"A memoir of love, migration and food"
When you're a food writer, people are always wanting to know which food books you'd recommend. The Settler's Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is one that always tops my list.
It was published back in 2008, but it nonetheless feels very of-the-moment in its exploration of belonging, racism, migration and community. The book weaves together the author's personal and family history with recipes to form a moving memoir of the East-African Asian diaspora experience. The author and her family – along with thousands of others in the same situation – moved to the UK in 1972, around the time that Idi Amin was expelling the local Indian population from Uganda.
A born storyteller, Kampala-born Alibhai-Brown explores the ideas in the book with heartfelt honesty. The (very cookable) recipes are the thread that holds the whole thing together. Largely because of this book, Alibhai-Brown has always been a hero of mine, so I was quite thrilled when she agreed to a Zoom interview with me to discuss the background to the book for a piece I was writing (you can read my full interview on the ckbk website).
One of the questions I was keen to ask her was about diaspora populations, and the relationship to food. Is food and cooking more important in these communities far from home, or did it just seem that way to me?
I loved Yasmin's answer: "There are two things that happen when you move away from where your ancestors were born," she said. "One is that you do want to keep that part of yourself; and the other one is that you want to take the best part of it you with you. For many people the best part of what they take with them is food. It’s the first offering they make to the country they settle in, and it’s the first gift that is wholly and ‘heartfelt-ly’ accepted. Even in the most forbidding lands, the gift of food is a passport." (Emphasis mine.)
The idea of food being a gift, a passport to another world, to another society, and as a visible means of acceptance, is a powerful one.
Something else she told me during our interview stood out: "In the same way, British people have adapted the food of migrants, more than they have accepted anything else of ours. It’s the first thing that an open society does," she said, then pointing out the extent to which British cooking has been transformed – for the better – by the various waves of migration, particularly from Asia.
When it comes to food, the act of giving and receiving, of bestowing and accepting, is of mutual benefit. It's impossible to separate the giver from the gift.