly rice or hard foods day to day, and truthfully I still love an easy fried rice scenario! I’m a rice girl and I always will be.
"Saying that, when it’s cold here there’s something really comforting about making yourself a pasta – and I think I’ve mastered the solo bowl.
“I’m obsessed with making a quick, creamy pasta with stuff I have in the pantry. I love ingredients that have lots of flavour already, like an XO mushroom sauce, for instance. That’s my vibe.
“I think when I became vegan, I learnt to reach a little bit more for ingredients that give you that natural umami. So, I love using soy sauce, or miso, or dried mushrooms, or seaweed.
“I’ve always loved Southeast Asian food in general, and how they just understand the balance of saltiness and sweetness and textures – everything is harmonious.
"I like to mix XO sauce with some soy sauce, and often it has aromatic flavours like star anise and sichuan peppers. Then, I love to finish my pasta with crispy breadcrumbs, especially if I have leftover bread, as I hate food waste.
“I’d say I’m the definition of a modern home cook. You have all of these different ingredients, and I’m like, ‘how can I make something with these?’ That’s why I reach for things that offer flavour.
“When I was younger, I was always watching my mum make things from nothing – she was the queen of improvising and looking in her fridge and whipping something together! I guess that's the key to being a chef in many ways.
"My favourite part of cooking is the things I haven’t made yet. It's something that I take into what I do with Dee’s Table pop-ups now.”
Future - Win Son bodega scallion pancakes
“There's this Taiwanese bakery in New York called Win Son, and the reason why I'm inspired by it is because I love any chef that's telling their own story.
"They have all the classic New York style Bodega breakfast sandwiches – the egg, bacon and cheese ones – but instead of bread they use scallion pancakes.
“It's like a fun Taiwanese-American style bakery, and it’s on my list of places I must go. I hope they do vegan things! I love the scallion pancake idea, and they also do a kind of mochi doughnut.
“I think they're super clever but also you can tell there’s a lot of thought that goes into each egg sando. That’s definitely my kind of food. I love when I can eat something and see the person behind it, you know? And I think that's where food is heading, in general.
“For instance, my friend Saf [Sisterwoman Vegan], who's cooking at Moko in Tottenham at the moment…her dishes have that soul food element, but there's also a Caribbean element. It’s like a hybrid of her story and all of her worlds on the plate.
“That’s something I’m constantly trying to do at Dee’s Table, too. Your story is what makes your food authentic to you, and I try to tap into that all the time.
Denai at the start of Dee's Table in 2017 (Credit: Instagram/ Dee's Table)
"Like. my jerk pork gyozas from Plentiful – they come from the fact I love to eat gyozas, yes, but I also grew up eating jerk pork, and to me, that was a special occasion food.
“I think that combination is a good mark of what I do. When it comes to cooking, I’m just trying to be myself.”
Featured image: Instagram: Dee's Table/ Plentiful/Yuki Sugiura)