Food and Culture and Colonialism, Oh My!

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         My month abroad has been filled with food. All different kinds of foods, from traditional British foods, including blood sausage and Cornish pasty, to Moroccan, Jamaican, and Indian dishes. Through my Food and Culture in Great Britain course, I have gone on outings to different parts of London to learn how colonization and immigration shape food culture. Afternoon tea, a British tradition, have elements from various places of the world that Great Britain colonized. I also learned that Indian food is popular among the British, specifically chicken tikka masala. However, there is a history most people do not know about; similar to our learning experience in Notting Hill. I noticed that London’s food culture is multicultural and is constantly changing.

         I had the opportunity to experience a traditional afternoon tea at the Royal Garden Hotel. I walked into a fancy room with a pianist and floral centerpieces on the table. The server wore a black tie and walked around the table to place our napkins on our lap. I savored cucumber sandwiches as I stirred sugar cubes in my chai tea. Next, came the three-tiered serving tray with scones, sweet breads, and delicate desserts. I felt immersed in the culture; I felt British having a “cuppa.” I knew the importance of tea in London before I even visited the city, but I only recently learned that afternoon tea is composed of tea from China and sugar from the Caribbean. Both did not arrive in Great Britain until the 15th century, and afternoon tea did not become a tradition until the 17th century. All the while, I thought the concept of tea originated in England and had been occurring since the start of time.

Afternoon tea at the Royal Garden Hotel.

         Afternoon tea can be considered multicultural because of its products from other areas of the world. The British obtained tea with the help of their colonies in India. China needed opium, so Great Britain took it from India and traded it for tea. From our Notting Hill tour guide, Tony, I learned that they found sugar only after sailing to the Caribbean and colonizing those islands. I realized how afternoon tea is not solely a British experience. I also became aware why green tea is served at Chinese restaurants, something I was confused about growing up. Although the concept of afternoon tea with the sandwiches and sweets originated here, it is filled with a history of Great Britain oppressing their colonies for unique products and calling the cultures they combine their own.

         The most popular British dish has changed from fish and chips to chicken tikka masala because of Great Britain’s relations with India. On my walk to Foundation House, I can see Indian influences on British culture when I pass Indian restaurants. I also recently visited Brick Lane and Southall and saw the Indian immigrant communities. Indian restaurants dominated, but each area offered different kinds of food. Brick Lane had the stereotypical curry houses people in the study abroad group constantly wish for. Southall served foods with strong Hindu influences, so most of the dishes are vegetarian or consisted of halal meet. Indian food also became popularized when British soldiers attempted to replicate the dishes they ate while serving in India. Now, I can find samosas and other Indian snacks in grocery stores, like Sainsbury’s. London seems wonderfully diverse with its various Indian food influences, especially since there are different versions depending on the region.

Indian meal: chicken curry, naan bread, and rice.

         However, chicken tikka masala is not technically a traditional Indian dish. The “chicken tikka” part is, but the British added the “masala” to satisfy their desire for gravy on their meat. It is wonderful that the British welcomed Indian food to their meals and modified the dish to be milder to accommodate their palate, but racism still continues in areas heavily influenced by immigrants. There are British people who stumble into curry houses drunk late at night. They treat the servers with disrespect and mock the Indian accents. Some of them are the ones who want to keep British culture white. The way people view London’s great diversity through Indian food reminds me when people explain they are not racist because they have friends of color. These people do not see multiculturalism in a critical lens since they are not aware of the history of colonial oppression and continuing inequality. They only notice the physical cultural changes, but time will help change the popular cultural mindset to be more inclusive in all aspects of society.

         Food has become an important part of my life because of how powerful it is. You can learn so much about people’s ancestral history and culture when you ask them to describe their typical dinner. It is amazing how willing they are to share the meals their parents would cook for them as they grew up. People who migrate to London, like the Windrush generation, bring with them their traditional foods. As a result, London’s culture continues to change from the diverse groups that start restaurants, food stands, and food trucks focused on their comfort foods. Foods from all over the world are even beginning to spread to grocery stores, like sushi and taco sets in Waitrose. The changing food culture is a way to notice London’s diversity and how there is no such thing as a British identity.