Bringing post-colonial analysis into our homes: The Indian restaurant

An excerpt from ‘Introducing Cultural Studies’ by Ziauddin Sardar:

The Indian restaurant can be a useful model to study the history and legacy of post-colonialism. By studying its many symbols (name, food, location, patrons), we can have some ideas about how the race and cultures of the Other can be perceived within the context of immigration in Britain.

‘Mughal Balti House’ is like any other Indian restaurant scattered around Britain, the words “Take Away” tell us something of its status: a working class restaurant in a working class neighborhood. “Mughal” in the name harks back from a once great civilisation. The word “Balti” too has significance. But what, exactly?

To explore what our text is telling us, let us put “Mughal Balti” in context – in relation to other Indian restaurants, its history and cultural significance in Britain. The Indian restaurant made its presence felt in Britain in the 1950’s after the arrival of immigrants from the Subcontinent. Indian food was then associated with “curry” and the Indian restaurant was at the bottom of the heap of desirable places to eat, and was catered largely for working-class patrons. Now the word “curry” itself has a history. It was a sought-after commodity in the Middle Ages. When the mughal emperor Jahangir granted permission to Sir Thomas Roe in 1605 to establish a company in India, it was specifically for exporting Indian curries and spices.

Four hundred years later, after colonisation had done its work, and the Indian Others had been represented in a specific way, curry came to signify the lowest form of cheap food, equivalent to chips, which it had replaced as the most popular food item in Britain. The Indian restaurant itself was seen and represented as a monolithic entity. All restaurants serving food from the vast continent of India were “Indian restaurants”. But “eating Indian” incorporates eating a diverse variety of distinctively different foods from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; Punjabi, Mughal and South Indian dishes; “veg or non veg”. But to the British, everything was “curry”. Until the 1970’s, “going for a curry” had a special meaning. It was what the lads did when the pubs closed and they were looking for somewhere to vomit their intoxication – for almost half a century, the Indian restaurant put up with the most uncouth, uncivil, and ignorant behaviour from their white patrons.

But Indian restaurants have also resisted. In the first instance, the resistance simply exploited the ignorance of the white patrons. Curry you want, curry you get: the same curry was served with different labels. So someone eating rogan gosht, chicken masala or prawn curry was eating exactly the same thing with different bits of meat! As in the case of the ‘balti’; itself coming to mean a reseptacle, a pitcher, a pail for carrying water for washing or taking a bath. In the subcontinent, it is often used to flush the old-fahioned squatting lavatory. It is clearly too deep, too wide, too rough and too undisciplined for the preparation of a varied and sophisticated cuisine like the “Indian”. So what is the relationship between Indian restaurants and balti?

Balti plays a significant role in how the Indian restaurants have sold “authenticity”. When white patrons became more knowledgeable and realised that “curry” was a generic term describing a vast variety of foods, authentic Indian food became associated with a tandoor – the oven in which it was supposedly cooked. In the 1970’s, all good and authentic India food was prepared in a tandoor. Tandoor gave way to karahi, the wok, which was all the rage in the 1980’s. The 1990’s then became the age of the balti.

More generally, the balti hides a subtle transformation that the restaurants from the Subcontinent have experienced and are experiencing. The selling of balti, as a renovated traditional and authentic “Indian”, is a way for the Subcontinent restaurants both to reposition themselves in relation to British society and to reclaim their history. By attaching different labels to basically the same food, the Indian restaurant broke out of its working-class image and acquired a fashionable label. The great leap of the balti is not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s helping leap for the humble urinal. Now with the gentrification of Indian cuisine the balti can now sit among the cordon bleu pots of the Western civilisation.

The names of the restaurants are codes that reveal the changing power relationship between Indian restaurants and British society. In the 1960’s, Indian restaurants had names like “Maharajah” and “Last Days of the Raj”. These names were designed to rekindle fond memories of the empire that had been recently lost. During the next phase, the names changed to “Taj Mahal and “The Red Fort”; invoking images of the rich history and tradition of the Indian civilisation, masking British pretensions to possession of an empire while reclaiming their own history.

In the third stage, the names shed their colonial connections. They reveal not only the infusions of new ethnicities but also a certain self-confidence that invites Indians to eat Indian: “Lahore Karahi” and “Bombay Brasserie”. In the most recent phase, the Subcontinental restaurants have again changed their names to indicate authenticity of expression and a confidence of having ‘arrived’: “Jalabi Junction”, “Cafe Laziz” and “Soho Spice”. In many of these restaurants, the cooking area is part of the dining experience, providing assurance not just of freshly-cooked food but also bringing back the direct and tactile relationship between the hand that cooks and the hand that feeds.

One thought on “Bringing post-colonial analysis into our homes: The Indian restaurant

  1. Interesting. Though, connecting the names of the restaurants to the “changing power relationship…..”is a bit far fetched.
    Eating Indian also incorporates all the places the author mentions including Nepal. In Seoul, where i stay…almost all Indian restaurants are run by Nepalese.

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