Curry, the great British tradition

May 9, 1997

Alison Utley discovers that the relationship between so-called exotic foods and domestic fare can tell us a lot about ourselves

In the new edition of her Complete Cookery Course Delia Smith found herself repeatedly deleting the words "if you can get it ...'' from recipes. The likelihood is that you can get it, whether it is French salakis feta, Spanish serrano ham or Japanese wasabi powder - just by wandering down to the local supermarket. Food has become so internationalised that today's consumers represent a kind of multiculturalism that is virtually subconscious.

Does this mean that so-called exotic and ethnic foods are no longer set up in opposition to alternatives labelled British; that Indian and Chinese dishes, for instance, are now integral to Britain's culinary mainstream? And what is the relationship between a food and the people it is associated with? Curries and poppadums may be accepted by the great supermarket public - but what about British Asians? The drunken youths spending a couple of hours at the local curry house before a spot of "Paki bashing'' is a depressingly familiar urban image.

Mark Thorpe, a geographer from University College London, is trying to make sense of food as a cultural artefact in the most intimate way he knows how. He is studying British households from the inside, spending time with families while they make shopping lists, go to the supermarket, prepare and cook their food. His selected group of households in Greater London is intended to be an indicator of modern food habits. For food is the hot topic of the 1990s, revealing much about contemporary lifestyles. To use the technical term, food is firmly in the arena of identity practice.

In order to deconstruct the weekly shop Dr Thorpe is interviewing his householders about how they make food choices, what food routines their families have developed and why. Recipe books will be scoured and geographical knowledge of the origins of different foods tested. "In many ways it is nonsensical to talk about pasta as an Italian food once the British eat it regularly,'' he says.

"Culinary neo-imperialism" is apparently widespread. It is illustrated by our insistence on the quintessential Englishness of a cup of tea, a product which reveals as much about Britain's imperial history as it does about global trading networks. Even fish and chips, thought of as such a British meal, can lay claim to a hybrid cultural history, a late 19th-century fusion of French styles of preparing potatoes and an East European Jewish tradition of frying fish.

The recent series of Homepride Cook-in curry sauce TV advertisements illustrates some of Thorpe's arguments. The viewer is taken in to the homes of British Asian families. Each of the fictional families is regionally placed - Birmingham, Newcastle, London, Glasgow - signalled by accentuated accents and caricature local phrases like "Curry and rice; top scran''. The message is "authentic flavours with a local British accent", according to the advertising agency.

This kind of cross-cultural fertilisation is frowned upon by those who regard themselves as true foodies. They are more likely to join the exploration of "different foods'' in a desire to find some kind of authentic, traditional lifestyle.

The new breed of television cookery series takes this line; witness Keith Floyd's quest for the genuine, global article. Such an approach is, according to Thorpe, the antithesis to the logic of contemporary living - in which traditional foods are unavoidably contaminated in a multicultural culinary world. What counts as ethnic food is complicated and confused and, like ethnic art, a construct. Curry, for instance, was developed by the British from a range of local masalas and ended up as a dish to be made by using the British invention, curry powder.

The ethnic food market in Britain is worth Pounds 1 billion a year with an annual growth of 19 per cent. Culinary culture positions individuals in the world and helps construct ideas of the world.

However, it does not follow, Thorpe stresses, that if someone does not like "foreign'' food then they do not like foreigners. Unfortunately - as Paki-bashers illustrate - nor is the reverse true.

* What Greater Londoners say about their relationship with food

I remember first arriving in Mexico where everything comes in this sort of brown bean mush ... and I remember seeing it and thinking 'God, I'm not going to eat that'. But at the end of it, one felt cheated if your breakfast or any meal turned up and there was no brown bean mush."

(Interviewee commenting upon the importance of travel in developing understanding of cuisines) "One of the good reasons I like Delia is because she's up and in there ... there's all these other wankers, Rhodes and you know Floyd and all of them. Famous chefs have always been men on the whole, but Elizabeth David was the key person in revolutionising the whole British thing about food."

(Interviewee taking about the role of women in the "new" growth of interest in food).

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