Some of my pre-occupations with the relationships between food and identity started because one day I realised, from talking to India-based foodie friends that in India, these days it’s all about the Italian and the Thai and the Chinese and the Estonian food, but here in the UK, entire families who have never set foot in the ‘pind’ (Punjabi/Urdu for Home with a capital H – that idealised unchanging notion of a homeland of origin) sit down to dal-chawal-roti day after day. Southall and Wembley feel and ‘smell’ more ‘Indian’ than India, to me – at least if we’re talking of the potent cocktail of South Asian music and spices and clothes and languages all around – and yet they’re no preparation for the ways in which India hit me in the face on my last visit after a three-year gap. I have some observations and theories as to why.
I grew up in India and my parents haven’t blinked at an English boyfriend or a Tamil one (I eventually married a British man of Italian origin) – funnily, the comforting Bengali food of my childhood was an equally total revelation to all of them. But I watched in confusion as my Harrow-born-and-brought-up friends had to sneak away from their parents to eat carnitas in central London with their unsuitable-because-from-a-slightly-different-subsection-of-the-same-community boyfriends. What on earth was going on with these paradoxes? Surely, travel, and migration, and multiculturalism, broadens horizons, and surely we’ve all been repeatedly told that we in the East should aspire to being like the ‘West’ if we wanted to break free from stultifying tradition?
It turns out, things aren’t quite so simple, nor so unchanging as that. After a while, kasundi – a spicy mustard-based relish, without a bottle of which no self-respecting Bengali family considers its pantry complete – made with the very English Colman’s mustard becomes the ‘new authentic’. After a suitable while, this once-unthinkable hyphenated hybrid becomes simply ‘the authentic’, because that’s what is available, and has become familiar; a new generation then holds fiercely on to that particular marker of authenticity.
I don’t think that, in and of itself, kasundi made with mustard harvested from Indian farmlands is intrinsically ‘better’ than the one made with English mustard and imported mustard oil, although I do think they are different. But it is the anxiety towards authenticity, migrant and diaspora communities’ desperate desire to be the same as what they think they remember leaving behind, that necessitates these value judgements, which makes ‘different’ a synonym for ‘inferior’ or ‘bad’.
The truth is, there’s no such thing as ‘just food’. At a military level, food blockades have brought kingdoms and countries to their knees, whilst at a socio-economic level, food shortages have wiped out entire communities and generations, and caused riots and rebellions
This food metonym holds within it some serious implications for personal and community identity, with additional gendered connotations for women. But it’s just food, you might think. The truth is, there’s no such thing as ‘just food’. At a military level, food blockades have brought kingdoms and countries to their knees, whilst at a socio-economic level, food shortages have wiped out entire communities and generations, and caused riots and rebellions. At a less fraught level, in peaceable times of plenty, food is used as a vehicle of expressing or withholding love, or saying things that are difficult to put into words. At the most primal level, food is also memory. Which one of us doesn’t have a favourite childhood food, or a food-based memory of a beloved parent or grandparent? Each one of us knows for a fact that our mother or grandmother or aunt had the best, the only, recipe, whether for making a kebab or a pickle.
Quite apart from sustenance, food and emotion, and therefore memory, are thus conjoined inseparably. When distances – both spatial and temporal – intercede between those memories and experiences, the present and the past both colour, and change, each other. The past gets magnified; its little imperfections forgotten, its sweetness highlighted. Many a city child of my generation (I’m a millennial) can be heard to talk fondly of picking fruit from grandparents’ gardens during still, hot, summer afternoons in a way that makes it sound that all of India still lives in a rural idyll. The present, by contrast, becomes dull and workaday.
These memories, when shared by a community of people, acquire a weight, a value that transforms collective memory into heritage; something to be preserved from decay or what is seen as much the same thing, adulteration. Women have traditionally been the custodians of domestic (oral) food histories, traditions and recipes. As people – individuals as well as communities – have moved away from their sites of origin, and especially when they’ve gone abroad, this culinary knowledge has transmuted itself into ‘culture’, and women have unwittingly been written into the roles of its custodians; locked into rigid roles by the expectations of both the ethnic community and the host community. (My short-haired, traditional English-roast-dinner cooking self has often been excoriated for having sold out; assimilated too hard: my relationship with my roots having been ‘proven’ visibly inadequate for not sticking to the assigned parameters. This is a story I’ll return to later.)
Once moved away from its roots, culture – edible or otherwise – no longer remains a spontaneously evolving, contradictory thing. In an attempt to distinguish itself from the flurry of alternative visions eddying around it, nuances are lost. Certain foods or ingredients – apple pie for America, curry for India – become metonyms for an entire nation; complex people reduced to mere figureheads. And yet, the delicious irony is that most of these ingredients are either imports, or have metamorphosed over time into entities completely disparate to their origins – just as people have done, and continue to do.