“Aunty!”, says a middle-aged man standing at the door, about to order Deslyn Marks’ Jamaican patties. Served hot from the bag, her homemade patties are soft pockets stuffed with meat or vegetable fillings. Deslyn smiles at the counter and the two chatter away against the yellow backdrop of Patty Heaven.
Her customers mean a lot to her. “I see them as one family,” she says. Some even travel from Switzerland to buy her patties, and most of them come in for the atmosphere. Situated by the entrance to Roman Road market, Patty Heaven shines in bright colours – it’s a restaurant but also a delightful, supportive social hub.
As an ex-nurse, her heart to care for diverse people was translated from her previous job. She finds bits of life in the restaurant by communicating with residents and visitors to the borough. People stop by the restaurant while waiting for the bus and hurry out with Marks’ steamy patties in hand.
The strong, distinctive smell of saltfish from these patties is hard to miss – momentarily transporting you to Hanover, Western Jamaica. Home to Deslyn, it is well-known for its beaches, ocean view and ultimately, seafood.
“Our national dish is ackee and saltfish,” she says. This Caribbean breakfast is a combination of Northern Atlantic fish and West African fruit – a multiracial symbolism, mirroring the diversity of Jamaica and Deslyn’s openness to differences.
“My best friend, when I went to high school was Chinese,” she says. “Jamaica is made up of white, pink, blue and yellow.” Bringing diversity to this borough is one of the reasons she set up in Tower Hamlets, she says there wasn’t Caribbean food in the area before Patty Heaven came to life.
Hanover, a treasured land of raw ingredients, also reminds her of her own family and the time when they grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables together. They loved eating cabbage and sweet peppers religiously.
“I eat because we grow. When I was a child I planted lettuce,” she says. “I like salad food. You can make them in different ways with nuts and apples.”
Apples were a Good Friday treat, she says. “My father was working away when I was a child, and he would come in with a brown paper bag full of American apples for us and each of us would share one,” she says. “I’ve grown up liking apples. Food is one of my biggest friends.”
Another comfort food of hers is Jamaican milk bread made from yam. “It isn’t very sweet but it’s the consistency of it,” she says. “It binds you and fills you up very quickly.” Whether eaten hot and plain or with butter and cheese, this food is versatile.
Her parents were the ones who taught her how to cook. Most of the dishes they made were Deslyn’s comfort foods. One of them was steamed snapper fish: “My mother cooked it a lot. It was one of her classic dishes,” she says. “I even remember when one of my brothers became an adult, he would travel home on a Tuesday to have steamed fish.”
She tries to bring the same joy to her customers: “I prepare and cook their food with love as if I was eating it.”
This article is part of our series, Food Without Borders: Taste of East London, check out more stories here. #ELLFoodWithoutBorders