Korma karma

Is Britain yet happily multi-cultural? How do you tell? If the way to a British heart is through the stomach, we may be more emancipated than we sometimes think. By Emily Green
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The Independent Online
So a new poll conducted by the University of Lancaster tells us 48 per cent of Britons have gone a year without eating "ethnic" food in restaurants or from takeaways. If its analysis is to be credited this indicates a staunch core of Little Englanders jealously guarding their stomachs against foreign influences. It hints at incipient racism. Forget Euro-scepticism, this looks like fully fledged xenophobia - or does it?

To start with, "ethnic" food is a contradiction in terms. Chambers English Dictionary defines ethnic thus: "concerning nations or races; pertaining to gentiles or the heathen; pertaining to the customs, dress, food, etc of a particular racial group or cult." I have yet to encounter a tomato that was one race or another, gentile or heathen, or which belonged to a cult. Nor, in common with cattle, turkeys, corn and potatoes, is the tomato indigenous to Britain. So ketchup is foreign, beloved of Americans and the Rothschilds, but is it ethnic?

It must be safe, then, to deduce that it is not food which is "ethnic", but the people who prepare it. So what have we in the United Kingdom by way of an ethnic breakdown?

Unsurprisingly, the predominant group is "white", comprised of nearly 52 million people, with only slightly more than three million Britons of Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Oriental or "other" ethnic backgrounds. So if half of us are eating out in ethnic restaurants as the survey suggests, surely this means that Britons are far from shy of multi-culturalism at the cookpot; rather, that half its population might even prefer a curry to Lancashire hotpot.

This is not to say curry is un-British. Spice paste amounting to curry powder figures in English medieval recipes, used for flavour and to mask rancid meat before the invention of refrigeration some five centuries later. Go to India, and you will find that curry itself is considered an English dish, crudely flavoured by a ubiquitous powder run up from a broad range of spices then branded by the East India Company. Its most famous deployment must be in coronation chicken, a dish arguably more English than the Royal family itself, which might prefer that great German dish, the hamburger.

Ah, the professor may also be interested to learn that the first recordings of hotpot, or hochepot, are French.

So what is authentically British? Boiled cabbage. Perhaps. Pork. Probably. Pigs were such an important food source of the ancient Celts that they were worshipped for their fecundity. Nuts. Chips? No, sorry, potatoes were imported. Roast beef? No, a way of eating meat introduced by the Romans. Eating out? No, sorry. Restaurants came from France. Tea? Indian and Chinese. Mars Bars? No, cocoa from South America, sugar from the Caribbean.

The Lancaster University survey was led by Professor Alan Warde and funded by the grandly titled Economic and Social Research Council. "If learned acceptability of ethnic food, or its frequent consumption is an indicator of multi-culturalism, then its extent is still limited" says the professor.

Professor! Surley the question is: is 52 per cent of the population consuming ethnic food a lot or a little? And what of your sampling? Your researchers claim to have canvassed more than 1,000 people in Bristol, London and Preston, a sampling about the size of a Hollywood sneak preview audience. So, let's amend the basic terms of the report. We learn very little about broad-spectrum English eating habits, but a little bit about small groups in two cities and a town.

Now let us examine the professor's own stomping ground: Lancashire. It is seen as significant that 51 per cent of those sampled in Preston do not partake of "ethnic food". ("No chicken tikka masala, thank you, we had chip butties earlier.") Ahem. According to the 1991 census, the total population of Preston was about 130,000, less then a tenth of whom were Asian, with less than 1,000 Afro-Caribbeans and 250 Chinese. So if slightly less than half the people of Preston sampled ethnic food, is this a case of cultural backwardness, or great diversity of taste? Surely it signals adventurousness - the great white appetite that led Britain to rule the waves.

Dwelling on ethnicity at the British table misses the single most relevant point regarding eating out or consumption of pre-prepared convenience food. Money. According to the Office of National Statistics, more than 60 per cent of Britons, and three-quarters of women, earn less than the national average income of pounds 331 a week. That does not leave a lot of money, even for a meal in the most modest local tandoori. So only 40 per cent of the population earns a modest living, but more than half manages to eat out at "ethnic" restaurants. Again, this looks less like a case of aversion or racism or insularity, than a passion so great it entails scrimping by the least 10 per cent of the population.

Professor Warde, the question worth answering is not what the British might fancy by way of an exotic meal, or what hue or religion we might like our cooks, but whether or not the nation as a whole can afford to eat, and whether or not the food we consume is safe and nutritiousn

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