In conversation with

Riaz Phillips

Author, photographer Belly Full

Riaz Philips Belly Full

Introduction

Introduction

The story of Caribbean culture in the UK is a long one. A good place to start, according to the writer and photographer Riaz Phillips, is Sam Selvon’s novel Lonely Londoners. Published in 1956, the book documents the harsh experiences of early Caribbean immigrants who travelled on the promise of a better life. It’s a story that doesn’t often get told in schools today, and one that’s becoming diluted as the sons and daughters of immigrants become distanced from their elders.

A desire to preserve the stories of Caribbean culture drove Riaz Phillips to publish his own book, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK. For Riaz – who was born in Hackney and raised in North London with family from Jamaica, Saint Vincent and Cuba – Caribbean eateries were “second nature”. But after a while he realised this culture wasn’t as well understood outside of his community as he thought. He set out to photograph the people behind some of the best restaurants, takeaways and eateries in the country, those that had sustained the Caribbean community and shaped the landscape of food in the UK since the Fifties. With the help of a kickstarter campaign, his Instagram page ended up as a coffee table book, filled with the stories of local legends and unsung heroes.

Question and Answer

What story did you want to tell with Belly Full?

I mainly wanted to document the culture that I had grown up in. It was second nature to me, but over time I realised it wasn’t as well understood and familiarised outside of my community as I thought. I wanted to illustrate our history – which I found was frequently omitted from generalist literature in the UK – and I thought an interesting way of doing this would be through food. Everyone loves food. And when a culture is displaced and moves to a new location, the first way that others interact with it is through music and food.

Who was your target audience for the book?

On a surface level, people with an interest in learning more about African and Caribbean culture and food, whether they directly have heritage there or not. Beyond that, people who love different food cultures and understand the politics and history ingrained in food. People that would enjoy literature about food beyond a simple grouping of recipes.

Belly Full Caribbean
Belly Full People's Choice

What are some of your favourite stories from the book?

Every single story in the book meant something to me and all the stories were equally important – from learning about the families who started Old Trafford Bakery, Sunrise Bakery and Horizon Roti from their living rooms and garages decades ago, to the grandkids of people like Gordon at Buster Mantis in south-east London, who’ve taken their cultural heritage and displayed it in really exciting modern formats.

What’s the most important thing to consider when telling other people’s stories like you did in Belly Full?

If you don’t have an agenda (or someone else’s agenda breathing down your neck) you are free to be taken on a journey in a conversation with someone. Because I’m not a food blogger and because I didn’t have a food editor to deal with, I was more than content when a conversation about ackee turned into discussions of heritage, diversity, political riots and the slave trade.

What were you trying to capture in your photographs?

These places, spaces and families have been around for so long that to me they are part of British history and culture, not some separate “Black” sub-section. That is what I wanted to convey in the images: a sense of time and belonging.

Where would you send us for breakfast, lunch and dinner in London if you had to pick?

In a perfect soca utopia I’d eat roti (chickpea flatbread wraps filled with meat, fish or veg curry) for breakfast, dinner and lunch. However, keeping to the area I grew up in which is Hackney, East London: a patty and cornmeal porridge for breakfast at Peppers & Spice, Lunch from Lenny at People’s Choice in Clapton and Dinner at Rudie’s in Dalston.

Are there any other Caribbean cookbooks you would recommend?

I honestly think it does more good to learn about African food when trying to understand Caribbean food. The influences and direct relationships are stark, and seeing how food experiences manifest themselves across the diaspora is wildly interesting. In saying that, I’d highly The Groundnut Cookbook as an incredible representation of black culture in the UK.

Groundnut Cookbook
"I honestly think it does more good to learn about African food when trying to understand Caribbean food"
Flash Spirit
"Flash of the Spirit illustrates how classical African civilisations have influenced and informed black societies today around the world"

Any authors with Caribbean heritage that you admire?

For me and many more people of similar ethnicity, we often find ourselves in this weird venn diagram of “other”. We aren’t entirely of the place we were born and grew up, but we’re also seen as foreigners in the place that our ancestors or even parents are from. Naomi Jackson captures this incredibly well.

And photographers?

Charlie Phillips. There are scores of great black photographers who haven’t got anywhere near the shine they deserve but I still don’t feel Charlie Phillips has been raised to the pedestal that he deserves. His images over the decades feature everything from living rooms to the race riots and Notting Hill carnival.

Are there any novels that talk about the Caribbean experience in UK?

I’d highly recommend Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoner to anyone. Very few black youth (or anyone else) really understand how desperate things were for black people who had come to the UK on the promise (read: lie) of a better life in the UK. It’s not a story that’s taught in schools and is being lost as we get further away from our elders. I mention this in the book’s introduction then finish the book with the likes of Rudie’s, Ayannas and Buster Mantis to show how much culture can evolved in just a few generations.

“London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers.”

Sam Selvon, Lonely Londoners

What are the last three books you read that you really enjoyed?

Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit, which illustrates how classical African civilisations have influenced and informed black societies around the world. Hans Ulrich Obrist’s A Brief History of Curating – in this day and age where so much is documented, I think everyone is a curator of some sort, which makes this a good read. Miles Davis’s Autobiography – a brutally honest self-portrait, a f-word laden page-turner by one of the greatest musicians ever. It descends into tales of race relations in America and is just an outright tome of Jazz.

Which magazines do you read for pleasure?

I always pick up Gal-Dem. As someone with dozens of young female family members it’s important for me to know the issues that POC females face and how they navigate spaces. Beyond that, Caricom, probably the first magazine dedicated to the black experience in Football, NII Journal, Blue and Plantain Papers, another new magazine that gets how deep food culture is.

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