Water season has us looking at how food moves with people as they migrate overseas. Historically this migration has happened for many reasons and how food moves has depended on those reasons. In the context of forced migration, food traveled surreptitiously – seeds woven into hair or sewn into hems to provide their carriers with a taste of home. Economic migration saw food travel more openly but be carefully monitored under the watch of dominant cultures worried about the corrupted stomachs, minds and bodies.
Knowledge of how immigrant food traditions develop in the spaces migrants make their homes is crucial to understanding how our cities develop food cultures and systems unique unto themselves. In the home this can take shape as substitutions for hard to find ingredients, small adjustments that create new cuisines and cravings. But in restaurants started by immigrants or people with immigrant heritage, the cuisine is consumed by the public. Their dishes serve as semi-ambassadors to the cuisine of another place.
For this mini-series I spoke with people who, like me, call London home and feed the people of London with food from their heritage. Some of these interviewees are people I’ve cooked with and all of them are people whose voices and work I admire. Our conversations range from topics of family, visas, the wildness of restaurant life, and because we are still very much living in a pandemic, how Covid-19 has changed dining.
My key objective with these interviews is to bring a bit more texture to our understanding of the role restaurants play in our cities food systems and reveal a bit more about the work that goes on behind the scenes to bring you craveable experiences.
Immigrant food has a history of resistance. Adherence to heritage food traditions has been historically regarded as a defiant act against assimilation and been subject to state intervention. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that heritage foods have become a subject of positive fascination. The rise of recreational travel gave people a sense that knowledge of unfamiliar foods showed culture – so long as you learned about it somewhere else.
In the US this resulted in a boom of restaurants serving ‘ethnic’ foods amidst decor meant to transport you to their place of origin. This tradition gave birth to the pagodas of Chinatowns, the painted illusion of alfresco dining in pizzerias and the sombrero-ed walls of Mexican restaurants. In these spaces food was served to the curious, ready to be transported via their appetites.
In the minds of many diners going to a restaurant serving heritage foods is like travel-lite. The faces behind the line become proof of authenticity based on the assumption that the people making this food must be from somewhere else.
But to start a business that feeds the community, you have to assert your permanency in a place. Businesses don’t just appear and disappear once you have left the establishment. The people making and communicating heritage foods in their city/town/village assert their permanence and belonging to that place by setting up shop. They open bank accounts, pay taxes, become employers and if they’re successful, can even become beloved institutions.
After listening to this series, I hope you leave hungry and with an appetite to learn more about the people behind the restaurants in your own cities. These interviews are meant to show the delicate balance that needs to be struck between meeting the consumer’s expectation of a culinary experience, sharing dishes that communicate culture and the day-to-day of just making a living.
Part 1: Sonora founders Michelle Salazar and Sam Napier
Taqueria owners Michelle Salazar and Sam Napier discuss their evolution into one of London's favourite taqueros, what its like to serve and cook regional Mexican cuisine and how street food in London has taken on a culture of its own.
For gorgeous Sonoran-style flour tortillas, tacos, burritos and quesadillas, visit Sonora at London's Netil Market
Part 2: Chef Budgie Montoya of Sarap BAon
Budgie Montoya, chef-owner of Brixton Market's Filipino eatery Sarap BAon discusses his journey from high end 'western-style' kitchens to his own version of Filipino cookery and how food can give us a link to heritage despite assimilation pressures immigrant communities might face.
Chef and writer Marie Mitchell shares her journey to cooking what she calls British Caribbean food, why she thinks food is such a powerful tool for exploring identity and her experience in the industry.