The most instructive kind of historical document

Christophe Agou @ DeepSleep

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto on what foods tells us about the past @ Asia Literary Review.The flavours were strange. So were the staff and my fellow lunchers. Before I made my first visit to Veeraswamy’s, the old Indian restaurant off London’s Piccadilly, I had often walked past it, hand in hand with my mother and admired the smart uniform, turbaned and tasselled, of the doorman who guarded the unobtrusive entrance. He reminded me of the box of lead toy soldiers – Bengal Lancers I think they were – which, before I was eight years old, gave me an image of the grandeur of the Raj and the splendours of the Indian Army. Eventually, when my mother yielded to my importunities and took me inside, I saw for myself what the Raj was like and what, 10 years after independence, the old army had become. The clientele consisted mainly of ageing, balding, gently fattening Englishmen with toothbrush moustaches retrieving the sensations of India at separate tables, remembering what it was like to be a minor sahib in the military or the administration. They savoured their tiffin and spooned chutneys, grated coconuts and sliced bananas from the sinuous, silvery epergnes that raised their arms, like voluptuous houris, in the centre of each starched tablecloth. While my little nose twitched at the unfamiliar scents that rose from the curries, the old officers maintained unflinching discipline, unseduced by spices, impassive at their pungency.Meanwhile, as I later learned, in India and Pakistan the denizens of officers’ messes – all by now natives, of course – were stolidly chewing through roast lamb with mint sauce and bottled peas out of reverence for even the most unpalatable traditions of their corps. Food is funny. It is at once the most conservative form of culture and – in some circumstances – the most permeable to alien influences. Veeraswamy’s is still there, in the curved alley that winds into Regent Street, but it is changed now. The decor, uniformly off-white in my day, is now as glitzy and shimmering as Sennacherib’s cohorts. The staff have shed their turbans, tunics and deferential mien. They now include sharply suited, unobsequious men and glamorous young women. The food is inventive and calculated to surprise. Among the lunchers, wealthy Indian families predominate. Riches have succeeded Raj.I have always thought food was the most instructive kind of historical document. You can calibrate cultures with a kitchen measuring spoon. No problem occupies more historical scholarship nowadays than that of the relative input of different cultures to a globalising world – in particular, the comparative contributions of “East” and “West” to each other as cultural exchange shifts back and forth across the globe. Historians quarrel about when and how and in what respects the rising “West” overtook the declining “East” in technology, science, ideas and sheer power, and how far the process has already begun to go into reverse. If we focus on food, we can see the ebb and flow of influences with some more