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Volume 17


Appetite - Spring 2017


Reportage

Seyyada Anaam Burney

Written by
Seyyada Anaam Burney

Seyyada Anaam Burney, MPhil CANTAB, has previously worked as a Lecturer of Sociology and Urban Planning at NUST, Islamabad. A feminist geographer by training, her life and research interests include food, identity, gender, performance, culture, and the everyday. Her personal and intellectual explorations of diaspora have taken her from a childhood in Kuwait, through degrees at Mount Holyoke College and Cambridge University, to a recent home-coming in Islamabad, Pakistan. This article is adapted from research originally conducted for the author’s unpublished MPhil Dissertation, titled “Curried Nation: Identity and the Politics of Ethnicity in British Asian Cookbooks.” (Photo credit: Hiba Moazzam)

        
      
       
            
              

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Curry and the Politics of Multiculturalism


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Chatpata masala, veggie samosas and chicken curry – what could be more South Asian than South Asian food? But what happens when food becomes part of a politics of multiculturalism? When selling food becomes selling “ethnicity” and writing about food becomes a way of exploring immigrant identity, we have officially entered a global trade market. In this essay, Seyyada Anaam Burney deliciously delves into the role played by South Asian cookbooks and their celebrity chefs in the little town we know as Great Britain.

 

“It is part of the fabric, this ‘going out for a curry.’ I never thought that was possible … that there would be such a sense of a ‘curry supper’ [in Britain], but people do.”   – Vivek Singh

“Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” – bell hooks

“Wake up and Smell the Curry!”[1]

If there is anything that we can learn from the proliferation of ‘ethnic products’ readily available in Western restaurants and markets today, it is that ‘ethnicity’ sells—and it sells not only kebab meals, but also cookbooks, spice mixes, television time-slots, and all number of products ready to seduce the money out of consumers’ wallets. This, however, is no reason to applaud ‘multiculturalism’; rather, the case of curry is much more complex than the ‘add and stir’ instructions our loyal Masala Sauces would have us believe. Born in East India Company epistles and mess halls, curry enjoys a popularity in Britain that few other ‘ethnic’ foods can boast of: curry shops populate the British high street and ready meals supermarket aisles. Indian food accounts for 39.3% of the ethnic foods market in Britain while ‘Indian’ restaurants employ almost 1.3 million people.[2]

There is, however, much more supporting this industry than a simple ‘recipe’ for financial success. Indeed, ‘curry’ is as facilitative of its own popularity as it is restrictive of Asian cuisine and culture in Britain: one needs only remember how quickly the ‘smell of curry’ is levelled against the immigrant body to recall that it is as often consumed as it is used to exclude. What both ‘curry’ and bell hooks prompt us to consider, are the inescapable costs of serving ethnicity. Can ethnicity avoid the reductive grasp of commoditization? And how, if at all, is ‘multiculturalism’ possible within the curried nation that is modern Britain?

Curry’s oft-debated, though stubbornly persistent presence in Britain, gives us food for thought; to venture an inquiry into multiculturalism and its theoretical limits. Take, for argument’s sake, the phenomena of British Asian cookbooks, such as Madhur Jaffery’s A Taste of India (1988) and Vicky Bhogal’s Cooking Like Mummyji (2003). Written by chefs of Asian origin for a British audience, these texts have historically been overlooked as purely prescriptive, if not, reductive. Re-examination, however, yields a contrary picture, full of complexity and nuance, positively brimming with opportunities for multiple readings.

Born in East India Company epistles and mess halls, curry enjoys a popularity in Britain that few other ‘ethnic’ foods can boast of: curry shops populate the British high street and ready meals supermarket aisles. Indian food accounts for 39.3% of the ethnic foods market in Britain while ‘Indian’ restaurants employ almost 1.3 million people.

Culinary encounters are far from innocuous. They structure how, what, and why we’ve developed a ‘taste’ for eating culture. Cookbooks, like the recipes in them, are firmly rooted within practices of exchange; they take the ‘taste’ of one time or place and transmit it to another.[3] If, as Levi-Strauss proposes, our cultural boundaries are defined by what we eat or consider edible, then ethnic cookbooks actively ferry foods, and presumably subjects, across this border. Perceptions of ‘Other’ cuisines then eventually progress from “‘strange people equals strange food’ to ‘not-so-strange food equals not-so-strange people’ or, at the very least, ‘strange people but they sure can cook.’”[4] Such culinary encounters are far from innocuous. They structure how, what, and why we’ve developed a ‘taste’ for eating culture. The position of cookbooks within everyday home-making is also tremendously influential—they are such taken for granted objects in every home and kitchen that they can silently influence considerable changes in readers’ perceptions.

