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Humus war, masala fish and tea: Colonial hunger as food quenches thirst for authenticity

Oct 18,2018 - Last updated at Oct 18,2018

Let us agree first that food integrates and adapts: it is frontierless. Food can deliver a sense of home even in the most alienating conditions. Some even dare say that while negotiation tables have failed to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to one table, dining tables — particularly humus — have. Indeed, in 2015, a café in the coastal city of Netanya offered free humus for Jews and Arabs who dine together at the same table.

Colonisation does not only take over land. Colonialism takes over mind, language and certainly food. What started the so-called humus war between the Palestinians and the Israelis is resistance to cultural appropriation for the former, and a tool for cultural reconfiguration for the latter. In claiming humus for themselves, Israelis attempt to quench the thirst for authenticity in a famished culture. In a one-day conference in 2017, Israeli Cuisine as Reflection of Israeli Society, it was concluded that the kitchen has become the new venue for cooking politics.

Food is also integrated with literature as reflection of societies. In her debut novel, White Teeth, Bangladeshi-British writer Zadie Smith suggests that despite all differences of colour and taste, all human beings share the same colour of teeth. This is very symbolic of our shared anthropological values across all diversities. In postmodernity, writers tend to emblematically use food as a cultural marker and a signifier of hybridity and/or dislocation and difference. Two worldly writers spring to mind here: Chinese-British writer Timothy Mo and Indo-Pakistani British writer Salman Rushdie. They have injected the English language, for example, with Cantonese (yin and yang) and Urdu (the chutnification of English) idioms respectively. British writer Hanif Kureishi, by contrast, represents a generation born and bred English. He introduces a new ethnicity that breaks the already imposed and rigid ethnicities.  He is, as he describes many of his characters, creamy: neither white nor black. Using food figuratively to point to something that goes beyond its representational value, however, is not unprecedented. Timothy Mo’s novel and film “Sour Sweet” (1982) manifests, along with Rushdie’s metaphorical handling of food as a celebratory cultural signifier of hybridity, the allegorical title of this generation of hybrid writers, which I adventurously call: the Masala Fish Generation. Here is how.

What most people outside Britain, for example, know about the British is the so-called teatime, or “cuppa”. This functions as an extended metaphor which allows to explain the outside history that is inside the history of the English. In other words, there is no English history without that other history. Tea and sugar were imported to Britain from colonial plantations in south Asia and the Caribbean respectively. They were commodities that carried with them the burden of slavery, conquest and colonisation and which helped fuel Britain’s rise into a dominant and wealthy imperial power. Britain’s economy, as well its culture (the British cuppa as “national” institution), were not simply generated from within according to this inside-out history. The sugar and tea of the “British cuppa” were not just metaphors for the trade in the precious commodities of empire; they were also metaphors for the post-war importation of cheap labour from the Caribbean, like sugar, and south Asia, like tea.

Similarly, masala is a south Asian spice. When added to food, it normally not only changes the food’s flavour but also its original colour, hence change and metamorphosis.  Masala is mildly hot, reflecting the Asian weather; fish, on the other hand, is England’s most famous traditional dish. First and second generations of displaced writers alike used fish as a metaphor for Englishness: The English are as cold as (cod) fish, Afro-Caribbean writer Sam Selvon would say, an image that reflects England’s cold weather and “white” culture. On the one hand, “masala”, metaphorically speaking, is the oriental other/black; on the other, “fish” is the occident/British. Masala fish is a synthesised, adventurous and hybrid dish that brings East and West to one plate. It is also a product of migration, cultural diversity, racial intermingling and historical displacement. Masala infuses fish, creating a dish that is not only flavoursome but also multicultural; together they synthesise two cultures, two cuisines, two worlds and the adventuring of a new taste, a new identity that has been added to the English table. This synthesis reflects, resembles and echoes the hybrid, syncretic literary production of second generation writers in the aftermath of a long historical displacement involving India and Britain. Masala Fish is coined here to mark how food acts in the works of many post-colonial writers as a cultural signifier for hybridity and syncreticism, promoting a healthy image of creativity and heterogeneity in contrast to a homogeneity that produces mental ghettoisation and racism.


The writer is author at Palgrave Macmillan and an assistant professor in post-colonial and English literature at the American University of Madaba, Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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