When Riaz Phillips, founder of Tezeta Press, tried to look into the history behind the food of one of the UK’s most prominent and influential diaspora communities all he could find, from the British Library to the Black Cultural Archives were tantalising but passing references to Caribbean eateries. So he spent over a year travelling England, eating in more than 100 places and documenting over 60 for his new book, Belly Full.
The rise of microenterprises, streetfood, social media and egos has meant that founders’ personal histories are intrinsically and increasingly linked to their brands. Whether it be the stories of protests at the Serial Killer Café in East London; of discovery when a British person pops abroad and comes back an expert in a ‘national cuisine’; or of personal development, as is so important to clean eating brands. So how did we miss out on the bakeries, takeaways and cafés that brought us our first tastes of sticky jerk and sunshiney patties?
Riaz describes how as a kid growing up in North London it would strike him that people would just be straight in and out of the local chippy, but they’d spend a long time having a chat when picking up fruit buns or saltfish. They’d talk about home and the people they knew around the area; they’d check in on each other. With that in mind he emphasises the degree to which the places he visited for the book are community spaces.
We met at JB’s Soulfood in Peckham (featured in the book) and were lucky enough to nab the only table in the little takeaway with our yellow polystyrene boxes of sweetly-charred chicken legs and rice’n’peas. “It’s a shame that some of the other places [around here] live up to the stereotype of bad customer service, but this place is great”. I ask what exactly he means and Riaz explains that whilst he knows the menu, for someone who isn’t familiar with Caribbean food it isn’t always easy to navigate, and staff members aren’t always particularly keen to help the uninitiated.
Talking about why this happens he muses that perhaps in some cases people feel a conflict between the desire to share their cultural heritage and run a successful business on the one hand, and preserve community spaces and culture for themselves on the other. This conflict translates into the diversity of menus the writer has encountered across the country, with some eateries more willing to alter recipes to serve a wider audience than others, for example by cooking meat off rather than on the bone as is traditional.
Whilst this degree of resistance might be possible in big cities with large Caribbean communities, outside of these areas Riaz describes how entrepreneurs have sought to appeal more widely by adjusting their menus. He talks about Dougy’s in Moss Side where Sunday roasts are cooked with a twist which sees the beef prepared with Caribbean seasoning and rice’n’peas on the side. Meanwhile, 2 Tone Café in Coventry sells sausage sandwiches made with jerk sausage in hard dough bread, and Marcia’s Caribbean & English Takeaway in Wicker, Sheffield sells Caribbean-style sandwiches, again using the staple hard dough bread.
Remembering how his family would get together to cook and eat when he was young, Riaz describes becoming increasingly interested in the role played by food in the transfer of culture. “I was in the library just trying to find out more stories of people who came over and how they started, and who the first wave of people were, the originators, but there was very little”. The death of his grandmother in 2015 acted as a catalyst to spur Riaz to leave his job in sports marketing to pursue the project that would become Tezeta Press. Tezeta is an Amharic word for a style of music that invokes nostalgia and memory, and these are the narratives that the new publishing label will explore.
Picking up his camera and getting on his bike, Riaz has been working weekends in a bar for the past couple of years to keep himself going whilst travelling around England on coaches and trains to chronicle the missing histories of Caribbean eateries. Initially he took to Twitter and email to find food establishments to visit but when that proved too slow he took a more adventurous approach by just going to places that were known for having a Caribbean community. He describes how he followed trails along supply chains gesturing across the road to Dennis’ Butchers, the place where JB’s sources its meat. Founded in 1989, the butcher continues to produce the cuts of meat particular to Caribbean cuisine.
One of the writer’s oldest finds was Old Trafford Bakery in Manchester which was started in the 1950s out of a living room and continues to operate in the same space. After months of working on the book, Riaz remembers wandering around a supermarket in Sheffield and seeing packets of their bread but never having encountered them before, so he added them to his list.
The earliest established food businesses included in the book are bakeries like Old Trafford and Davis Bakery in Birmingham. The ethos in these places Riaz explains, was more around a “style of cooking, rather than the ingredients used to make the dishes – hard dough breads, spiced buns these things – could be made with British ingredients but the style of making it was typical to Caribbean”. Spices, herbs, vegetables and fruit used to make more complex dishes were not widely available in the UK during the fifties so people had to make do with these products as comforts of home. Initially these businesses had flourished just by selling out of their own living spaces, with racism and prejudice meaning that shops weren’t interested in retailing their food. Eventually many were able to obtain their own retail units giving them visibility on High Streets and creating the community spaces that the book seeks to celebrate.
With such distinct stories and long-running businesses I’m curious if the owners have been approached in the past to talk about their work. Riaz explains, “They told me magazines had contacted them in the past but it was only ever to write lists like where to get the best jerk chicken or patties; they never really cared about them or their stories”. This resonates with a “foodie” culture in the UK that continues to mine communities for their traditional fare but with little regard for the contexts and people that gave rise to the dishes and recipes. Fortunately, projects like Belly Full will serve to change that.
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Henna Zamurd-Butt is on Media Diversified’s editorial and operations team. Before this she was a news editor at crowdsourced newswire, Newzulu. In a previous life she was a restaurateur; starting, running and eventually selling two restaurants serving American-inspired cuisine using local and ethical produce. Henna has a degree in History and Politics from SOAS, and a masters in Global Politics from Royal Holloway. She is a fellow of the social enterprise programme, On Purpose. Tweet her @hennabutt.