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Riaz Phillips Wants Everyone To Know About The Diversity Of Caribbean Food Culture

The Londoner on Afro-Caribbean food culture, his new book West Winds, and the importance of diversity in diversity.

Riaz Phillips, a writer and documentarian from London, has a YouTube channel with millions of views that, in his own words, “no one really knows about”. Instead, he’s best known for his literature. His first book, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK, was self-published in 2017 and tells the story of Caribbean restaurants and people across the UK. Community Comfort, a cookbook with recipes from the British diaspora to raise funds for victims of Covid-19 in Black, Asian, and ethnic minority communities, came out in early 2020. We caught up with him not long after the release of West Winds: Recipes, History and Tales from Jamaica, a cookbook that weaves recipes and context to the food of Jamaica.


Team Infatuation: Congratulations on the publication of West Winds. What made you want to write Belly Full, Community Comfort, and now West Winds?

Riaz Phillips: I think Belly Full came around as I noticed that there were a lot of books and documentation coming out, none of which frequently featured Caribbean or Afro-Caribbean culture and community. There were big titles about London food or east London, and when you flicked through, you barely saw anyone from the Caribbean or Afro-Caribbean communities. I thought that even if they dedicated a few pages, the food is so varied and so diverse that those pages wouldn't be enough. The community needs a book in itself that champions all the different people, families, and businesses behind that community, and the stories and the history of those communities. 

TI: Why are Caribbean takeaways and restaurants so important to the Caribbean community in London?

RP: The kind of world that a lot of people in the diaspora live in is really intense, with busy schedules. They're not having time to cook a lot of those meals and have access to those foods as they would back from wherever their family origins are. I think in general, food is such a big part of the culture—gathering around eating food, so that food places just naturally became community hubs in the same way.

TI: Historically, how have these food spaces been important?

RP: Back in the 1950s, ‘60s,’ 70s, and even up to the ‘80s, what we had were actual community halls, salons, and barbershops. Maybe even the church. A lot of places like that have decreased over the years. But food places, restaurants, and whatever—they’ve really sustained. 

Riaz Phillips

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TI: Do you think anything has changed in regards to Caribbean food in mainstream British food culture since, say, you first started crowdfunding for Belly Full?

RP: Not because of the book, but I just think mostly all the people strive to do Caribbean food in new ways and modern ways. It's definitely pushed the whole food culture forward. If you go to a food market now, you're always going to see maybe even more than one Caribbean food stall. In more cities across the UK there are sit-down Caribbean restaurants than there were, I guess, when I wrote the book. So I think it's something that is definitely on the increase. Just as people's knowledge and awareness of it grows. 

TI: When it comes to eating Caribbean food in London, what are your go-to spots?

RP: It depends where I am. In Peckham you've got JB’s Soul Food, or Zionly Manna, which is ital vegan food inside the market. If you want to have a sit-down meal, Fish, Wings & Tings. Then if you’re up in north London, Peppers & Spice takeaway, there’s People's Choice for jerk chicken. If you want a patty, there's Rainbow Bakery.

Giulia Verdinelli

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TI: When it comes to newer Caribbean restaurants, do you think it’s important that they serve other communities as well as their own?

RP: There should be a diversity of diversity. Everybody needs to toe the same line and, at the end of the day, they are businesses that people are running as well. Newer restaurants are always trying to reach a wider audience, but at their heart, they usually do want to appeal to the native audience as well. If they didn’t they could just go completely off the chain and just do burgers and wraps. There's always an element to them that they want to keep things authentic in ways, but to reach a wider audience. 

TI: Right. And we’ve seen what can happen when cuisines get bastardised in England…

RP: Yes. The issue is that when it's done in a way that's so completely removed from the origins that people's perception of what that is, gets warped. Then you have a huge problem. A lot of people from the Chinese and Indian communities are kind of aware of this conversation because the food that's been served in England for decades is very far removed or even completely fabricated from what people would eat back in the native countries. Which also have, like, a billion people and hundreds of different languages and cultures and ethnicities. 

TI: Is this something you’re thinking about when you’re writing your own books?

RP: Diversity of diversity is definitely something that has informed West Winds. It’s getting away from that notion that Caribbean food is just jerk chicken, curry goat, and rice and peas. There are so many different influences in the countries that inform all the different foods. A lot of that is from the path that was set by European imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

TI: That’s interesting. What kind of examples are you talking about?

RP: Like the patties that people eat. When you actually think about their similarity to Cornish pasties and the way that people speak in patois and how it’s similar to patty. Basically like a bastardisation of pasty. There are all these links between food. Ackee and saltfish is the national dish of Jamaica, but saltfish is something that was imported to the Caribbean by the European planters. It wasn't something that was ever really like native to the island. At the same time ackee, which grows in Jamaica, actually originates from West Africa. Again, that's a result of the slave trade and people coming over from West Africa to the Caribbean, and bringing produce, herbs, and spices along with them. 

Giulia Verdinelli

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TI: There’s a gap in the syllabus when it comes to imperialism and colonialism. Do you think that food could be a good vehicle to turn that into more mainstream knowledge?

RP: For sure. The multifaceted nature of the Caribbean means that no matter where you're from in the world, there's almost always something that relates to where you're from. You know, there's a rich culture of Caribbean Chinese food. Most of the curries originated from North India. A lot of baked stuff originated from Portuguese Jews.

It’s also where a cookbook comes in. You get to see a rich culture of things that maybe you didn't know about or haven't eaten before. Then you can make your own journey towards it. Restaurants aren't the only player in that sphere of influence. 

RP: And I guess that’s where West Winds comes in. After that, what’s next for you?

TI: West Winds is part of a two-book series, so that's the next thing that I'm working on. It's coming out hopefully next year. As I mentioned, that diversity of diversity is so important. Caribbean culture is kind of dominated by Jamaican food and culture and, in reality, there are all these many, many different pockets of the Caribbean with their own wildly different food. Food that you would never see in Jamaica and people who are really passionate about that food. All of it with a really deep and vivid history. So, very much continuing on that strand. 

TI: That sounds brilliant. Looking forward to it!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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