The U.K.'s Vibrant Caribbean Food Culture is Getting the Book it Deserves

January 24, 2018

Riaz Phillips wants you to taste beef patties, coconut flake pastries, curry goat—the food he grew up eating. At the very least, he wants you to read about it: to understand the people who cooked it, the places it comes from. So is the ethos of Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK, Phillips’s book. The project is the result of years spent traveling England, visiting the constellation of Caribbean eateries that dot the country. He interviewed restaurant owners and chefs and began to amass an archive of personal histories.

In many British cities, most of all London, Caribbean restaurants provide texture to their surrounding neighborhoods. They’re not only takeaway joints and bakeries, cafes and grocers, but also points of community contact, public living rooms. It was this dual nature that Phillips sought to highlight in his work. After years spent photographing eateries and gathering their stories on Instagram, Phillips sought a way to bind them together. He launched a Kickstarter to fund the development of a book and a corresponding publishing company, Tezeta Press to ease the process. Thus emerged Belly Full—it draws its name from a Bob Marley song—an ode to food and the communities it fosters and sustains.

I spoke with Phillips, who lives in London, about the process of putting together his book and the importance of stories. Our conversation below was edited for clarity.

Philips with a copy of his book: "It runs through a history of place, area, and food."

Riaz Phillips: Essentially this is a book about Caribbean culture in the U.K., but through food. Modern day Caribbean culture has been in the U.K. for almost a century now and the food has been there for just as long. It’s not as prevalent as other food in the U.K. Asian food is quite popular, European food is quite popular—Caribbean food really lags behind.

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Valerio Farris: Why do you think that is?

RP: Caribbean food has never really catered to the European, U.K. audience. It has stayed quite authentic to what it’s like where it’s from. A lot of people think there’s a lot of bones, it’s spicy, it’s quite dense. Some think that’s why it hasn’t taken off in quite the same way. It could be marketing as well or the fact that there hasn’t been any literature about it. So that’s why I thought to start the project. All my family are from the Caribbean and the food is something I’ve grown up with.

VF: Where in the Caribbean are they from?

RP: Jamaica, Saint Vincent, and Cuba. And then I’ve got extended family from loads of other places like Trinidad or Antigua.

VF: How did you decide to have food be the way to bridge this identity? The way you wanted to represent Caribbean culture to your audience?

RP: First of all, I’m always eating. But beyond that, when you look at the way that people interact with new cultures whenever they come to a new place, you usually find that it’s either food or music. It’s something that’s easy to bridge a gap between people: You start with food and then use that as a gateway.

Phillips made it his mission to visit as wide a spread of restaurants as possible. Many of the places he visits have little to no online presence; word of mouth is their greatest tool.

VF: What’s going on in your book?

RP: I traveled across the country meeting amazing chefs and owners of a lot of the most popular Caribbean food institutions. The book is that journey, me documenting the people I met. It runs through a history of place, area, and food.

I wasn't going for anything too formal, I just had really fun conversations. People telling me about their food and what it means to them and why it was important for them to cook Caribbean food.

VF: There’s also a recipe book that comes along with the main one.

RP: When I first started off, the idea was that it was going to be this book that had all these stories. But I also started collecting recipes. So I made the decision to have the book as a stand-alone and then compile recipes on their own, in a separate book. I teamed up with a Jamaican artist called Robin Claire and illustrated a book with a bunch of my family recipes, mostly Jamaican, which I encountered over and over again in researching the book.

VF: Were there particular narratives you were searching for?

RP: There were a few things I really wanted to highlight. I was interested in some of the oldest places, so I made a real effort to go to restaurants from different decades. Some of them were even older than 50 years. A lot of them are run by an older generation, you’ll find that people who work there are often in their sixties or older. They’re not on the internet, they’re not on social media, so it’s really hard to find out about them online. If you actually go to the place, though, you see that they’re hugely popular.

A lot of people see Caribbean food as this one entity, but we have so many different islands, and so many different foods. When you look at the distance between some of the islands, the distance between some of them is greater than the distance between England and some other European countries. While they have some similarities, there are little bits that are really specific to each place.

Some people started their businesses back in the '40s or '50s, places like Sunrise Bakery, Old Trafford Bakery, or Horizon Foods. A lot of these started in living rooms or garages, really homegrown family businesses from right after the war when people of other heritages found it hard to get business loans. A lot of these people just went for it and started in their houses. To see them have massive businesses now with factories, it’s really inspiring.

Roti is a Trinidadian staple: a split pea stuffed flatbread that you can wrap around all types of fillings like chicken, goat, or pumpkin.

VF: There’s a theme of generations in your research. What were some of the generational differences you noticed?

RP: The younger people are all tapped into social media and trends and you’ll see how they fuse that with what they serve. They might be doing really pop, American-style food, like burgers or vegan buddha bowls, whereas the older generations they’re just about the food and will get most of their business from word of mouth, from being visited over decades.

VF: What was the process of putting the book together like?

RP: At the beginning it was mainly just me posting pictures on Instagram. I didn’t have any plans for it to be a book, but I had so much material and pictures and interviews. There weren’t any books about Caribbean culture. There were cookbooks, but nothing about the people, the stories. I thought it would be quite cool to wrap up everything I had.

Some bakeries and takeaway eateries have been rooted in their communities for decades. Many have flourished into larger scale operations.

Because I’d never done anything in the literary world before, the whole process was a bit long and daunting. I’d seen a lot of friends who had luck with Kickstarter and crowdfunding so I began to research and decided that that would be right, especially in this age of people doing more self-publishing. So, I started a Kickstarter in late 2015 and raised about $10,000 which helped me publish the book and get out there.

VF: What’s next for the project?

RP: Spreading the word, as this is a self-published endeavor, the marketing cycle can be a lot longer than with a major publisher. When you’re self-published, the onus is on you to get the word out there and do events. I had a book launch and exhibition when the book first came out. I’d love to do another one soon, hopefully in another city.

I’d like to also branch out to African food, another underrepresented food in the U.K. There’s tons of Nigerian, Ghanaian, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leonean restaurants and takeaways in the U.K.—they’re all fascinating and the food’s amazing.

On top of that, I’m looking to visit New York as well because it’s another city with a mirrored Caribbean population to London. There’s the same Trinidadian-style restaurants and Jamaican jerk chicken and patties. I’ve actually sold quite a fair amount of books specifically in New York because I think people better understand the message.

Do you have a favorite, storied neighborhood eatery? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.

1 Comment

kckimchi January 29, 2018
Will this book be available in the U.S.?