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  • Susan Low

Diaspora dishes: immigration, emigration – and three great new cookbooks

A California-based journalist contacted me recently for quotes for a piece he was researching on the British food scene. “How much has the cultural diversity of Britain’s population contributed to a more exciting food culture?” he asked. “It’s impossible to overestimate the positive contribution made by a more-diverse food culture in Britain,” I wrote back...

In urban centres throughout the country, adventurous diners can enjoy the cuisines from most countries around the globe, and the subsequent cross-pollination of ideas, along with a growing respect for diversity. That diversity has been a main driver of the food and restaurant scene, I told him.

And that got me thinking – about immigration, emigration; the food you take with you when you go, the food you discover and when you arrive in a new country. What you adopt (for me it was Marmite), what you leave behind and why, and the importance that food plays in helping to define your roots. In fact, I’ve been thinking about all that lot since Brexit.

As I suspect is the case with many immigrants who live in London, my social group has been pretty diverse. My closest friends come from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Israel, Argentina, Norway, Sweden, Chile, various Caribbean islands, India – and there are a few fellow Americans, too.

In the turbulent (and, to me, shocking) period following the Leave vote, many of my friends felt a change in the air; the country that once felt so welcoming, so safe, suddenly felt less so. Many left – to go back to the countries they came from, or to emigrate again, some to what we now had to think of as ‘Europe’ and settle in Spain, Portugal, France or elsewhere. My circle of friends has become more dispersed, and I miss those who felt compelled to leave the city that had become their home.

The consequences of the UK’s turning-inward will continue to be felt for a long time. We’re just beginning to understand the purely economic consequences of this decision. Not only are all Britons financially worse off; I’d argue that we’re culturally worse-off too. The implicit meaning of that Leave vote, the urge to turn the clocks back to an imagined ‘golden age’ has resulted in a country that feels more divided and uncertain; diminished, in a word.

When I first moved to London, the fact that I could eat food cooked by people who came here from all over the world felt nothing short of wondrous. As often as my meagre budget would allow, I’d seek out affordable restaurants, ordering dishes I’d never eaten before – from Thailand, Korea, China, Burma, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Laos… More than reading Shakespeare, George Orwell and Jane Austen or deciphering various forms of ‘lit crit’, my wandering palate spurred on my career as a food journalist and restaurant critic for the likes of The Good Food Guide and the (late, much-lamented) Time Out Eating & Drinking Guides.

Would a student arriving in today’s London feel the same sense that the whole world was on their doorstep, waiting to be discovered, tasted and understood? I don’t know. But I do feel a sense of sorrow that future generations have been robbed of the opportunity to find out.

So, where is all this unburdening leading? Well, three new cookbooks that I’ve been reading recently, all by writers whose roots lie in South Asia, resonate to similar themes, and I want to recommend them all – for the food and the recipes, yes, but also for the sentiments they share.

Desi Kitchen by Sarah Woods (£30, Michael Joseph)

The subtitle describes this book as ‘a culinary roadmap to the South Asian diaspora in modern Britain’. Woods, who was a finalist on BBC One’s programme ‘Britain’s Best Home Cook,’ journeys to nine distinctive communities in regions across the UK – among them London’s Parsi community, the Kashmiris of Bradford and Yorkshire, Cardiff’s Bengali community and Leicester’s Gujarati community. Through interviews and recipes, she tells a story of migration and integration, “explor[ing] what it means to be second-generation in Britain today as our food culture is concerned’.

Mother Tongue: Flavours of a second generation by Gurdeep Loyal (£26, 4th Estate)

This debut food book from Gurdeep Loyal is nothing short of mould breaking. I say ‘food book’ because it goes way beyond the scope of cookbook, tying together so many strands: diasporic cooking, music (the author is an accomplished cellist), food and identity… Loyal, born in Leicester to parents from Punjab, explores what he calls the “multifaceted cultural hybridity” of his upbringing, and takes readers along for the joyride. His recipes go big on big, bold spice combinations. The recipes such are a glorious cross-cultural mash-up of colour, taste and texture. And that ‘Liberace pink’ cover – it kind of says it all.

The author describes her debut title as “a story of immigration, acclimatisation, adjustment, flourishing and celebration”. In it, the Wolverhampton-born restaurateur blends the cooking of her Punjabi heritage with the Modern European food she's cooked as a professional chef. Inventive recipes for the likes of coconut curry dauphinoise and butter chicken pie cross cultural boundaries deliciously.

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