Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food

If we are what we eat, then the UK is a mutable feast of cultural diversity, says Jeremy MacClancy

June 19, 2008

For academics, striving to define a national cuisine is like catching a gnat. The pursuit might be all well and good, but the chance of success is sub-zero. National identities are not fixed, like pinned butterflies against a panel, but dynamic, multiple, contested, negotiated. The speed of this change was shown by a recent survey that claimed that the majority of British youth think haslet is a Morris dancer's waistcoat and laver bread the culinary transformation of a volcanic byproduct.

The important question here is, who is defining a national cuisine, when, for what reasons, to what effect? Robin Cook wasn't being politically innocent when, in 2001, as Foreign Secretary, he told the House of Commons, "Chicken tikka masala is now Britain's true national dish."

Panikos Panayi is too well aware of the dangers of prescriptive definition to rush to judgment. Instead he searches cookbooks for the first references to and evolution of a marked "British" cuisine. It's a new idea, he states. Mrs Beeton just wrote up recipes and left their supposed nationality unmentioned. Only in the postwar period did some white British chefs begin to worry about the identity of their dishes. Even though this tired flag-waving over stoves was a rearguard reaction to the rising popularity of foods from former colonies, Panayi contextualises this nationalistic process well. But you can smell that his heart is not really in it.

The story that Panayi, the son of a Greek Cypriot baker immigrant, truly wants to tell is that food in the UK was never exclusively Anglo-Saxon. To many, this is not news. What makes Panayi's book distinctive and valuable is that he demonstrates his central point by examining diverse dimensions of Britain's food supply and catering business over the past 150 years: Bengali chutney-makers, German importers, Jewish bakers, Italian ice-cream vendors, Chinese restaurant owners, French chefs, continental waiters and so on.

Panayi does not fall into the trap of over-easy ethnic generalisation. To the extent that he can, he carefully distinguishes between the class sections of each group. A Yiddish-speaking vendor in Petticoat Lane did not eat the same as a Rothschild, most of the time.

Migrants' restaurants played at least a double role: multiculturalising Brits by introducing them to foreign foods, and at the same time strengthening ethnic bonds by providing a place where members of the same group could congregate and eat together.

Of course a book of this nature is bound to provide multiple ironies, where any idea of culinary purity can be both propped up and undercut by the mundane surrealities of a cross-cultural marketplace.

For instance, the menu of a fast-food outlet might seem quintessentially American but it usually includes Jewish, Cypriot and British dishes as well. Hybrids abound: "the Chinese chippy", offering fish and chips as well as Chinese takeaway dishes; "the full Muslim", a full English breakfast minus the pork.

More than 50 years ago, Elizabeth David stated that olives, apricots, rice, lemons and almonds were "dirty words" to her compatriots. As Panayi demonstrates in the most striking, depressing comment in his book, these ignorant attitudes are still maintained in certain redoubts. When a press release in which he requested information about the non-British origin of fish-and-chip shops was unexpectedly made global by the media, his name appeared on a UK neo-Nazi website, under the heading "Know Your Enemy".

If Panayi has an agenda, it is to wake up ignorant Brits, to make them realise how central immigrants have been to the development of the UK's economy and culture in the last century and a half. In this sense he is using food as an easy, non-trivial way of getting that key point across. And, as the son of a Maltese mother, how could I object? Kedgeree, anybody?

Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food

By Panikos Panayi
ISBN 9781861893734
Published 1 March 2008

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