The taste of home: A history of South Asian cuisine in Britain

In today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Jake from the Visitor Team delves into the history of South Asian cuisine in Britain and its cultural impact.

The forthcoming South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum will be the first permanent exhibit dedicated to South Asian history and culture based in the North of England. It is part of our hello future transformation and is due to open in 2022. Find out more on the hello future blog.

spicemalangeSpice racks and dishes from India, dating from around 1865 (Manchester Museum collection).

A Taste of Home

Throughout Manchester, significant strides have been taken recently to illuminate the stories, cultures, and histories of the South Asian diaspora in museums and galleries across the city. The role of a museum as a forum for discussion, a platform for debate, and a mirror for society, as well as a place of education, means it is essential for Manchester Museum to represent the diverse histories that form Mancunian society.

Over the last five years, the cultural sector in our city has initiated a discourse on the impact of South Asian culture on local history to raise awareness about the influence of migrant populations on British society. From the South Asian Modernists exhibition which took place at the Whitworth Art Gallery, to the South Asian Design display at Manchester Art Gallery, there have been fresh opportunities to underscore the culture and history of the South Asian population living in the UK.

Strangers in a strange land – post-colonial migration

With the cessation of hostilities at the end of the Second World War, Britain looked to the Empire to provide a necessary boost to its stagnating economy by recruiting migrants from her overseas colonies. As the world moved into a new era of peacetime, it was important for the nation to mobilise all available resources to rebuild itself within the new world order. Many South Asians were recruited to work in the booming post-war industrial sector which was expanding during a period of economic growth following the war. In Greater Manchester, the textile mills and factories had a significant proportion of South Asians in their workforces to aid in the post-war recovery.

 

Hindoostane_Coffee_House_(7599806070)A plaque comemorating the ‘Hindoostane Coffee House’ opened by Sheikh Din Muhammad, the very first Indian restaurant opened in the British Isles. The establishment closed within a year due to lack of business. It would be well over 100 years before Indian restaurants were a common sight on British high streets. (Source)

Restaurants designed to cater for the South Asian industrial workers began to appear throughout some of the major cities in the UK, including London, Bradford, Birmingham and Manchester. Prior to the partition of British India in 1947, Indian restaurants were not common features in the metropole. However, following the termination of British rule in the Indian subcontinent, immigration levels to the UK from the former colony increased rapidly, and South Asians brought their culinary expertise to their new home.

Throughout the 1950s, the customer base at these South Asian restaurants was almost entirely made up of Asians who wanted a taste of home. As the immediate post-war industrial boom plateaued, many of the factory workers made the decision to go into business for themselves, opening up their own Indian cafés surrounding the mills and factories which were largely populated by Asian workers. Wilmslow Road in Rusholme became an increasingly popular area for South Asians to settle in, and a significant number of restaurants were established along this stretch of road. The location became a popular destination for South Asian migrants to share food with one another and socialise in their spare time. Clustering Indian restaurants together meant that the South Asian community could satisfy their cravings for the delectable dishes and sweet treats of their homeland.

 

Screenshot_2020-04-26 The New Taj Mahal Restaurant, Wilmslow Road, Rusholme, 1959The New Taj Mahal on Wilmslow Road, Rusholme, Manchester, 1959. (Source)

 

The changing tastes of Britain

In the immediate post-war era, the majority of the population largely disregarded South Asian dining, and it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that curry houses also began to attract a white British customer base. Despite a gradual and ongoing embracement of South Asian cuisine throughout the UK during the 1970s, South Asian migrants did not find assimilation into British society easy. Many restaurant owners suffered the brunt of racial abuse, and the delicious fragrances that escaped from the restaurants often attracted disparaging and judgemental comments from locals who were unimpressed by the aromas.

As curry houses increased in popularity and continued to spread nationwide during the 1980s, new establishments attempted to differentiate from the existing restaurants already found in Britain. Out were the traditional, pre-colonial names such as ‘Kohinoor’, ‘Raj’ and ‘Taj Mahal’, and in came regional names which attempted to link restaurants to areas in India to give an appearance of greater authenticity. Restaurants began to distinguish themselves by providing dishes that hailed from specific locations around India, from Goa to the Punjab, and some even catered the vegetarian dishes popular in the Gujarat region. In Manchester, the cluster of Indian restaurants found along Wilmslow Road was unofficially christened ‘the curry mile’ as its popularity continued to increase.

 

800px-Curry_MileRusholme’s ‘Curry Mile’, Manchester, 2006. (Source)

The history of South Asian cuisine in the UK reflects the changes in global patterns of migration, but also the shifting attitudes towards migrants in Britain. At Manchester Museum, we feel that it is important to celebrate the important cultural contributions that have been made by the South Asian community through food, music and dance, but also to recognise the difficult introduction to life in Britain that many migrants have suffered in the past and continue to suffer with today. Building an understanding between the different communities that make up the UK helps people to better appreciate their fellow citizens in order to create stronger community cohesion. It is important to appreciate those who contribute to the cultural growth in society so we can all learn from each other and embrace diverse cultures from around the globe.

