Everyday Multiculture at Borough Market21 minute read

Issues of race, ethnicity and class have become increasingly prevalent in modern day Britain and in particular in London. Whilst at times this has resulted in racially motivated violence or harassment, there are areas of social life that have benefitted from the congregation of people from different backgrounds. One such area, I believe, is Borough Market, which is a location which displays multiculture in every day life. In this paper I will begin by looking at the background of Borough Market and how it has transformed into a confined space of specialist food retail, now drawing on cuisines from all over the world. This will lead onto the central focus of how cross-cultural exchanges take place in the form of everyday interactions that emerge when diverse individuals, sensibilities and practices converge in the space under the London Bridge railway arches. I will consider how the diasporic exchanges in the area have developed and how the produce on sale is increasingly influenced by traditions of various cultures.

I will divide my paper into two core parts. The first is looking at the variety of cultures within the market from the point of view of the stall-holders and the products they are selling and the second is to look at the diverse range of customers who enter the market, either to browse or to shop, whether regularly or in isolation. Naturally, both rely on each other to exist however it will be useful to make this distinction in trying to understand how “convivial metropolitan cultures” combine and include aspects of their cultural identities. I will conclude that both aspects are valuable to fulfilling this notion of multiculturalism in day to day life and that both elicit responses from one another. Through these exchanges we see evidence of how past traditions and cultures infuse into the present day and that whilst these have adapted over time according to developing social attitudes, they nonetheless maintain the cultural foundations of the past.

To conduct this research, multiple methods have been utilised. Borough Market is a prime example of a site in London whereby “the visual is only one of many forms of production of knowledge” referencing the other senses such as smell and sound that are needed to understand the market. As such, I have visited the site a number of times, to absorb and report on the atmosphere and fusion of different cultures. As well as taking a multi-sensual approach from visiting the market, I have drawn upon a range of literature. Besides modern texts which discuss the essence of multiculture and markets, a visit to the London Metropolitan Archives, and researching other historical material, has facilitated a better-informed knowledge of the market development and changes that have taken place.

Finally, before proceeding, it is worth noting that I have restricted this paper to look only at the culinary stalls that adorn the Borough Market quarter. I acknowledge that the market is home to retailers of a range of idiosyncratic produce, whether soaps, wood-goods, alcohol or any number of other forms, however I will focus the research on the variety of stalls selling food. As Bell points out, the sharing of food and drink is “about social identification, the sharing […] of world views and patterns of living” and by analysing retailers of both ready-to-eat meals and other fresh produce, it will be possible to see the ways in which cultural individuality is incorporated into produce and how this transcends some of the issues that exist elsewhere in society today.

Background and Palimpsest

Borough Market dates back approximately 1000 years with no known official starting date. It’s location adjacent to London Bridge, which at the time was the only point to cross the River Thames, made it a well trodden and convenient market place. It’s convenient location was also its issue in that considerable opposition existed, given it’s disruptive effect on other traffic. In the face of such criticism in the 18th Century, the local people pooled financials to create a market quarter that still exists today. Having previously sold “corn, cattle [and] other merchandise” the market developed to sell exclusively fresh food produce in the early 1900s but suffered a decline due to the rise of supermarkets and other cheap food outlets, although eventually benefited from a revival of interest towards the late 20th Century.

Initially at the time of the market’s renaissance, occasional markets were held. These soon increased in frequency owing to their popularity and has now developed into the market being fully operational on Wednesday to Saturday whilst the other days run partially. Moreover, the market is now flanked by more permanent shops and eateries which are generally open throughout the week to compliment the resignation of the hub that previously existed. As I will explore in my analysis, Borough Market is home to culinary specialities from around the world, and welcomes people from a variety of backgrounds to visit. It has become a site that requires participation, which provides an “affective experience” to a visitor and allows for the transfer of different cultural values and for elements of the past to enter into modern cuisine.

