in London: The Post Colonial City
When I came to London in the mid-fifties to study art, the food here was horrifyingly bad. It was disgusting. It was not entirely a culture shock because in Cairo I had been to The English School where the Egyptian cooks gave us roast beef with gravy and Yorkshire pudding, steak and kidney pie, and jelly with custard. We only had English food. The English at that time would only eat English food. When we invited them to our house our mother made things like scones and trifle.
When my family left Egypt for good after Suez in 1956, we wrote to our friends in Egypt to send us any cookery book they could find as we had never had one. The only one that came was an Arabic translation of a NAAFI publication left behind by the British army. There was macaroni creamed cauliflower, rolly polly alla castarda.
The English were never interested in foreign food. In India, colonial housewives brought along cookery books so that they could teach their Indian cooks how to do English dishes. Even when they travelled they wanted fish and chips, and that is what holiday resorts in Greece and Spain came to produce. It isn't that they were proud of their food. On the contrary, on a train in England for example, if somebody took out their sandwiches from a lunch box, they would put their hands in front so you couldn't see what they were eating. In the fifties, food was a taboo subject like sex and money. Glancing at somebody's shopping basket was an offence. And there was very little in the shops. We had to go to Camden town or Soho to find the kind of ingredients we wanted. The greatest treat was to eat at Cypriot kebab houses in Camden Town and the Black Cat off Charlotte Street.
When I started working on my book of Middle Eastern Food people would ask: Is it about sheep's eyeballs and testicles? Looking at the first edition, I see that I suggested substitutes for everything: if you can't find chickpeas, use beans; and explanations such as courgettes are baby marrows.
I can be very rude and disparaging now because today London is one of the food capitals of the world, even the food capital according to the American press. Every type of restaurant is represented here. Pockets of London are like a foreign country. Going to Stoke Newington and Green Lanes is like stepping into Turkey or Cyprus. The East End, and Southall, and Wembley in North London are our Little India and Little Pakistan. And China Town in Soho keeps expanding its borders.
You can find hundreds of cookery books on every kind of food. People here are the most adventurous in the world. They will attempt anything and they carry it off very well. When Madhur Jaffrey or Ken Hom demonstrate a dish on television you'll find it at hundreds of dinner parties the following week.
Our supermarkets have a huge variety of ingredients never seen before, from bulgur and couscous, to lemon grass and okra, pomegranate and Chinese cabbage.
Britain is the country which has, more than any other, adopted and integrated its immigrant cuisines. (Compared to France and Italy which have not integrated foreign foods - the French have adopted pasta.)
Not very long ago people here found Indian cooking smells so nauseous that they would not consider living next to an Asian family. Now curry is the national dish (more popular than fish and chips), and chicken tikka is the nation's favourite sandwich.
Curry houses, balti restaurants, Indian take-aways account for 2.5 billion pounds of trade. The Indian meal has become part of the English way of life. The song British football fans sang during the World Cup in France last year went Vindaloo! Vindaloo! Vindaloo! Vindaloo! Lager!
While the English working class has found the elegance of the Raj - the red flock velvet wall covering, the lanterns and mysterious lights in the back street curry houses and balti restaurants (balti means bucket) - the middle classes get their Indian experience from the ready-cooked meals in the supermarkets.
The big boom in Indian food began in the 1970s when laid-off Bengali dockers started opening little cafes in the East End and employing newly arrived Bangladeshis (immigrants running from the civil war in Bangladesh). The Bangladeshis who manned the kitchens had no catering experience, they made up dishes and adapted them to English tastes. In some of the restaurants they still have a big vat of chicken curry sauce bubbling away and pre-cooked meat, prawns, vegetables etc. An order comes for a hot prawn curry, the sauce from the chicken is added to prawns with 1/2 a teaspoon of chilli powder. For a mild chicken curry, they add cream or yoghurt or coconut milk to the same sauce. It is always the same basic sauce.
When people come over from India or Pakistan they don't recognise any of it. Indian food here is a uniquely British experience. But things are beginning to change. The curry houses and Indian take-aways are being upstaged by big breweries like Whitbreads which are opening chains of 'curry pubs'. The founder of Café Rouge has taken over Bass tied houses and formed the East India Pub company. Regent Inns have opened the Pukka Bar and Curry Hall. Stylish up-market Indian restaurants are opening in the suburbs with a regional identity (including one from East Africa). Even the old generic curry houses are beginning to specialise. Their standards have to go up if they are to survive.
Consumers have become more discriminating. They want the real thing - regional foods, authentic foods - Kashmiri, Gujarati, Bengali, Keralan. An Indian woman complained to Marks and Spencer that their range was not authentic, so they took her on their staff and transformed the range. I went to look at my local Marks and Spencer yesterday. It looks like an ethnic food emporium. Italian is the biggest selling range, then comes Chinese (aromatic crispy duck, spring rolls, sweet and sour chicken, Singapore noodles, egg fried rice, crispy seaweed) and Indian (a whole Indian Menu includes chicken tikka masala, chicken jalfresi, vegetable curry, pilau rice - another is a selection of samosas, pakoras, onion bhajis). Chicken tikka masala - char-grilled chicken in a creamy sauce - is the most popular Indian dish here but Waitrose don't stock it because it's not authentic. After Indian comes Middle Eastern - falafel, hummus, taramasalata, filo cheese cigars. There is very little that is English apart from the pudding range. The patisserie is French and there is also Jewish food - gefilte fish, pickled herring, chopped liver, smoked salmon.
I had been involved in Marks and Spencer's Italian and Middle Eastern ranges as a consultant. Some years ago they had asked me to taste some of the new foods sent in by producers and to advise them on improvements. They were trying Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives, a tagine with prunes and a couscous meal. There were also filo cigars and triangles with minced meat and various dips such as hummus and baba ghanoush. They wanted to improve the flavours and they wanted them to be authentic. There were two versions of taramasalata. Someone from the producers - Cypressa - was there. I said neither tasted like the real thing and I had heard that people preferred the one at Waitrose. At which the Cypressa representative said they made it for Waitrose and Sainsburys too.
When he left, the Marks and Spencer staff said they had visited the Cypressa factory and all the staff there were Bangladeshi women. These women were all fetched from their homes by coach and brought back to their homes the same way because their husbands did not want them walking about in the street. Recently, I got a packet of vine leaves from Cypressa. Since the management is Cypriot, I expected the recipe at the back for stuffed vine leaves to be Cypriot. It was out of my book.
Middle Eastern is not top in the uptake of ethnic foods in supermarkets but it has made it to the peak of fashionable foods. It has become part of our eclectic nouvelle cuisine - what is called 'modern English'. Star chefs like Peter Gordon of the Sugar Club, Alistair Little and the Clarks at Moro, serve Egyptian lentil soup, Lebanese tabbouleh, Moroccan pastilla, and all kinds of tagines and brik. Moroccan restaurants are the flavour of the month.
The familiarity with Middle Eastern foods is partly a result of the Lebanese civil war, the revolution in Iran, and economic hardship in the Middle East which sent cooks to this country. Selling food is a new immigrant occupation. Another reason for its popularity is the American influence (our chefs are now looking to America for inspiration rather than France) and the notion that the Mediterranean diet - rich in grain, pulses, vegetables, fruit and nuts, with plenty of fish and little meat, and olive oil as the main cooking fat - is the ideal healthy diet. American gastronomes first focused on Southern Italian food which they transformed into Californian Italian, but have now fallen for the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Food is that part of an immigrant culture that immigrants hold on to longest - when they have abandoned the traditional dress, the language, the music. It has been to London's advantage.