Nowadays, there are thought to be over 9,000 Indian restaurants spread throughout the UK. London is supposedly home to more Indian restaurants than Delhi and Mumbai combined, and the Curry Mile in Manchester is thought by some to hold the largest concentration of South Asian restaurants outside of the Indian Subcontinent. British supermarkets sell Indian meals and ingredients in huge quantities, and cookbooks with traditional South Asian recipes prove incredibly popular. In no other country outside of the Indian subcontinent has seen South Asian cuisine gained such a foothold over the national psyche as in the United Kingdom.

 

A Bit of This & A Bit of That

Hidden away amongst the backstreets of Manchester’s vibrant Northern Quarter lies This & That, a small Indian café owned by Ismail Mallu and his son Mohsin. Ismail is a first-generation Indian migrant who came to the UK in 1966 during the peak years of migration from the subcontinent, and has since gone on to run a number of successful takeaways and restaurants across Greater Manchester.

thisthatThe entrance to ‘This & That’ Indian takeout, hidden down a backstreet in Manchester city centre. (Source)

Manchester Museum is establishing innovative forms of dialogue with visitors. A Bit of This & A Bit of That is a short documentary film by Blue Shoes Productions commissioned by the museum. It offers a micro-study into the lived experience of migration from South Asia to the UK.

Ismail’s personal narrative provides a living history in every sense of the term, and it offers a unique resource for social and historical understandings of migration. The film provides an exclusive, first-hand testimony into the personal experiences of migration, alongside Ismail’s views on shifting multicultural perceptions in contemporary Mancunian society. It also highlights how the migratory experience continues throughout the life of the migrant and into subsequent generations.

A Bit of This & A Bit of That (2018), dir. Jake Gill, Liam Steers, Alexander Deniston, Elizabeth Ratcliffe

 

The Korma Days are Gone…

Throughout the film, Ismail makes reference to the changing taste palates and varying cultural perspectives of the clientele that he has served for the last fifty years. He highlights that customers in the 1960s and 1970s primarily ordered mild and sweet dishes such as chicken korma and chicken dansak which had been diluted with milk and cream, but goes on to say that ‘the British culture now wants it exactly as we have it at home’.

As a way of maintaining South Asian cultural distinctiveness, Ismail was taught how to cook from a young age by his aunt and uncle. Not only was it a vital skill that has set him up for life, but they were, in essence, perpetuating their Indian identity by passing it onto the next generation, which Ismail is now doing with Mo. Cooking links Ismail to his homeland, but it also perpetuates his culture to friends, acquaintances, neighbours, guests and tourists in Manchester.

In a similar vein to the creation of the Balti dish in Birmingham, the ‘rice and three’ has become a quintessential culinary staple in Manchester. Throughout the Northern Quarter, restaurants including Kabana, Yadgar, and This & That jostle for the title of best ‘rice and three’ in the city, but few places radiate the spirit of community cohesion like This & That. Ismail has been able to enrich the city of Manchester by sharing the culinary traditions taught to him by his aunt and uncle to the point where the ‘rice and three’ has effectively become a staple in the city. Ismail exemplifies the best of both identities; he is partly Indian and partly Mancunian, a bit of this and a bit of that.

 

A multicultural community

We hope that the prevalent themes of diversity, religious tolerance, and community spirit continue to resonate with visitors to our museum and viewers of the film. A Bit of This & A Bit of That shows that anyone can make a positive difference to their community and facilitate the changes needed to make the world a better place for everyone. Ismail provides a fascinating insight into the migratory experience and the changing perceptions he’s faced as a South Asian man living in the UK. His diverse customer base is made up of ‘friendly people’ who return time and time again to taste the delicious cuisine of Ismail’s homeland, and he continually attempts to help out those who are in need in the city.

As we all struggle through this difficult period of social distancing, make sure to check out This and That and try their isolation takeaway bundle to experience their delectable ‘rice and three’ that they offer.

 Jake Gill

 

The forthcoming South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum will be the first permanent exhibit dedicated to South Asian history and culture based in the North of England. It is part of our hello future transformation and is due to open in 2022. Find out more on the hello future blog.

 

Find out more:

The Manchester Museum Chat Show: Bombay Flowers  – Alia Raffia speaks with Shamil Thakrar, the co-owner of Indian restaurant Dishoom.

Immigration from India (British Library)

Buettner, Elizabeth, ‘“Going for an Indian”: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain’, The Journal of Modern History, 80:4, (December 2008), pp. 865-901

Palat, Ravi Arvind, ‘Empire, Food and the Diaspora: Indian Restaurants in Britain’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 38:2, pp. 171-186

 

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