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“Going for an Indian”: South Asian Restaurants and the limits of Multiculturalism in Britain, E Buettner

This article discusses  South Asian groups within Britain with the establishment of Indian restaurants within mid-twentieth century Britain. Overall Elizabeth Buettner establishes racism throughout Britain from the South Asian community through the catering industry.

The author starts the article off by revealing that Britain now has nearly 9,000 restaurants and take-aways run by south Asian immigrants, and their descendants that employ more than 70,000 people and have an annual turnover exceeding £2 billion, she also established that the vast majority of their customers are white.  Although Buettner establishes that Indian food is popular within Britain she also establishes that several decades ago most British would either ignore or ‘vigorously reject’ food Indian foods, she explains that just as many reacted in the same manner to the arrival and settlement of people from the subcontinent. Buettner acknowledges that Indians were present in Britain before the end of the empire however their numbers were small and their visibility and impact uneven compared with the increase after India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947.

The author also acknowledges that multiculturalism has never indisputably been deemed a “positive” force for Britain for more commonly it has been imagined as a problem or as a means of tackling a problem. Other favoured foreign cuisines particularly Indian and Chinese that took root in British diets and dining-out habits were not widely associated with immigration to any comparable extent partly because Indian and Chinese communities were smaller and also deemed less culturally problematic in the post-war period. Buettner establishes that West Indians were the only minority group to compete with South Asians in terms of numbers and the level of public attention and anxiety they attracted. The history of South Asian foods rises to popularity revels “uneasy coexistence” and tension between ongoing racism and exclusion and the gradual and conditional development of enthusiastic appreciation and the gradual and conditional development of enthusiastic appreciation.

It was then acknowledged that in the 1970s “benevolent multiculturism” as the policy was most apparent within the British education system where it was believed that racism could be combated by dispelling widespread white ignorance of ethnic minority cultures through sympathetic teaching. The small handful of existing Indians grew exponentially between the 1950s and the 1970s when far larger numbers of Indians, Pakistanis and other Bangladeshis arrived to live and work in postcolonial Britain. Starting in the 1980s ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in London, Bradford, Birmingham and elsewhere became self-styled “Curry Capitals” as “Going for an Indian” achieved the status of a national habit with locally specific contours. The author then argues that positive and negative images of Britain’s curry culture have remained in perpetual tension, revealing much about the changing relationships between Asian and white Britons, the class connotation of producing and consuming this cuisine. Buettner then acknowledges that South Asians in the restaurant sector have played a critical role in remaking Britishness, yet at the same time, they form a deeply riven rather than a uniform group.

It was established that between 85 and 90% of Britain’s “Indian” restaurant’s and take-aways are owned by Bangladeshi museums. Pakistani Muslims run most others, particularly cities like Bradford and Birmingham. Indian restaurants in the metropole were few and far between. Several came and went in the 19th century and others emerged in the early 20th century, largely in London. Most were run by and catered mainly for an Indian and predominantly male clientele who had come to Britain as seamen, students or in a professional capacity.  An example that Buettner provides is one of the oldest restaurants that survives today is the Veerswamy’s off regent street dating from 1926 it was opened by a spice importer became an official caterer for the Indian Pavilion at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley outside London. It served upper-middle class and elite customers including visiting Indian princes and other dignitaries as well as officer-class Britons who had once lived in India. Like many other early restaurants offering Indian-style dishes Veersawamy’s was largely ignored by most Britons with the exception of repatriated ex colonials.

The author then establishes that two stereotypes surrounded this ethnic group: that of the arrogant privileged colonial and one of unhygienic South Asian people and food. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s most Britons continued to stay clear of South Asian food even when restaurants existed to offer opportunities for sampling unfamiliar dishes. Men who had run these casual café style establishments often begun as factory workers before deciding to go into business for themselves by providing a service that fellow new arrivals in Britain wanted. It was established that Asians were criticised for failing to adapt to English culture in reports that reflected demands for immigrants to assimilate with British society. Signs of curry’s popularity slowly became apparent by the later 1960s and 70s when some establishments that originally catered exclusively to Asians gradually witnessed a diversifying clientele.

Buettner acknowledged that “Going for an Indian” was very much a ‘boys thing’ a ‘boys night out’ for the younger members of an increasingly affluent post-war society with money to spend on leisure and consumption. However, displays of racism towards the waiters was regarded as masculine as this occurred frequently within restaurants. The writers explain that reports of young men’s behaviours at these restaurants suggested a lack of respect and appeared rude to both the establishment and their staff. Finally, the author establishes that the 1980s witnessed the largest increase in curry houses in Britain, which totalled 6,600 by the end of the decade. Eating at curry houses had become a familiar social practice in much of Britain. Many customers found curry houses attractive because they were cheap, filling informal and open late.  It was then established that most curry houses are run and staffed by Muslims of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin they are prime targets for Islamophobia, they would often be told to “go back to Pakistan” or get called “Paki” by aggressive passers-by. Overall Elizabeth Buettner acknowledges that racism within South Asian communities within the mid-twentieth century was present through the establishment of Indian restaurants.

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