Food and Language

Indian food has become hugely popular in Britain, but it was not always so. when the first immigrants from the huge sub-continent arrived, their food was too spicy for local palates. Here’s a great story from Stuart Maconie on how he discovered this cuisine, from his book Pies and Prejudice, In Search of the North:

My mum gave me the first Indian food I ever tasted. She worked in a cotton mil alongside many Bangladeshi and Pakistani weavers, and, one winter night in the late seventies, she brought home a little gift of some home cooking that a young man had given her as a thank you for some favour. There was a Tupperware container full of a thick yellowish stew, some lumpy little brown dumpling things and several flatbreads wrapped and rolled in silver foil – dahl, pakora and chapatis essentially. My mum and dad examined each one with extreme cation, sniffed at the contents and recoiled a little at the warm, pungent spices, having been weaned on starch from which all flavour had been ruthlessly boiled away for fear of poisoning. I sat and ate it all in one go. I grilled the chapatis like toast, not knowing what else to do with them, slathered them with butter and then dipped them in the dahl. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Or, most accurately, wherever Muslim people went.

Delighted with how his cooking – or maybe his mum or sister’s – had been received, he would send me my own bijou customised takeaway once a week or so…

It went on for years, by the way, long after I’d left home and gone away to college. I’d go home for the summer and within days, Charlie would have sent me another thick roll of puris or paratha, which I would eat standing at the grill at one in the morning, having drunk a gallon of Burtonwood’s Top Hat Bitter.

Even though Stuart’s parents probably never tried the food, I’m sure the man’s generosity helped form bridges between the communities, because that is what food is so good at.

My cousins lived next door to an Italian family, and my cousin discovered he liked their food, whilst one of their children didn’t so every evening their mothers would exchange a plate of food over their back fence. So much easier than forcing kids to eat food they didn’t like.

This story reminds me of an anecdote from Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi who was exiled to the far south of Italy, which I may have mentioned before. He and  fellow exiles were not allowed to talk to each other, but he noticed a young man come out of a house and put a plate of food on a nearby wall. He whistled, and another young man came out and took the food. They were denied words, but could still speak with the language of food.

4 thoughts on “Food and Language

  1. My Dad told a lovely story about his honeymoon. Arriving late in London on a cold wet night he and Mum struggled to find anywhere to eat (this was in the early ’60s). The only restaurant that was open was Veeraswamy, reputedly the first Indian restaurant in the UK. Mum wasn’t keen on Indian food, having rather conservative food tastes but Dad loved Indian food, having served in India during the war, and with an uncle who had lived in India for many years.

    In they went, and Dad was soon happily chatting away to the staff in a mixture of Hindi and Bengali. They told him not to bother about ordering, and they would sort something out. When the food arrived, they had to bring extra tables as there was so much that they’d cooked for him to try out! He loved it. Mum was equally impressed, was soon tucking in, and ended up leaving with a curry recipe from one of their chefs. Mum made the best curries 🙂


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