To describe Peckham as a ‘melting pot’ would be like putting egusi into a blender and calling it a smoothie: It gives managed chaos a smooth and palatable consistency. It might be the kind of diversity that can be sold by estate agents, but Peckham has always had its fractures, long before gentrification, long before complaints from yoga teachers over the noise from neighbouring white garment churches. They were there when Manze’s pie and mash shop was symbolically burnt down in the 1985 Peckham Riots, and they are still there in who eats at Peckham restaurants and who owns them — in how an area that stretches from the Rye all the way to the fringes of the Old Kent Road has so many of its best food businesses crammed into tiny pockets of real estate.
The version of Peckham that advertises a dining scene of “destination” restaurants to lure in the type of critic who expects to receive a George Cross for getting on an Overground train, referencing Del Boy (filmed in Bristol) and eating some small plates does have some truth in it. But it is only one of many versions, and one unrecognisable to nearly everyone who actually lives there. The observation that Peckham operates as an exclave suburb of Lagos isn’t a novel one; nor is the usual counter-narrative that the area is manicuring itself faster than one of Rye Lane’s many nail salons. But between Choumert Road’s bukas and Anthony Gormley’s phallic bollards on the nominally determinative Bellenden, there is a more interesting story of jagged, uneasy hybridity that resists attempts to paint it in binaries of gentrification or decline.
All this makes trying to sum up an area like Peckham in a list of places to eat a fool’s game. But if there is a true version, it exists somewhere in the frictions. It’s in the selling techniques of Pakistani butchers who know how to describe the viscera of a cow in Urdu, Yorùbá and Igbo; it’s in the dark kitchens sandwiched on an empty floor between the cheapest cinema in London and a Campari bar; it’s in the apparition of smoke from Ugandan barbecue close to where William Blake first saw his angels on Peckham Rye. It’s in vegan Rastafari pasta, Filipino burritos, chapal wraps and the same leafy vegetables translated into twenty different languages and eaten by a thousand different people. It’s in the places that could exist in Peckham, and nowhere else.
This map draws its northern boundary at Peckham High Street, in anticipation of a guide to the Old Kent Road and its many tributaries, including Peckham Park Road.