British Asian cookbooks articulate tastes whilst also developing them. Their recipes are situated within rich and telling narratives of navigating East-West divisions in culture work, and eating. Indeed, it is as biographies that we see their first utility as vehicles of change: rather than providing a list of ingredients and methods that any reader may emulate to recreate South Asian dishes, these books embed their recipes within narratives of homes and homelands – those near and everyday as well as those imagined, and longed for.[5]

It is as biographies that these texts can subvert passive consumption of migrant cultures by reminding their readers of the real lives and histories that these foods are part of. But these texts are, like Chicken Tikka Masala, one example of the culinary dialogue taking place between Britain and Asia—and their chef-authors only the first stage in their production. The possibility of subversion is inevitably hindered by the realities of publishing in an Anglophone context, and the narrow limits within which an ethnic cookbook is considered profitable. Except for a few notable exceptions, such as Vicky Bhogal’s Cooking Like Mummyji and Cyrus Todiwala’s Mr. Todiwala’s Bombay (2013), British Asians lapse into a textbook narrative of migration used to connect the same list of ironically British foods that diners expect and demand of ‘curry shop’ menus: Vindaloo, Tikka Masala, Jalfrezi, Dopiaza, Qorma, in order of spice levels and all of which can be made vegetarian. Though great sellers, these cookbooks have, popularized an image of ‘curry’ that entrances Britain but stereotypes ‘Asia.’

… exoticizing ethnicity actively distances an Other that is actually quite proximal: Britain’s Asian diasporas. Curry and its many contemporary forms may reap invaluable income for diasporic enterprises and chefs, but do little to remedy Asian cuisines’ initial commodification into the comestible form of ‘curry’.

What does this tell us about multiculturalism? Does it count as ‘multiculturalism’ if you are simply eating the Other—and one whose edible form you yourself have defined? Culinary narratives have, by and large, become so synonymous with their ethnic foods that they limit successive cookbooks and chefs’ abilities to tell stories that are their own in favor of what a public will recognize, understand, and buy. Similarly, the rhetoric of multiculturalism tends to limit itself by assuming that pure, homogenous cultures pre-exist cultural-mixing, that there is anything like a ‘pure culture’ before they are mixed (in diaspora or otherwise). Not only do British Asian authors disprove this, they also suggest that ‘cultural-mixing’ itself is also increasingly standardized. This is particularly acute in the case of ‘ethnic capital,’ or the way ethnic identities become economic resources in commodity culture.

Eating Ethnicity: A Multiculturalist Dilemma

Britain and the Indian Subcontinent have long expressed their relationship with each other through food. The rituals of chai deemed inseparable from South Asian culture originate in the East India Company’s conscious efforts to secure a new market for their tea exploits. Scotch eggs prevail in subcontinental cuisine as ‘Nargisi Kofte’ while ‘Kitchri’ lives on in Britain as ‘Kedgeree.’[6] ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ and samosas are, further, lauded as symbols of ‘successful’ multiculturalism in Britain. The problem with such edible multiculturalism is that we may consume it and not think twice about its social ‘ingredients’: its migrant chefs’ economic struggles, how they must feed Britons ‘Indian’ food despite their own Bangladeshi or Pakistani origins, and how their ability to assimilate in Britain depends upon performances of ‘ethnic’ identity that ultimately distance them as ‘foreign.’ Food and eating are particularly well suited to the practice of social distinction. This is precisely where the debate on ‘eating ethnicity’ begins.

‘Curry’ is a notorious example of the perils of eating culture. It is, from its earliest beginnings, a reduction of Asian cuisines into a single ‘dish with a sauce.’ We also cannot eat ‘ethnic’ food, without positioning ourselves as ‘non-ethnic’ (and, historically, ‘White’)—foods are only ‘ethnic’ to eaters who are not. Cuisines deemed ‘ethnic’ are ‘exotic/ized’ and outside the safety of the ‘local.’[7] This becomes especially problematic when ‘local’ is as shaped by global migration as it is in Britain. Here, exoticizing ethnicity actively distances an Other that is actually quite proximal: Britain’s Asian diasporas. Curry and its many contemporary forms may reap invaluable income for diasporic enterprises and chefs, but do little to remedy Asian cuisines’ initial commodification into the comestible form of ‘curry’.

‘Multiculturalism’s’ emphasis on ‘eating samosas’ or ‘cooking stir-fry’ is hardly random. The “relative ease with which food tastes can be acquired and transmitted” lends them to the task of ‘border-crossing’ particularly well.[8] Indeed, in a consumerist landscape, the ‘spicy’ uniqueness of ethnic food is an economic resource par excellence. Food is not only more tangible than other cultural distinctors, such as language, but we can see, smell, taste, and touch it. Alimentary experiences evoke rich and lasting gustatory memories. Every British Asian chef—from pioneer, Madhur Jaffrey, to more recent entrants such as Zainab Jagot Ahmed—cites such memories as formative of their ‘tastes’ and highlight how cookbooks aim to recreate vivid sensory experiences for their readers.

