Spices, colonies and migration
The establishment of trading companies and bases and the European colonisation of countries in Asia and the Americas was driven initially by the desire for spices. These precious commodities enhanced the foods and pleased the palates of Europeans back home.
Commanding high prices, they could also be exchanged for other goods. Between the 1490s and the early 1700s, chilli from the Caribbean, pepper and cinnamon from South India and Sri Lanka, and nutmeg, mace and cloves from South East Asia (what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) were jealously fought over by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and French. The colonies they established and exploited developed close ties with Europe and the new world of the Americas, not only through trade, but through political and administrative connections, missionary activities and cultural exchange. It was these same colonial territories that were to provide flows of migrant workers in the 20th century, for shipping, the armed forces, factories, transport, healthcare and restaurants.
The story of Britain’s favourite dish
The number of Indian restaurants and take-aways, cookbooks, jars of curry sauce, pickles and spices to be found on supermarket shelves are evidence of the importance of curry to British cultural life. The image lives on in national folk-memory of male drunks going for a curry after pub closing time, and abusing staff whilst ordering the hottest meal on the menu (vindaloo). Although this troubling image shows native British people’s readiness to cross a cultural boundary and to eat someone else’s food, it is also a reminder that food – in common with other aspects of culture – can be a vehicle for displays of aggression and racism. To these “lager louts” conquering a vindaloo was like beating Asian migrants at their own game. Comedians from the 1990s series, Goodness Gracious Me, successfully exposed the overt racism and pent-up tension as well as the humour in such situations in their sketch “Going for an English”.
Using the example of how he came to like coriander after once thinking it tasted soapy, the researcher Ben Highmore argues that food can work on us over time. It can teach us to appreciate it. Foods that once seemed foreign and unappetising, even disgusting, can become enjoyable. But can eating migrant foods, in restaurants run by diasporic communities affect our taste and even change our minds, opening us up to new experiences and relationships?
According to Sophia Ahmed, British supermarkets claim to sell more than 18 tonnes of chicken tikka masala each week, with over 23 million portions sold in restaurants annually:
"Chicken tikka masala can be seen as a metaphor for the BrAsian experience. Had it not been for colonisation and migration South Asian foods such as tandoori chicken would not have arrived on Britain’s shores. Similarly, had it not been for the British experience there would have been no gravy (masala) with our chicken today. In other words chicken tikka masala… exists only because of the fusion of these cultural experiences and as a consequence is now eaten both in Britain and throughout South Asia.”
Spices connect Britain to its colonial past. Today they have a central place in popular food culture. They contribute to British identity and to people’s intercultural experiences.
The pizza effect
The metaphor of the pizza has been used to explore the process by which culture has circled the globe and been exchanged between groups in different locations. In his discussion of the movement of Hindu ideas and practices between East Africa and India, Agehananda Bharati adopted the concept of the ‘pizza effect’ to convey the sense that migrant culture is dynamic. It changes to suit new contexts, and, when it is returns ‘home’, it is not the same culture that left home in the first place, as the example of the pizza shows.
“The original pizza was a simple, hot-baked bread without any trimmings, the staple of the Calabrian and Sicilian contadini from whom well over 90% of all Italo-Americans descend. After World War I, a highly elaborated dish, the U.S. pizza of many sizes, flavours and hues, made its way back to Italy with visiting kinsfolk from America. The term and the object have acquired a new meaning and a new status, as well as many new tastes in the land of its origin, not only in the south, but throughout the length and width of Italy.” Agehananda Bharati