Chinese restaurants

Chinese Restaurants was a documentary series made for Canadian television. From 2000 to 2003, Cheuk Kwan and his cinematographer, Kwoi Gin, scoured the world for good food and intriguing stories from the Chinese diaspora. The fifteen films in the series explored migration, family, history and identity through the lens of Chinese restaurants all over the world from Norway to Mauritius, and Israel to Brazil.

Cheuk Kwan, in an interview with Lily Cho, talks about Chinese food, immigration and integration:

“Running a restaurant is the easiest and the most natural way for new Chinese immigrants to get started in the society.  You don't need the language, you have a demand for your product, the restaurant gives you a social base in the new country, and, as I always tell people, you don't need to know how to cook well because you can fool a lot of people a lot of times with Chinese food.  The last point is very true because people would not know how to judge your product or service, unlike being a doctor or an engineer.”

“I wanted to show the Chinese that they’re not as ethnically and culturally pure as they think they are. The Chinese can be very ethnocentric, of course, but they also absorbed all kinds of foreign cultures without realizing it… And fusion food is a metaphor for immigrant assimilation. My argument is that the first generation always knows where they came from, but once you get past that you become more assimilated, like through interracial marriages.  And the so-called pure Chinese food gets assimilated, just like a generation is assimilated.”


Moving People Changing Places

Hansa’s culinary migrations

Hansa Dabhi

Hansa, ‘Curry chef of the year 2010’

Hansa Dabhi runs an award-winning Gujarati vegetarian restaurant in Leeds in the North of England. The dishes she prepares, the restaurant décor and the two fine cookbooks she has published tell the tale of her history across three continents. Her family originated in Gujarat in the west of India and migrated to Uganda in East Africa. Along with thousands of other Asian settlers, in the early 1970s they were pressured to leave after Ugandan independence by the dictator Idi Amin. They made a new home in Leeds, and in 1986 Hansa opened an Indian restaurant that would challenge the idea that Indian food is limited to tikka and tandoori, or that all Indian chefs are male.

One of Hansa’s recipes reflects the complex journey that dishes and their ingredients take as they travel the world. Ravaiya is at heart a Gujarati dish from the west of India, but it features aubergines from Hansa’s family’s second home in East Africa.  The spices started their historical journey in different parts of the world: chillis, as well as tomatoes, peanuts and potatoes, came originally from South America; ginger and turmeric came from India and China where they had a long history of use for culinary and health purposes; coriander is native to southern Europe and the Middle East.


Migrant foodways

Spices, colonies and migration

The establishment of trading companies and bases and the European colonisation of countries in Asia and the Americas was driven initially by the desire for spices. These precious commodities enhanced the foods and pleased the palates of Europeans back home.

Spice route map
Commanding high prices, they could also be exchanged for other goods. Between the 1490s and the early 1700s, chilli from the Caribbean, pepper and cinnamon from South India and Sri Lanka, and nutmeg, mace and cloves from South East Asia (what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) were jealously fought over by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and French.  The colonies they established and exploited developed close ties with Europe and the new world of the Americas, not only through trade, but through political and administrative connections, missionary activities and cultural exchange. It was these same colonial territories that were to provide flows of migrant workers in the 20th century, for shipping, the armed forces, factories, transport, healthcare and restaurants.

The story of Britain’s favourite dish

The number of Indian restaurants and take-aways, cookbooks, jars of curry sauce, pickles and spices to be found on supermarket shelves are evidence of the importance of curry to British cultural life. The image lives on in national folk-memory of male drunks going for a curry after pub closing time, and abusing staff whilst ordering the hottest meal on the menu (vindaloo). Although this troubling image shows native British people’s readiness to cross a cultural boundary and to eat someone else’s food, it is also a reminder that food – in common with other aspects of culture – can be a vehicle for displays of aggression and racism. To these “lager louts” conquering a vindaloo was like beating Asian migrants at their own game. Comedians from the 1990s series, Goodness Gracious Me, successfully exposed the overt racism and pent-up tension as well as the humour in such situations in their sketch “Going for an English”

Using the example of how he came to like coriander after once thinking it tasted soapy, the researcher Ben Highmore argues that food can work on us over time.  It can teach us to appreciate it. Foods that once seemed foreign and unappetising, even disgusting, can become enjoyable.  But can eating migrant foods, in restaurants run by diasporic communities affect our taste and even change our minds, opening us up to new experiences and relationships?

According to Sophia Ahmed, British supermarkets claim to sell more than 18 tonnes of chicken tikka masala each week, with over 23 million portions sold in restaurants annually:

Spices"Chicken tikka masala can be seen as a metaphor for the BrAsian experience.  Had it not been for colonisation and migration South Asian foods such as tandoori chicken would not have arrived on Britain’s shores. Similarly, had it not been for the British experience there would have been no gravy (masala) with our chicken today. In other words chicken tikka masala… exists only because of the fusion of these cultural experiences and as a consequence is now eaten both in Britain and throughout South Asia.”

Spices connect Britain to its colonial past. Today they have a central place in popular food culture. They contribute to British identity and to people’s intercultural experiences.

The pizza effect

The metaphor of the pizza has been used to explore the process by which culture has circled the globe and been exchanged between groups in different locations. In his discussion of the movement of Hindu ideas and practices between East Africa and India, Agehananda Bharati adopted the concept of the ‘pizza effect’ to convey the sense that migrant culture is dynamic.  It changes to suit new contexts, and, when it is returns ‘home’, it is not the same culture that left home in the first place, as the example of the pizza shows.

“The original pizza was a simple, hot-baked bread without any trimmings, the staple of the Calabrian and Sicilian contadini from whom well over 90% of all Italo-Americans descend.  After World War I, a highly elaborated dish, the U.S. pizza of many sizes, flavours and hues, made its way back to Italy with visiting kinsfolk from America.  The term and the object have acquired a new meaning and a new status, as well as many new tastes in the land of its origin, not only in the south, but throughout the length and width of Italy.” Agehananda Bharati