Caribbean cooking

This Photographer Is Documenting Britain’s Hidden Caribbean Food History

Riaz Phillips has spent the last year spent travelling around England, armed with a notepad and a camera, visiting Caribbean bakeries, takeaways, and cafes to document the food and people behind them.

by Daisy Meager
12 October 2016, 5:19pm
belly-full-peppers-and-spice-dalston

Food from Peppers & Spice in Dalston, London as part of Riaz Phillips' Belly Full project. All photos by Riaz Phillips.

When Riaz Phillips, a London-based writer, photographer, and founder of independent publishing company Tezeta Press, struggled to find up-to-date information about Caribbean food culture in Britain, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Phillips has spent the last year spent travelling around England, armed with a notepad and a camera, visiting Caribbean shops, takeaways, and cafes to document the food and people behind them. The result is Belly Full, a book chronicling more than 60 eateries across the country, from the bakeries making legendary hard dough bread in Manchester to a place in London that claims to serve the best roti you'll ever eat.

READ MORE: Meet the Woman Behind Blackpool's Only Caribbean Cafe

As Phillips launches a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds to publish his book, we got in touch to find out more about this labour of love project. And where to go for the country's best curry goat.

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Lenny, owner of Peoples Choice in Clapton, London.

MUNCHIES: Hey Riaz, so why did you decide to start documenting and taking photos of Britain's Caribbean eateries? Riaz Phillips: My family is from Jamaica and the surrounding islands, and when they came over to England, food was an important way of bonding with displaced families. When I was growing up as a kid, I lived in Islington [North London] and I'd always go to some of these Caribbean takeaway places, some of which are still open today. I'd cycle from my house to Peppers & Spice in Dalston and get a little pattie or something for £1.

I could always tell that they were more than just places to get food. When you'd go to the chicken shop or the fish and chips place, you were in and out. In the Caribbean places, people would stand around for ages chatting about life and family back home. I always felt those spaces were really important for the community.

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Dennis Butchers in Peckham, London.
belly-full-rice-n-peas Rice n peas, curry goat, plantain, and calalloo at Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House in Oxford.

Fast forward to last year, I was in the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. I was searching the food books to find out more about people like my grandparents and their experiences with food. I couldn't find anything so I thought I could give it a go. I know how to take pictures and how to use Microsoft Word.

Why do you think nothing like this has been done before? Caribbean food has taken a lot longer to seep into mainstream British food culture and there are 101 different reasons people have for that. A lot of people think Caribbean places were a bit slower to compromise their food for a wider audience. Whereas the Chinese food that we have in England is not food that is served in China. Some Indian dishes were completely fabricated for an English market.

For example, curry goat has bones in it. There's a massive debate inside the community over whether doing stuff without bones and changing it up will make it appeal to a wider audience. But a lot of people see it as selling out. They'll die by their own recipes and it's important to them.

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Bread at Old Trafford Bakery, Manchester.

What did you set out to achieve with the Belly Full project? A lot of the people featured are so busy with their day-to-day that they don't see it as culture and history. They just come in every day at 5 AM to bake bread for people and their friends and family and the community. They know that they do a good job but they're not really going to document themselves. They're not going to see it in the same light that I do from a younger generation looking up to them.

When I first started this project, it was just takeaways. But when I talked to those people and they told me about their experiences, they always mentioned small shops, bakeries, and butchers. I expanded because I felt like there was more to the story.

I also wanted to focus on places that stood the test of time and have been around for years and years. Those people have got so many more stories and a lot of the people I still meet with when I'm getting something to eat. I'll sit down with them and have a chat. They've got so much more than I could fit in the pages!

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Mr Phil Jr. at Scandal in Harlesden, London.

How did you go about finding places to feature? In the beginning, it was based in my own upbringing in London. I had been to some of the places before and the rest I knew by name.

Then I just started just sending emails and looking on Twitter, searching for hashtags like "curry goat" and "rice n peas," but it wasn't that good. Eventually I just got on trains and went to the places. I would go to areas that I knew had an old Caribbean community and walk around on the street asking people.

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Roger Fong at Mister Patty in Harlesden, London.

With that type of food, it's like with football teams. People always have their favourite places. So it was actually quite easy. You only need to meet someone like a chef or butcher, and ask them where they know in the area. Because everyone knows each other because they grew up together. You only need to really find one person and then they'll tell you all the older places.

Now you also find more places outside of the typical areas which is what I wanted to show as well. Like The Drop in Chorlton, which is a really quiet and quaint part of Manchester, and completely different from the traditional community in Moss Side. I was trying to capture all these different people and all their different stories. Food is the mechanism I use to get people interested in history and culture.

What was one of the oldest places you found? One of the oldest was Old Trafford Bakery in Manchester. It's this amazing old bakery on a quiet residential street that had been in the same place since 1960. I only found it because I was walking around and it happened to be down that road.

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Ochi in Shepherd's Bush, London.

They put these stickers on the bread which say "Established in 1960." When I was in Sheffield and more places north of Manchester, their bread was everywhere. Unless you actually go to a lot of these places, they're hard to find because they're not on Instagram or Facebook which is the modern day way of archiving things.

What kind of things did you discover along the way? It's quite fascinating that a big majority of the places I found started off in their houses. It was the same story I found over and over again. Old Trafford Bakery, Sunrise Bakery in the West Midlands, Wenty's Food Store in East London, Mr Patty in Harlesden, and Horizon Foods Roti in North London all started in kitchens and living rooms, just cooking the food for their communities. Eventually, they were so popular that they grew out of their houses into physical shops.

Back then, they had to make do with what they could find in English markets and it sometimes took months to get food from the Caribbean to England. By the time it got here, it was moldy or gone off. Whereas today, it takes less than a week to send over food and even up in Sheffield, you have huge supermarkets that do Caribbean food like Martins Good To Go.

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Wenty at Wentys Tropical Foods in Forest Gate.

Did you find any regional differences? There's more Caribbean fusion with Latin and African cuisines in London. There's also a lot more straight-up Caribbean places where they don't compromise the way they do the food. When you go to more small places like Huddersfield, parts of Sheffield, Leeds, and bits of Manchester, they have to incorporate a lot more English cuisine into their menus to get people through the doors. You find they do fish and chips and sandwiches and English desserts.

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Russells in Birmingham.

What has the reaction been like to your project? All the people involved have been really supportive and every one of them has said that they couldn't believe it's taken this long for something like this to happen. They all see the importance in their culture and history but people are so busy which has why it's taken me a year to organise.

I'm hoping that this one does well enough that I could do a part two. I wished I could have included more places.

Good luck, Riaz and thanks for talking to me!

Editor's note: Riaz's Kickstarter campaign has now achieved its total and the book is due out early next year. Riaz will be exhibiting a selection of photos from the book at Sang Bleu, Dalston in December.