I have already alluded to the ways in which Borough Market offers an interesting site to explore palimpsest. Palimpsest is a term given where traces of past societies are retained and reflected in modern day, often being interpreted and adapted differently according to the memory that lives on. Already we have seen how Borough Market has developed over time, allowing for new layers of meaning to be added to its history however I will explore the notion of palimpsest specifically in the ways that culture is reflected and developed in the cuisine. I believe that part of the success of Borough Market can be attributed to the ways in which the food produce inherently reflects values and traditions of past societies, which creates a diverse choice for the customers who frequent the market. By analysing the inclusion of the past in the confines of the evolutionary modern food market, we can also see how such a variety of cultures can mix in society today.

Variety of Retailers and Cuisines

Beyond the financial exchanges that take place within Borough Market, there are other important social and cultural consequences arising from the interaction that are often invisible to the economic interpretation of the exchange. The market is an environment where there are a range of connections: from one end of the spectrum where a functional transaction takes place, to the other end where regulars visit the same stall holder and develop a rapport. Irrespective of the extent to which an interaction occurs, they typically take place across “different […] demographic and ethnic/racial groups” and I believe that it is the retailers in particular that facilitate this multicultural dialogue through their experience and knowledge of customers’ tendencies and preferences.

As can be seen in the selection of pictures below, the range of produce being sold, is extensive and the “outcome of a variety of technologies of representation”. The cuisines on offer draw on a variety of traditions from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. Conversations with many of the stall-holders revealed that they are typically from the country of origin or have a cultural affinity with that food which they are selling. Further discussions with a couple of stall owners reveals the extent to which cultural traditions have endured over time, for example at a Spanish paella stall where the unique recipe has been shared across generations of the same family. Whilst the recipe and ingredients have remained the same over time, originating in Southern Spain, it has now been brought to London and is shared among the many customers, each with their own cultural background. Thus, not only does the market site itself have a history, but the food on offer upholds historical traditions and is a particularly interesting was of incorporating the nature of palimpsest of the market quarter.

 Images showing cuisines from a plethora of different nations and cultures.

Images showing cuisines from a plethora of different nations and cultures.

To expand on this, and to show the evolution at Borough Market, is to remember that food background is increasingly important. During the rise of supermarkets, convenience and price were the two biggest concerns, however today the process of food is increasingly valued. One conversation with a British butcher pointed to the increasing worth of cultural capital. He said that it is now almost possible to “make as much money from your knowledge” as your actual food: people want high quality produce but also want to develop an understanding of the background and processes, he said. As mentioned previously, it is the stall-holders who facilitate this transfer of knowledge and the diverse backgrounds of these sellers offers an exciting way in which cultural provenance can be shared. This ability to share food background is especially important at Borough Market where each stall has a unique identity with innate cultural ties and moreover because of the way in which it involves face to face shopping where this story telling is possible. Whilst the physical infrastructure of Borough Market has remained, the transcendental infrastructure of food is both evolving and constant in the ways that it is practiced and shared, and is something that displays the essence of multiculture.

However, it is not only the visual nature of these food goods that reflect the diasporic influences within Borough Market. From visiting the site, and wandering among the various stalls the vibrant sights are enhanced by the smells and sounds experienced. As already mentioned, my research has found that during market operating hours, the sellers have typically originated from the same country as their cuisine. This is universally true of the ‘head’ of each stand who is managing the retail process and generally true of other employees on the stall which offers a further way for cultural identification. Over time, the workers of the market have changed from local British parishioners and churchwardens, to today where the market is the working place for people from more than 25 nationalities all with a varying duration of living in Britain and grasp of the English language. By listening to the different accents, and often languages, being spoken, one does not need to even see the food to get a grasp of the nation of origin. The involvement of different languages or sounds in today’s transactions is a further way in which the market has developed over the decades and centuries preceding where it was typically British sellers. Languages have unavoidable and unique connotations for people and I believe they offer an additional way for the nuances of certain cultures can be shared.

Image highlighting the importance of smell.
Image highlighting the importance of smell.

