Chicken tikka masala is one of the most popular dishes in the United Kingdom. Legend has it that Pakistani chef Ali Ahmed Aslam of the Shish Mahal restaurant in West Glasgow, Scotland created the dish. He improvised what was to hand, adding tomato sauce to a chicken curry to give it a bit of a kick. It was a success, its legacy has hung over British culinary tastes for years to come.
Realistically speaking, the dish was probably created in London by Bangladeshi chefs to also cater to white British palettes. Nonetheless, the UK’s relationship with South Asian food is difficult, complex and imbued with power relations.
The British “curry house” is a staple of takeaway culture. It’s one of around three core food eateries you can find in any given town, along with a “Chinese” and a “chip shop”. It’s a familiar part of the British landscape. In some areas of the UK such as Wales, you’re able to ask for “half and half”, a dish that’s half white basmati rice and half fried chip. The ubiquitous menu, dishes that haunt diasporic South Asian food, encompasses North Indian delicacies catered to a particular market: one that’s white and British.
The curry house is synonymous with a culture of largely white, cisgender men; it fits into ideas of British masculinity. Curry and football go together in the United Kingdom. It’s a dish that every “standard” South Asian restaurant will make, along with naan breads and “half and half” . The curry house has affected attitudes towards this cuisine. There’s an expectation to encounter a set of dishes that have been altered for different tastes: dhansaks, biriyanis, kormas, jalfrezis and poppadoms. It’s pan-South Asian food, or more accurately north Indian food marketed to white British groups. Cultural attitudes are vastly different to the consumption of South Asian takeaways, some geared towards white British attitudes and others to predominantly people of colour. It’s even evident through the presence or non-presence of alcohol in restaurants, as Muslim owned South Asian restaurants won’t serve alcohol or allow the consumption of alcohol. On the other hand, restaurants not catering to these groups will allow alcohol and therefore encounter less POC attending.
In the wake of the curry house has been the gentrification and erasure around South Asian food. It’s a long distance from what many people eat day in, day out. Differing attitudes to food allow an integral part of culture be stripped away from its context for a new audience. It happens through hipster food fads, boutique restaurants for affluent millennials. A greater access to disposable income amongst white groups (who are less likely to live in poverty) means that this market will only become larger. The boom coincides with displacement of POC from their communities through gentrification of urban areas, where POC are more likely to live.
The current conceptualization of “South Asian food” is imbued and weighed down by heavily stereotypical North Indian-centric forms of food. South Asian food, as a term, ignores the huge diverse body of the diaspora across the world and their different cuisines. It’s an idea that’s closely linked to the UK’s history of colonisation in South Asia and across the world.
The relationship it shares with the British public is weaved with postcolonial connotations and fetishisation. There is a chain of restaurants, Dishoom, that “pay homage to the Irani cafés that were once part of the fabric of life in Bombay”. Its three chains are decorated with colonial memorabilia featuring “ALL CASTES WELCOME” and kitsch framed photographs of Indian performers.
There has also been an increasing focus on vegetarian food and street food. The pick-up of vegetarian food from South Asia has been huge. We all know that one vegetarian who “digs” saag paneer. Vegetarian cuisine is now heavily relying on South Asian food, especially in the UK, falling under the coercive guise of new groups. There’s a heavy attachment to what is and isn’t deemed as too ethnic.
The nostalgia fetish is one that’s been kicking around the UK for quite some time. The monarchy is still a public presence, with a recent renewed interest in the royal family. Kitsch memorabilia relating to World War Two has become popular, a throwback to the “good old days of Blighty”. It’s a subtle backlash towards modern changes in population and society, such as a larger presence of POC. The consumption of images and culture around this time hark back to the colonial times.
It’s ironic: the British public has been sold discussions of equality, anti-racism and progression around minority groups, yet many choose to dine in a restaurant dripping with imagery of the largest colonial territory of the British Empire while the UK is home to one of the largest South Asian diaspora in the world.
And it sells in areas like Kings Cross, where Indian restaurant Dishoom had one of their restaurant chains. It’s less than 15 minutes walk away from Euston’s Drummond Street, one of the oldest streets of Indian food in the country. The street is filled with charmingly named places like the Ravi Shankar Bhelpuri House, Ravi Kebab and many more, along with grocery shops and sweet shops. Drummond Street is currently under threat, as the government seeks to build the High Speed (HS) Railway 2 and demolish the street to expand Euston train station. The irony is bittersweet; Dishoom not only cashes in on the gentrification of Euston and central London, but that of Drummond’s Street almost imminent closure by providing similar food in a British colonial style decor for slightly higher prices.
In Wales, one in four people lives in poverty. Across the country, people of colour are more likely to live in poverty, with working class women of colour experiencing triple discrimination around race, class and gender. As access lessens to traditional ways of buying ethnic groceries, gentrification comes into POC areas and puts up rent prices for shops and for houses. Its knock on effect is huge at a time when “South Asian” food experiences a renaissance and British public house chains incorporate curry, onion bhajis and even pakoras onto their menu. There’s a lot of money in South Asian food right now, but as the UK changes I’m not sure who actually is making that money.
Author: Yasmin Begum
Yasmin Begum is passionate about food and politics, she also enjoys reading and writing.