‘Ram goat liver good fi mek mannish water, curried goat lunch put de bite in your bark,’ sang Pluto Shervington on the classic reggae track, “Ram’s Goat Liver.” For those who aren’t au fait with the intricacies of Caribbean cuisine, Shervington was referring to the classic Jamaican dish made from the head of a male goat and various offals from the rest of its body. Mannish water isn’t just a tasty soup, though. Apparently, its aphrodisiac qualities will leave a man with loins burning so hard he’ll need to call the emergency services.
Despite being a Jamaican dish of legend, it turns out that, outside of the islands, mannish water is pretty elusive. However, this stuff has been on the radar of icons like The Rolling Stones’, whose 1973 album Goats Head Soup was inspired by the dish, recorded in Kingston at Dynamic Sound Studios while the band was living in Jamaica. If you want the soup in the UK or the US, you have to be determined to seek it out. Very few restaurants make the dish here in Britain and the ones that do only make it one or two days a week for loyal devotees. I’d been wanting to try it for years, both for the taste and, well, any power that came with it later on.
I scoured London for Caribbean restaurants that make mannish water and, after searching high and low, I found myself in the embrace of restaurant owner Clive Biggs, who has been making it from Friday through Sunday in his Brixton restaurant, Refill, for 11 years. Despite my burning desire to try mannish water, I have to make a tiny disclaimer here: Offal makes me nervous. There, I said it. So walking into Clive’s kitchen and seeing a fleshy smorgasbord (like Italian’s who argue to the death over the ‘proper’ panzanella ingredients) mannish water’s components change from region to region of the chopped up goat’s head and its tripe, intestines, and (gulp) testicles, I was doing some serious internal pep-talking with myself.
Along with his cooks Donald and Marlene, Clive was gracious enough to let me sate my curiosity and sit quietly while I watched the morning’s preparation of mannish water—it must not be rushed— alongside all the jerk, fried fish, dumplings and other soups to be made. Along with the chopped goat’s head (it was already butchered when I got there, but Clive ever-so-kindly pulled a frozen one from the freezer for me to see—there’s something quite grounding about staring a dead goat straight in its frozen eyes that I’d recommend to anyone), tripe, intestines, balls and diced green bananas were added to the pot along with pumpkins, carrots and potatoes to thicken it, along with a packet of mannish water stock. “Everyone uses it”, says Clive, and about a metric ton of Scotch bonnet peppers. Again, if you’ve not had proper Jamaican cuisine before, you’ll have not had the pleasure of the sharp, fruity, knock-your-wig-off heat of these chillies, the cornerstone of West Indian cooking.
While the now green-brown soup was simmering—it’d be a few hours yet until potential boner o’clock—and the dumplings to go with it were being rolled, I asked where mannish water comes from. “Like many others, I’m not sure exactly of its origin,” says Clive. “I just know that, as a young boy coming up, it was supposed to give you a manly feeling.” He smiles, almost winking through his neat gold tooth. “You know, the ‘umph’ feeling of becoming a man.”
Is there significance, then, in a male goat’s head being used? Are female goat brains not good enough? “Mannish water is always made from a male goat. Never a female.” Why? “Well, it’s believed that meat from a male goat will bring vigor. Also, apparently ram goat urine has a scent that attracts the female goat.” Right. But we’re not going to be drinking urine? “No. But, as you see in a lot of third world countries, it is only the male goat that is prized and killed for eating. The females are kept for pets and milk.”
After three hours of gently blipping away, filling the kitchen and my sinuses with its potent meatiness, dumplings were fried and it was time to dig into this hallowed dish. The first thing that gets you is the heat. And it grows. My God, does it grow. Then comes probably the most intensely meaty flavor I’ve ever experienced; ripe, rich and, well, I hate to say it, but quite manly. I was a mess of endorphins (thanks, capsaicin!) and embarrassment when, a few mouthfuls in, Marlene asked me, “Are you looking for a wife?”
They all laughed. A lot.
I know you’re all dying to know whether I left Brixton with something resembling a World War One canon in my pants and, while I hate to disappoint, no aphrodisiac effects were noted from losing my mannish water virginity. I did feel pretty jacked up, though, like I’d necked a couple of double espressos. So fuck caffeine: from now on, I’m going to get my kicks from stewed head and nuts. And for this enlightenment, Clive, I am offally thankful.