Make mine a 'full Muslim'

June 29, 2007

On the eve of a conference on identities, we take a look at the evolving cuisine of British Asians, the rise of Scouse and handwriting analysis

Panikos Panayi examines the changing food patterns among migrant Asians

In 1825 the French food writer and philosopher Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin coined one of the most enduring and pertinent catchphrases about the significance of eating patterns: "Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are." Yet, despite the media's widespread use of the words, "You are what you eat," academic research has ignored how central food is to the development of identities in Britain. This is particularly true when it comes to the study of migrants.

This academic neglect is a shame because South Asian food patterns in recent British history offer a valuable reflection of the relationship between migrant communities and society, demonstrating the way constructed ethnicities emerge, particularly among second and subsequent generations.

Indeed, the very concept of "Asian" ethnicity in recent British history is artificial. The idea involves unifying diverse geographical and religious groups, which traditionally have distinct food patterns. These groups originate from geographical backgrounds ranging from predominantly Muslim Kashmir in the north to multi-religious Sri Lanka in the south but also incorporating people who moved to Britain via Africa. Each of the various religious minorities from these different parts of the globe - especially Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims - have religious restrictions on their consumption patterns.

Nevertheless, the relative similarity of some of the products these different communities eat - above all spices - has allowed the development of "Asian" food businesses in Britain - firms such as Noon Products, Natco, Pathaks, Geetas and, for rice, Tilda. Subsequently, some of these firms, especially Pathaks and Tilda, have moved into the supermarkets frequented by people of all ethnic backgrounds.

This does not mean that South Asians in Britain have always eaten the products they consumed in their places of origin. The process of migration has always involved adapting to the local environment. Food consumption patterns among Asians in Britain demonstrate much about the way postwar Asian identities have changed.

The first arrivals of the 1950s had problems finding their traditional products and therefore had to make compromises, especially if they wanted to continue their diet according to religious restrictions. Halal-eating Muslims who wished to continue conforming to religious rituals had three options: first, they could resort to vegetarianism; secondly, they could eat kosher meat, slaughtered in a similar way to halal and permissible under Islamic law; or, thirdly, they could slaughter chickens themselves while reciting relevant prayers.

By the 1970s, the growth of South Asian communities meant that migrants could increasingly return to traditional dietary patterns. Local markets had emerged offering a wide variety of products in cities such as Leicester, with a predominantly Hindu Gujarati community, or Bradford, with a predominantly Muslim Pakistani population. Similar local concentrations of particular communities emerged in other cities in the North and the Midlands, as well as in parts of London. While meat consumption distinguished different South Asian groups, spices and vegetables tended to unify them, and it was this that gave rise to the national South Asian food market.

Increasingly, though, migrants, and especially their descendants, have consumed food eaten by the ethnic majority. A series of recent cookbooks written by women of Asian heritage born in Britain have outlined this change. Vicky Bhogal, a Sikh Punjabi by religious and geographical origin respectively, who describes herself as a "British Asian", writes primarily for other "British Asians" and focuses specifically on "the food we British Asians have grown up eating". This includes "the variants on English foods our parents invented to make use of the ingredients readily available at the local supermarket". Her recipes include "fingerlicking potato wedges", "maharajah's mash", "baked beans with spring onion sabji" and "masala burgers". Meanwhile, some British Muslims have developed an interesting way of adhering to the restrictions of Ramadan. While they do not consume any food during daylight hours, a pattern has developed of eating a "full Muslim", a halal-meat full English breakfast, consumed in the morning to sustain those carrying out the traditional daytime fast. Food such as masala burgers and "the full Muslim" point to the complex hybrid identities that South Asians have developed in Britain since the first migrants moved to the country during the 1950s.

Half a century on, although migration continues, the various communities have now reached the second and third generation. The process of adaptation and acculturation over time has inevitably incorporated the practices of the ethnic majority. In fact, the early arrivals had no choice but to adapt because of the absence of communities from their own places of origin.

Applying Brillat-Savarin's aphorism to a contemporary South Asian British diet would point to individuals who have emerged as a result of interaction between two distinct geographical areas of the world, as well as from varied religious outlooks. The concept of the "full Muslim" breakfast may be ironic, but it sums up this complexity and process of adaptation.

Panikos Panayi is professor of European History at De Montfort University.

His book Spicing Up British Life: The Multiculturalization of Food will be published by Reaktion Books in spring 2008.

Panayi, together with Pete Atkinson and Jane Caplan, will be speaking at the Institute of Historical Research's Anglo-American Conference of Historians: Identities: National, Regional and Personal , which takes place at Senate House, University of London, Malet Street,London WC1, July 4-6.

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