Further evidence of multicultural fusion is the tastes and smells within the market environment. In the same way that certain sounds hold cultural meaning to people, smells can also be intrinsically associated with certain cultures. Retailers often use this as an added way to draw attention towards their stall, or may offer small tastings as an incentive to purchase. The two most memorable smells personally were a selection of French cheeses and an Indian curry station that yielded further interest. The immediacy of cultural association with certain smells is both a good and a bad thing: I will look at some potential issues shortly, but the areas of the market where the smells were most prevalent typically appeared to be the most populated and personally it is these smells and sounds that best capture the essence of multicultural integration given their ability to transfuse across space. Whilst each specific stall confines the visual part of that cultural identity, the other sensory aspects escape these boundaries and permeate far wider to combine.

One criticism worth highlighting for this multi sensual element of Borough Market is the potential scope for misinformed prejudice. This prejudice can be split firstly regarding labour and secondly with respect to the food. Immigration is widely discussed and regularly criticised in today’s society, yet by nature of the diverse range of stalls present at the market, immigration is essential for its function. Whilst it is not possible to discuss migration issues at length, it is nonetheless worth noting the underlying importance of it to provide this multicultural environment. The importance of background has already been highlighted, and it is therefore critical for the diverse range of workers, who converge with their unique cultural produce, to be given access to an environment such as Borough Market, to allow for such cultural transfers. This is one example of both change from previous times, and offers a motivation not to so swiftly resist immigration.

Whilst different national or cultural backgrounds typically have unique tastes of food, in the market environment these flavours interact and are often interchangeable. Each production process has developed, often spanning generations, and has its own unique dimensions. Given the way national history can be imbedded within food it is equally important to be willing to try new products and allow for this cultural identity to be experienced and transferred. Referring back to the integration of different foods and combining it with the importance of seller identity, Rhys-Taylor describes the interchangeability of tastes as a metaphor for the “inter-changeability of migrant labour”. This is a reference to the interaction and inter-dependency of migrant labour, an area that is often overlooked, as a “less visible stratum to the market” but nonetheless exists as a form of culture transfer. In these cases, traders are known to exchange between themselves, generally without a financial exchange but rather a reciprocated good. These rarely-seen interactions develop cross-cultural relationships on a personal level which once didn’t exist, and are another way in which the multicultural traditions ingrained in food products can be shared.

Differences Among Customers

Unlike historically when it was intended for cheap wholesale, today Borough Market tends to have higher prices than supermarkets or other markets in other parts of London. In some cases, these prices may be perceived as justified for the better quality produce, whilst in other cases people will accept that the higher prices simply reflect the convenience and gentrified status of the market. In any case, from observation and conversations, Borough Market charges prices in excess of what can be found elsewhere in London. I do not desire to justify or criticise these prices, which sellers claim to be essential and reflect the quality and sustainability of the produce on offer, however I do believe it offers an opportunity to analyse who frequents the market. Traditional perceptions are that the market is visited by tourists and more affluent individuals who are well-travelled and can afford the inflated prices, however, the former Head of the Trustees of the market previously said that “it is not true that working class people do not come to the market”.

For the sake of brevity, I will share that my findings showed that the perception that Borough Market was a location for the more wealthy proved to be generally correct. This was discovered through observations (e.g. identifying tourists by guide books, cameras and languages spoken) and brief conversations, both with customers and more often with the stallholders who engage daily with them. Whilst my methodology is not overly comprehensive, something I will discuss at the end of the paper, it nonetheless showed enough evidence to confirm that purchases were generally made by wealthier individuals. For the sake of my project though, I believe this is particularly valuable to understand the ways in which “transcultural” interactions take effect and allow for the dangers of cultural difference to dissipate. Stallholders are typically from a more working class background, yet unlike other parts of London where different cultures and social upbringing may lead to power struggles, there is a clear lack of hierarchy within the confines of the market, something which couldn’t be said previously during Borough Market’s history when a clear distinction existed between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Nowadays the sellers hold the valued information and are respected equivalently by customers, despite the potential cultural or class separation, highlighting the positive direction of evolution the market has facilitated.

