Curry company: How food brings people of the subcontinent together in the UK

Food can function as an anti-racism tool, believes anthropologist Ishaan Patil.

Published : Feb 27, 2023 15:54 IST

People queueing up outside an Indian restaurant for lunch in central London, UK, in April, 2022.

People queueing up outside an Indian restaurant for lunch in central London, UK, in April, 2022. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

“When I migrated from India to the UK, everyone was giving me foodstuff to give to their friends and relatives,” says researcher Ishaan Patil, who arrived in the UK just before the 2020 lockdown to do a Master’s in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Kent. “It was a mix of things like ‘grandmother’s special pickle’ along with ingredients like specific chilli powders, or homemade garam masalas—and also other things that are difficult to get hold of here, like dried fish. I started thinking about how everyone I knew who was coming from India was in the same situation, bringing all these foods and ingredients to connect with home.”

The topic became a focus of his research work. “I wasn’t intending to work on food, necessarily, but because my course was so wide, I wanted to bring it all together,” he explains. “I was reading about the importance of marketplaces, and the relationships and cultural exchanges that happen there. That really spoke to me, because I’d also been talking to people who’d already moved to the UK, who told me about the particular food markets and shops where I could pick up particular things. So there was a natural transition to food.”

Ishaan Patil.

Ishaan Patil. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

As part of his project, Patil produced a series of graphic illustrations to communicate his research into food markets in the UK, and the way these are used by people from the Indian subcontinent. “I’m very interested in science communication using art, and that’s always been a big part of my work. I want the things I work on to be accessible and fun to read.”

Fifty years of Indian cooking

“Indian” cooking and eating in the UK has changed dramatically since Madhur Jaffrey published An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973. These days, budget mainstream supermarket chains in the UK sell ginger, green coriander, coconut milk, and chillies as a matter of course while slightly (but only slightly) more expensive ones sell fresh curry leaves and paneer and a huge range of spices. In larger cities, there are plenty of shops run by people from all over the subcontinent, selling different dals and frozen parathas.

It is also possible either to eat out in extremely good, imaginative restaurants, often quite expensively, or, at least in London, in branches of Saravana Bhavan and other small chains focussing on South Indian vegetarian food. Many of these do remarkably good delivery food too. And there is a boom in cookery books either focussing specifically on the food of the subcontinent or drawing on it; while people looking for a supermarket-ready meal can eat inoffensively, if unremarkably, from the cook-chill cabinet.

This is very different from the days when home-made “curry” in the UK usually meant reheated roast meat and raisins in a greenish “curry sauce”, flavoured with a peculiarly nasty “curry powder” —a rehydrated, dried product. Yet, it is also true that the experience of many people in the UK is still of “curry houses” where they order off an interchangeable menu (possibly with a competition over who can order the “hottest” item), and of jars of readymade “curry sauce”.

The “chicken tikka masala”, which is apparently the “top UK national dish”, is almost as inauthentic as “balti” (an entirely fabricated type of curry). In smaller towns, a reasonable subcontinental meal—or the ingredients for one—can be a hit-and-miss affair; even in the larger ones, food from areas like Maharashtra or Goa is not easy to come by.

And alongside this, there are people who have recently or less recently moved to the UK, who revive and adapt the food they grew up eating, passing it on to their children who adapt it in turn to their circumstances.

Journeys and adaptation

Initially, Patil focused his research into changing food habits by looking at fish and seafood. “I wanted to find something that was common in different cultures. I’d come from Mumbai, and my family comes from Goa and coastal Maharashtra, where seafood is hugely important—many of my friends are also from coastal areas of India. And from the outside, at least, the UK is perceived as being all about fish and chips.” (The average fish intake in the UK is in fact below government recommended levels, but fish and chips is certainly up there with chicken tikka masala as a convenient national takeaway food.)

He looked first at how frequently the respondents to his surveys ate fish and seafood before and after coming to the UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those for whom fish had been an integral part of their diet found that they were eating it less after migrating, mainly because they could not get hold of the types they were used to.

An illustration from Ishaan Patil’s essay, “Confronting Xenophobia Through Food—and Comics” (October 2022)“.

