Featured Illustration: Julia Wytrazek
As soon as you step foot into an Indian restaurant, your nose will be hit with the scent of spicy masala and notes of turmeric that gently lifts you up and takes you 11, 645 kilometers across the ocean to the motherland of spices. The phrase “Going out for an Indian” has become a common statement in contemporary Western society, and ‘Indian cuisine’ often encompasses a wide range of South Asian cuisine, from Bangladeshi to Sri Lankan foods.
In 2001, Robin Cook, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care of the United Kingdom, declared chicken tikka masala to be “a true British national dish.” For reference, chicken tikka masala is a South Asian curry dish consisting of chunks of chicken soaking in a spicy reddish-orange (depending on spice levels) sauce, usually eaten alongside a portion of a whole carb, like naan or rice. Although Cook’s declaration may seem like a step towards fostering a more inclusive society, I can’t help but notice the obvious irony of the coexistence of a South Asian curry as a country’s national dish, while the majority of the population in that same country have voted in favor of a discriminatory referendum.
Since the 16th century, the British empire has been profiting off of the material and natural goods found in the Indian subcontinent. Locals in Northeastern India would often infuse tea into dishes and use it for pickling processes. The British government decided to set up tea plantations across India, and in parts of Sri Lanka, which were then exported to Britain for economic gain. Recognizing the history of Britain profiting off of South Asian resources and cuisine is important when realizing the impact Indian cuisine has had on contemporary Britain. Rather than embracing the culture behind South Asian foods, these sacred practices are stripped heavily and reduced to simply being yet another profit margin for the British state.
The history of South Asian cuisine in the United Kingdom stems back to the first fully Indian restaurant founded by Sake Dean Mahomed in 1810, and known as the Hind0ostane Coffee House. In an attempt to introduce a small portion of the British population to the vast range of spices and herbs offered through Indian cuisine, the ex-soldier set his shop in Portman Square, London and established what is now known as Britain’s first curry house. Subtle hints of colonial influence can be demonstrated through the vaguely stereotypical depiction of Indian cuisine seen at Mahomed’s restaurant. Ben Highmore described the food and aesthetic of the Hindoostane Coffee House as an “imperial imaginary,” and it can be presumed that the authentic culture of the Indian subcontinent was heavily stripped to appease the colonial vision. As the 1930’s approached, the South Asian diaspora within Britain expanded as immigrant workers assisted with the rebuilding of the Blitz. Rather than honoring traditional cultural practices, curry houses were catered towards a British audience, and typically included features such as “waiters in dinner jackets, red flock wallpaper and crisp white table linen.” The amount of South Asian restaurants in Britain has steadily increased since the 1930’s, and in contemporary society there are around 8500 restaurants in the United Kingdom.
Author, Humna Rub’s study, Chicken Tikka Masala Multiculturalism: The United Kingdom’s Continuation of Past Colonial Practices, questions the genuineness of chicken tikka multiculturalism, “Chicken tikka masala remains to be one of the most popular dishes in Britain. Most Britons believe that it is an important staple into their diets, but does this prove that the UK is a welcoming country for migrants?”. From being paid inadequate living wages to being told the scent of Indian food is “foul,” the situation for South Asian immigrants in Britain has not become much better, it’s simply become more hidden. Continuous reports of census data for Britain states that South Asian or Afro-Caribbean Commonwealth nations, make up the majority of non-white immigrants in United Kingdom, with the most represented group being India. Despite making up a large portion of the contemporary British population, the South Asian diaspora continue to face discrimination and micro-aggressive behaviours on a daily basis.
Although the proclamation of chicken tikka masala as Britain’s national dish may seem like something to be commended, the authenticity of this decision comes into question when remembering Britain’s colonial past and post-colonial attitudes. Chicken tikka masala is a delightful dish with a rich culture, so I wouldn’t blame Robin Cook for wanting to claim it as “a true British national dish.” The problem lies when you take into consideration the everlasting colonial impacts of the British empire and the continuous economic exploitation of South Asian immigrants and their respective cultures. Chicken tikka masala cannot be used as a bandage to neatly conceal the long history of racism and discrimination towards immigrants, nor can it conceal the vast amount of resources and material goods that were stripped from South Asian countries.
So, the next time you indulge in your favourite Indian takeaway, rather than hastily looking for a cold glass of milk to wash down the spiciness from your preferred curry, take a moment to recognize the rich culture of the Indian subcontinent, and appreciate the Hindoostane Coffee House for revolutionizing Indian takeaway into what it is today.