Ethnic cookbooks’ appeal has historically rested upon their ability to seduce readers into the exotic world of their ethnic cuisine via gustatory participation. Ethnic identities are capital for such texts: they not only make their ingredients seem different enough to be edible, but also authenticate themselves as a source of hidden or ‘insider’ knowledge. Indeed, ethnic cookbooks are notorious for presenting their culinary contents as so mythical as to be only understood by their equally ethnic chef-authors. In a culture fixated on commodity consumption, publishers cannot help but sell such culinary ‘how to’ guides for every distinct ‘ethnic’ identity possible.

Ethnic capital’s marketability, however, also suggests something more troubling about ‘multiculturalism.’ If we eat a culture solely because it is different, what happens when it is no longer so? When the once alien, colonial subject of India is a diasporic subject close enough to ‘home’ to be ‘British’? Our appetite for Others would have us distance in order to eat, deport in order to repatriate, and ‘fix’ within boundaries of exotic in order to feed those without. This sort of multiculturalism then becomes more about commodifying ‘ethnic’ cultures and bodies for consumers and less about the democratic, cultural-mixing that the term once implied. Such consumable multiculturalism is, further, often measured by how easily one may eat ethnic foods. Bottled sauces, spice mixes, and microwave meals that promise authentic curries in as few as 90 seconds encourage us to eat ethnic foods so quickly and unconsciously that their complicated histories of migration become invisible. They encourage us to eat ethnic food simply as a convenient or stylist choice, rather than one undertaken with knowledge or respect for the cultural exchange taking place.

Bottled sauces, spice mixes, and microwave meals that promise authentic curries in as few as 90 seconds encourage us to eat ethnic foods so quickly and unconsciously that their complicated histories of migration become invisible. They encourage us to eat ethnic food simply as a convenient or stylist choice, rather than one undertaken with knowledge or respect for the cultural exchange taking place. 

Food media have typically encouraged an association of cultural-mixing with consumption. Cookbooks, for example, respond to demands for ‘authenticity’ that ultimately reinforce those images deemed palatable: we are sold what sells, with tacit permission to thus expand our boundaries without actually losing them. What this appetite for ethnicity neglects, however, is those practices of cultural-mixing already taking place. These ‘tastes’ are much more interested in “the market of foreign flavors” than with the foreigners in question.[9] This is certainly applicable to the case of ‘curry.’ Vicky Bhogal, recalls in an interview, “[diners] want the image, they want the atmosphere of authenticity. Do they want the reality of it? No. It wouldn’t sell.”

Cosmopolitan consumption of ethnic difference, in effect, requires South Asian migrants to “essentialize and spectacularize themselves in order to attract customers.”[10] The meals actually cooked and eaten within immigrant homes rarely feature in public spaces such as restaurants. The everyday, ad hoc ways in which British Asian diasporas meld and negotiate ‘home’ and homeland are rendered invisible by ‘authenticity’s’ neglect of anything not distant or exotic enough to sell. The flag hanging uncontested in a classroom, the sandwiches replacing ‘roti’ in a lunchbox—these banal expressions of cultural values and limits are ignored by multiculturalism despite being its most revealing ‘measures.’

A Recipe for Multi-Culturalisms

What ‘multiculturalism’ has not realized, is that there is no single experience of cultural diversity or cultural borrowing. Consider the term itself. ‘Multiculturalism’ suggests the erosion of ethnic differences it has become synonymous with: it paradoxically fuses ‘multi,’ and its connotations of diversity, with a single ‘culturalism,’ or practice of culture. For our theory and practice to understand and reflect the realities of cultural-mixing, we must begin by acknowledging the many experiences possible and present—the multiculturalisms. The cultural-mixing already taking place in kitchens and homes, to name but two everyday places, are neither regular nor consistent. Multiple conceptions of ‘culture’ also co-exist at any given time. For immigrant chefs, Vivek Singh, Mridula Baljekar, and Cyrus Todiwala, memories of India are rooted in the land and country left behind en route to Britain, while for British-born chefs, Vicky Bhogal and Zainab Jagot Ahmed, ‘India’ is discovered and revisited in diasporic spaces of home, community center, gurdhwara, and mosque.