An illustration from Ishaan Patil’s essay, “Confronting Xenophobia Through Food—and Comics” (October 2022)“. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

This, in turn, led to two things: “People started adapting to what they could get here—using masalas on cod and haddock; not losing touch with Indian culture, but adapting it, and feeling at home. At the same time, they were seeking out speciality markets and stores which imported food from India.”

Mothers, markets and migrants

Patil describes women and mothers as the “cultural brokers” in this. “They are the ones who usually shop and cook; they wanted their kids to taste the food of home and at the same timethey were the ones trying out new things. Young people go to school, they’re more experimental, and they experience peer pressure to try other things; and mothers wanted to cook things their children would like, so they were the ones taking more risks. Other researchers have found similar results.”

A parallel cultural exchange went on betweenpeople from different parts of the subcontinent, because it was simply not possible to keep up some of the dividing lines of “home”.

“When you go to markets like the ones I studied, you’re talking to people not just from India, but also from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Despite the whole history of war and strife, and people’s unwillingness to be associated across those divides, cultural identities were being strengthened by bringing everyone together. That really fascinated me; we talk about the separations of south Asian identity, but at the end of the day everyone was coming together in the same places and all these interactions were happening, irrespective of where the people were coming from,” says Patil.

An illustration from Ishaan Patil’s essay, “Confronting Xenophobia Through Food—and Comics” (October 2022)“.

An illustration from Ishaan Patil’s essay, “Confronting Xenophobia Through Food—and Comics” (October 2022)“. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

And leading on from this, Patil feels strongly that food—and all that is associated with it—can function as an anti-racism tool, because of the role it plays in preserving a strong identity and presence.

“Billingsgate fish market in east London imports seafood straight from India, and community members would make the effort to go and buy in bulk, kingfish, Indian mackerel and so on, and distribute to others. It’s a very important way of maintaining culture, especially in areas which don’t have large communities and the shops to serve them. That act of going out of your way, cooking for your kinds and passing it down to your kids, is a form of cultural preservation,” he says.

Even the curry houses, which almost all his respondents dismissed, have an important part to play in this, he argues. “They are very visible, and they’re maintained by immigrants. This, to me, is an active act of anti-racism.”

Eating out

Slightly under half of the people Patil surveyed said that they would go out to eat at an “Indian” restaurant in the UK. “Those who didn’t, felt that a lot of “curry-houses” are owned by Bangladeshis, and turn out food that isn’t from, say, Goa or coastal Maharashtra. Of those who did, I think, that’s because changes in the way people cook and eat at home mean that they go out if they want something a bit special, even if it’s not exactly traditional Indian food.”

An illustration from Ishaan Patil’s essay, “Confronting Xenophobia Through Food—and Comics” (October 2022)“.

An illustration from Ishaan Patil’s essay, “Confronting Xenophobia Through Food—and Comics” (October 2022)“. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The exception was the high-end restaurants which either produce very good traditional Indian food, or inventive cooking based on the traditions of the subcontinent.

“Migrant” issue

Patil was conducting this research at a time when the “migrant” issue had resurfaced as a major political topic in the UK (it is even more so now, although the mooted policy of deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda has not yet, at the time of writing, been put into practice): and he flags up the divide between “good migrants” (for instance, those fleeing the war in Ukraine) and “bad migrants” (especially those who have crossed the English Channel in little boats).

“I think people don’t always make the connections between migration and the flow of culture, including food. I was doing this work at a time of stark contrast: ‘taking pride in curry’ and ‘chicken tikka is the national dish’ on the one hand, and ‘we don’t want you here’ on the other,” he says.

Kitchen confidential

Today, Patil is a researcher working on food security and policy, cultural aspects of food sovereignty and related projects at James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland. Over the past three to five years, he says, his own feelings and food practices have changed a lot, mainly as a result of his work. “I used to eat meat and seafood, and now I’m almost completely vegan. That has been influenced by the nature of the work I do, environmentally and ecologically. I’m now much more conscious of eating food that’s grown locally and so on. I think finding local ingredients also connects you to the culture.”

Alongside this, he has maintained his interest in art, and uses graphics to demonstrate his research into marketplaces. “I enjoy the academic work, but it’s not always the most accessible. I want to be able to reach out to more people and for them to read and understand more. A lot of this isn’t known,” Patil says. “History is a lot more colourful than people realise,” he concludes.

Radhika Holmström is a London-based journalist.

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