Before proceeding, I’d also like to add a point influenced by Wussendorf’s ethnography of Hackney. She points out that transcultural mixing takes place at public sites such as Borough Market, and whilst this is also true of other areas of the South Bank, within the private domain in the surrounding areas, the integration of cultures is more limited. That is to say that offices, residential properties and other more specialist retail outlets typically do not experience this wide interaction across ethnic and social classes. However, whilst on initial impressions this may appear true, I hope that the investigation of development within the market thus far has in fact shown that deeper processes of transcultural interaction exist. For example, when considering the “sensory orders” of individuals, an experience of a new ingredient, meal or even smell from the market may diffuse into daily routine, whether consciously or not. Unfortunately, this is less easy to identify given that the effects will only be visible after leaving the market but nonetheless I believe will likely lead to a multiplied spread of multiculture in the way that individuals, whether local or tourist, may inform friends and family through verbal and culinary communication themselves.

A final part of analysis regarding Borough Market’s multicultural influence and palimpsest is the way in which historical traditions may fade but can also benefit from a rejuvenation. With the rise of fast food and ready-meals, meal times are documented to have recently become a functional, rushed requirement, whereas historically, dinner was a collective, traditional affair where both company and food was valued. Whilst this change is certainly evident in recent times, nonetheless Borough Market has contributed to the regeneration of these traditions (which are already more common across Europe) by offering high quality produce in a similar form to ready meals and educating people about the provenance of such food, something people are increasingly interested in as confirmed in the previous section. An interesting interview with a British seller alluded to the way in which this tradition, led by the continental European sellers and customers, appears to be infiltrating society again rejuvenating the attitude that convivial meal times are valuable. The final way in which social and ethnic barriers are disappearing over time is the acceptability of communal eating and normality of shared responsibility. Previously meals were made by the working class or even servants and consumed by the middle and upper class groups. Generally speaking, this is something that is no longer expected and reflects some of the positive effects of multicultural integration and development in modern society.

I have already touched upon the methods I have used in this paper however as well as critically analysing the development of retailers and visitors within Borough Market, I thought it prudent to scrutinise and justify the methods I have used. An important form of research and knowledge acquisition was from existing literature and archives on both ethnographic enquiries and the market environment. Very little of the modern literature provided explicit similarities in the research project which was valuable to avoid undue influence for this research. Nonetheless, an awareness of potential bias and researcher motivations was important to ensure that no individual article dominated this research. Archival enquiry was valuable in the ways in which it offered a deeper understanding of the history of the market and provided a channel for comparison. Unsurprisingly, this was less readily available thus it was important to consider the extent of absent corollary information but was still valuable for the purpose of palimpsest analysis.

Qualitative observational data was collected through engagement in the research setting. Whilst this generally involved unstructured observations of the market in its natural form, this is not to say that it was passive. “Active looking” was required which, when combined with the active engagement of other senses has allowed for a “written photograph” to be created. Nonetheless, as Iain Hay points out, impression data risks misrepresentation on account of biases. The dependence on the researcher’s particular (in)sensitivities act as a reminder to the ways in which ethnographic accounts are, to some extent, partial. Similarly, when conducting informal interviews, reflexivity was required to avoid misrepresentation. Even so, the on-site research is still valuable and the subjective nature of research instead provides further opportunities for discussion and development, despite the fact that I sought to mitigate potential predispositions through repetition of visits and deliberately surveying the market differently each time.


In this paper I have looked at the everyday multiculture that exists in Borough Market, from both the perspectives of retailers and customers. Whilst the conflict of cultures has been scrutinised and admittedly does exist, I believe that Borough Market demonstrates the benefits of cultural interactions, in the way that the exchanges that take place, both socially and materially, transcend previous existing boundaries. The area shows the ways in which cultural traditions can endure yet also how they nonetheless develop by interacting with other customs which may in future be reflected by new social needs and relationships.

The restrictions of the paper have confined me to looking at Borough Market’s everyday multiculture in isolation, however it would also be valuable to compare the existence of multiculture to other food markets both in London (such as Exmouth Market or Berwick Street Market) or even further afield such as la Boqueria in Barcelona. In doing this, comparisons and distinctions could be made to further understand the nature of integration in a market environment. An additional study relating to Borough Market’s palimpsest would be to look at the physical and infrastructural changes both experienced and anticipated. Whilst many challenges have been overcome, the surrounding area has been developed and modified dramatically recently, with further competition from property developers likely.


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