© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd


© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

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Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled musakkas

Panayi, Panikos (2008). Spicing up Britain.
Reaktion, £19.95

This is a fascinating book on an important subject: the subtitle is The Multiculturalism of British Food, and deals mainly with the impact of immigrants (whether individuals or en masse) on British food. Panayi starts with an overview of food from beyond these shores before 1945, and probes the concept of ethnicity and identity from the standpoint of food (drink gets virtually no mention whatsoever), going on to look in more detail at the sixty years from 1945. To that end, we seem to be playing with three sides at a time: the Irish, Jewish and German communities of London in the century from 1840, and the Italian, Chinese and South Asian groups since the Second World War. But there's an extra group that keeps popping up: the Greek Cypriots — more about them later.

It's an academic book — more obviously so than, say, Feeding London, though it is not too dry for the more casually interested reader. It touts its academic exclusivity (and pre-wordprocessor outdatedness), for example, by gathering all notes as endnotes at the back of the book, so that they are too time-consuming for the reader to find, and it has all the right seasonings of university-speak to ensure that it qualifies as a research publication. But it is still written with enough panache that the general reader will happily keep reading and page-turning.

At each turn in the nationality of food or cooks in Britain, Panayi looks piercingly at the impact on that national community (usually in London or Leicester, Panayi's formative and current homes), and on the wider population: there is an occasional cross-check with immigrant food communities in North America., pointing up the similarities and differences. Some of the conclusions fall into the obvious-with-hindsight category: for 150 years, there was no recognisable Irish cuisine in London (no, Guinness doesn't count) because it was so similar to native British cuisine of the time, while over the same period, the religious imperatives created and maintained a Jewish-British cuisine. But telling these tales is important as we look at the relative impacts of other cuisines which have arrived on these shores through immigration and importation.

Some of this ground has been covered before —  the birth of fish and chips, for instance — but this does not detract from Spicing up Britain, especially given the scrupulous acknowledgement of prior work. There is really only one small niggle, and that is where the Greek Cypriots come in. And come in they do, most regularly, so that occasionally it seems like 'special pleading'. It is, of course, an extremely difficult balance to maintain, and is a natural risk when a member of one community is generalising in this way. It's a bit like having a stallholder choose the balance of all stallholders in a market, rather than have a Board of Trustees: no matter how hard one strives to be fair and balanced, there will always be a whiff of bias, or rather of perceivable bias. In Panayi's case, a more interventionist editor could have polished away that slightest of shadows (I'm certain it is only a shadow, a mere trick of the light — the generous description of the Turkish community is powerful evidence of that).

This isn't a light and fluffy read, but equally, it isn't solemn. It's a good read and a positive read, thoughtfully constructed and thought-provoking. And the best of it is, there are still many questions in this area for Panayi and others to revisit: Britons' eating habits continue to evolve, and the story of Spicing up Britain has more chapters to be written.


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