19 OCTOBER 2017
BY RIAZ Phillips, London-based writer and photographer

Banner photograph: Amy Ashwood Garvey entertaining guests at the Afro-Women's Centre. Photo credit: Lionel Yard's Collection. Photograph below: Amy Ashwood Garvey. Photo via faraitoday.com

Though black communities have existed in the British Isles for centuries, after the First and Second World Wars when people started to settle in higher numbers, a new, distinctly Black British generation emerged.

As the country's post-War Afro-Caribbean communities were establishing themselves, many struggled to adapt to the hard times and harsh climates of the British Isles. Samuel Selven's 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners and Linton Kwesi Johnson's poem "It Dread inna England" eloquently depicted the homesickness experienced by many of the migrants trying to build new lives for themselves in Britain. They longed for old familiarities. For survival as much as nostalgia, people held on to what they could of their old lives, largely through culture, language, and of course, food.

Amy Ashwood Garvey (Image credit: faraitoday.com)Caribbean cafes, bars, and social clubs stepped in to offer people a taste of home as early as the late 1920s, notably the Caribbean Cafe in Cardiff and Florence Mills Social Parlour, which was opened in 1929 on Carnaby Street by a team that included Amy Ashwood—political activist and first wife of Marcus Garvey. As historian Colin Grant writes, guests were attracted to Florence Mills "by the rice 'n' peas West Indian cuisine."

The first notable wave of eat-in Afro-Caribbean establishments emerged in the late 1960s, as youth of the Windrush generation started to come of age. These included political activist Frank Crichlow's Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which opened in 1968, and Dougie's Hideaway club and West Indian restaurant in Archway. More than just restaurants and bars, these eateries were places of cultural importance that built strong bonds of friendship between customers.

From forerunners like Miss Henrys grocery store in Luton established in 1965, the times saw Black females not only helming back-of-house positions but very much in entrepreneurial positions of ownership. This was often a means of survival and financial independence as much as it was passion. Their intense knowledge of Caribbean food, honed from generational upbringing, provided many with an excellent enterprise opportunity.

From Ayanna’s to Rose’s Kitchen and Jade’s Takeaway in London, decades on, the UK now has a plethora of Black female owned food businesses. Travelling across the UK writing Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK – the following a just a handful of the wonderful characters encountered in the journey.

Maureen Wilkes - Maureens, Leeds

Things had all gotten a bit too much for Maureen Wilkes by the time the entirety of Chapeltown were queuing out her front door and down the road for a rare taste of Caribbean cuisine, which at the time was not widely available in 1980s Leeds. Maureen who was born and raised in the area around Chapeltown Road in northern Leeds carried on a practice not too unfamiliar in places across the Caribbean like St. Kitts where Maureen’s family originated. This was a form of open door policy where local familiar faces might pop into a neighbour’s house for dinner and a chat in the hours after a long day.

Marcia Campbell - Marcias, Sheffield

While a number of Caribbean and West Indian food shops have adorned South Yorkshire’s Sheffield city over the years, few managed to stand the test of time like Marcia’s. Gracefully bowing down from action two decades after founding Marcia’s Caribbean and English Take Away, Marcia Campbell handed over the keys over to a new patron who would sustain the Marcia’s name well into the future.

With Marcia being born and raised in the exacting climate of Yorkshire, she soon found great solace in cooking – especially the foods of back home in Jamaica. Her family came to Sheffield from Linstead in St. Catherines, Jamaica some decades before. “I went to Jamaica for the first time when I was five years old and I learned loads from my grandparents – boiled yams, roast breadfruit, rundown…everyone in my family could cook.”

Paulette Wilson, R&Bs, East London

Where Hackney’s Mare Street begins to creep into Lower Clapton in the east end of London, R&B Caribbean Takeaway has virtually served as the neighbourhood’s kitchen and dining room, especially for residents of the opposite Pembury Estate, since the late 1980s. In the face of vast change, not only in the shop, but the entire area in general, one resolute constant over that quarter of a century has been Paulette Wilsow known throughout the area as Mrs. Bev.

With a fine talent for cooking big quantities for large numbers of people, Bev rapidly became known for her culinary skills in the local area. Having then decided to make a move north of the river from Brixton to Hackney, she carried this with her to the location on Clarence road where the shop remains today.

Alice Muchanyuka, Cool Breeze, South London

Alice Muchanyuka recounts moments of worry in the shop’s early days after opening her shop in 1997. “That first day I took £16.20, and on the second day not much more. Then one day it jumped to £300, and then around £500 – I remember jumping for joy! Everyone who came in carried on coming in. Although Alice is not in the kitchen herself as much these days, with a head chef also from St. Thomas filling the role, Alice ensures the menu always has something new for people to get stuck into adding, “I take pride in always making sure we have everything we say we have.” 

Michelle Miah, Rudies, North London

A stone’s throw from Dalston’s Ridley Road Market, the flair of Rudie’s menu pays homage to Jamaica’s rich and diverse composition originating from east Asian spices to the fruit and vegetation of West Africa in much the same way that Ridley Road Market does. Drawing on co-founder Michelle’s Jamaican family upbringing and after extensive exotic travel research in Jamaica, the food at Rudie’s is described as “unmistakably” Jamaican.

Theresa Roberts, Jamaica Patty Co, Central London

Having conceived and self-designed every microscopic element of the store, Theresa Roberts’ Jamaican background shows itself in various facets throughout. “In Jamaica, my first school was under a palm tree! We were educated under a tree in the shade.” However, Theresa’s vision of the store was not Palm Trees and so forth but simply the essence of that terrain, giving a modern outlook and brand to her native country. Theresa adds, “I always wanted to show the world what a good quality product Jamaica has to offer.”

About author

Riaz Phillips is a London-based writer and photographer. Born in Hackney and raised in North London, he studied politics and economics at University in London followed by postgraduate study at the University of Oxford. After this he founded Tezeta Press - a publishing house dedicated to under-represented ideas and culture. It's first release, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK is available now.