Multiple culturalisms, or ‘practicings’ of culture, can and do occur together, in parallel if not at least in relation to one another. Immigrant versus British-born chefs share many experiences of South Asian culture and food, and the same can be said of rural versus urban chefs, home versus professional chefs, and male versus female. Vicky Bhogal and Prasenjeet Kumar both discovered their passion for South Asian cuisine, in part, as college students, despite Bhogal being a second-generation, London-based chef-author, and Kumar having returned to India after living and studying in Britain.[11] Conversely, Cyrus Todiwala and Vivek Singh, despite both immigrating to Britain after established careers as chefs in India, had very different experiences of entering the British restaurant scene—Singh was able to quickly create a niche for Indian or Indian inspired fine-dining in his Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen restaurants (and later books), while Todiwala struggled to find the support needed to sustain, Café Spice Namaste, and the non-traditional experience of Indian food it offered.[12] Customers, he noted, were often uninterested in Indian food that was not, for instance, served by recognizably ‘Indian’ waiters (think shalwar kameez, darker skin, and poorer English language skills) or within a restaurant decorated in gaudy red wallpaper or cheap furniture.[13] Either chef’s experience of cooking and serving South Asian cuisine was, thus, highly different, despite many similarities in their background, credentials, and market.

‘Cultures,’ do not mix if they simply consume.

Ethnic or cultural differences are rarely eroded by this synchronicity. Ethnicity’s resilience in the face of cultural-mixing is what enables it to function. South Asian cuisine in Britain is ample proof of this.  Multiculturalisms allure of a smooth, universal process of mixing accounts for neither the fractured, irregularity of intercultural interactions nor ‘ethnicity’s’ ability to resist this ‘smoothing’ process. If ‘multiculturalisms’ reflects multiplicity, then fracturing the term into ‘multi-culturalisms’ further recognizes those ‘gritty’ realities of cultural-mixing that are otherwise removed from its comestible versions.

British-Asian chef-authors’ work provides both theoretical and practical solutions for reviving ‘multiculturalism.’ In place of the reductive ‘curry’, authors like Zainab Jagot Ahmed, Vicky Bhogal, Prasenjeet Kumar, Cyrus Todiwala, and Vivek Singh, write about a diversity of migrant autobiographies and foods that reflects their own multi-cultural milieux. In doing so, they challenge multi-culturalism’s self-imposed boundaries—no policy nor practice can ever hope to represent cultural-mixing in Britain without acknowledging the variety of cultures within any ‘nation’.

‘Cultures,’ do not mix if they simply consume. Eating ethnic Others is not intercultural interaction, but an unappetizing reminder of the perils of mass production. In addition to representing their authors’ experiences of multi-culturalisms within and between Asia and Britain, these authors’ cookbooks engage readers in dialogues that re-imagine the past with the ingredients of the present. The dishes produced are new cultural practices that recognize the dynamism of contemporary Asias as they incorporate readers’ own British contexts. By so affecting multiple, varied, and synchronous practices of cultural-mixing, these cookbooks counter their commodification into edible, ‘migrant-less’ form.

Their recipe for resolving limits of ‘multiculturalism’ is pure and simple. Multi-culturalisms are already at work in Britain, in these migrant authors, and in their cookbooks. We need only release them from their pages by recognizing that the British Asian cookbook—and, with it, curry—is tastier than we think.

 

Footnotes:

[1] David Cameron in Huma Yusuf, The Threat to British Curry, 2013.

[2] Key Note. 2013. Oct. Ethnic Foods Market Report Plus 2013. Rep. Key Note. Ed. by Tutt, L. Web. 24 Apr. 2014; Mridula Baljekar, Interview. Feb. 22, 2014.

[3] The word ‘recipe’ derives from the Latin, ‘recipere,’ meaning ‘to exchange.’

[4] Susan J. Kalcik. 1984. “Ethnic foodways in America: symbol and the performance of identity.” Ethnic and regional foodways in the United States: The performance of group identity. 37.

[5] Avtar Brah. 1996. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London, UK: Routledge.

[6] Elizabeth Collingham. 2005. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. London, UK: Chatto and Windus. 1-336.

[7] Etymologically, the term ‘exotic’ often used to describe foreign foods or cultures, has a further level of demarcation built into it—it stems from the Greek, ‘exo,’ meaning ‘outside.’

[8] Pierre L. Van Den Berghe. 1984. “Ethnic Cuisine: Culture in Nature.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 7(3): 393.

[9] Ghassan J. Hage. 1997. “At Home in the Entrails of the West: Multiculturalism, Ethnic Food, and Migrant Home-Building.” Home/World: Space, Community, and Marginality in Sydney’s West. Ed. Grace, H., Hage, G., Johnson, L., Langsworth, J., and Symonds, M. Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press. 119-131.

[10] Iain Cook, et. al. 2008. “Geographies of Food: Mixing.” Progress in Human Geography 32 (4): 1-13.

[11] Vicky Bhogal, Interview. Mar. 19, 2014

[12] Vivek Singh, Interview. Feb. 11, 2014

[13] Cyrus Todiwala, Interview. Mar. 19, 2014

 

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