On Regent’s Street, nestled between an empanada restaurant and an upscale perfumery, lies a small entranceway into a cavernous Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy. The flag outside advertises “1926-2016,” and its entrance is decorated with photos from its near-century of operation. Veeraswamy’s story is long and interwoven with London’s. This paper aims to interrogate one thread in that history, examining it as an imperial artefact. Through this lens, it will argue that Veeraswamy helped fabricate an ‘India’ for British consumption at the height of colonisation. Today, Veeraswamy speaks to the state of multiculturalism. In both periods, it exemplifies broader gendered and racialized currents. In this way, this paper is about multiple layers in Veeraswamy’s story: it is about a static place – a restaurant on Regents street – and the gendered and racialized bodies that moved within it. It is about the sociohistorical construction of Britishness and the empire and about the micro-level materiality of restaurants as places where people intermingle, eat, and interface with food.
Veeraswamy was founded by Edward Palmer, an English man with an Indian grandmother, in 1926. In 1935, it was sold to William Steward, a white British politician. Palmer served in the Indian Army, part of a lineage that had, euphemistically, “been associated with India for four generations” (Palat 2015, p.177). Since Palmer’ and Steward’s time, Veeraswamy has changed hands several times. It was not the first Indian restaurant in London, but it was one of the first with an upmarket clientele (Palat 2015). When the restaurant originally opened, it “served upper-middle-class and elite customers, including visiting Indian princes and other dignitaries as well as officer-class Britons who had once lived in India” (Buettner 2008, p.872). Indeed, Palmer’s restaurant served those – like himself – with intimate ties to colonial India. The restaurant was reasonably popular, ending up in food guides and popular with tourists (Assael 2013). Today, Veeraswamy has a Michelin star, a rare award for Indian restaurants in the UK (Veerswamy Website, 2017). Interrogating Veeraswamy requires examining its colonial history and its present iteration, looking both at symbolism and material experience.
Feeding the Imperial Capital: Veeraswamy in 1926
Veeraswamy historically represented imperial interests in three, interrelated ways: it constructed London as an imperial capital using an orientalist representation of India, it structured colonial customer-staff interactions, and it supported a colonial economy. At the turn of the 20th century, critics complained that London, the capital of the empire, “appeared a poor second to Paris in the imperial stakes.” Some even “cast London as a failed imperial city” (Gilbert & Driver 2000, p.25). The response to this anxiety was to build the city as a more visual imperial capitol, with major projects like the construction of Kingsway (Schubert & Sutcliffe 1996). The 1920s were “a time when the imperial influence was…perhaps most pronounced in everyday life within London” (Gilbert & Driver 2000, p.27). In this period, imperial London was made quotidian, domestic, and consumptive (Gilbert & Driver 2000, p.24). Restaurants represent one domestic form of imperial consumption in London; one author explains that to appreciate “the significance of the restaurant in the history of the late Victorian and Edwardian metropolis,” one must understand the “tantalizing reference to public eating in ‘Our city of nations’” (Assael 2013, p.682). Within the metropolitan imaginary, Londoners were told to “find their own ‘foreign’ London by letting their taste buds lead the way” amidst a spectacular array of options (Assael 2013, p.688).
Veeraswamy opened within this epoch of colonial curiosity, fulfilling the desire for an imperial London. In a piece about multiculturalism and Indian food in Britain, Buettner (2008, p.873) describes how Veeraswamy was advertised:
Turbaned Indian waiters provided service considered ‘an Oriental dream’ amidst…decorative accoutrements intended to connote the luxurious ‘East.’ Diners who wanted to be treated like ‘sahibs’ again by attentive ‘native’ servants and cooks had come to the right place. Veeraswamy’s allowed diners who had ‘been out East…to eat again a real curry and remember the days when they were important functionaries on salary instead of “retired” on pension’
This quote is rich with information on Veeraswamy’s role in imperial London – its language around ‘the East,’ its mention of curry, and the relationships it describes all warrant attention. Clearly, Veeraswamy meant to represent India for leisurely consumption. It advertised itself as encapsulating Indianness (‘Eastern’ luxury) with a diverse array of cultural objects. It promised authenticity in the people who worked there and their ‘traditional’ dress.
The advertisement includes that Veeraswamy serves ‘curry,’ a dish that symbolises the amalgamation of Indian cuisine into a fabricated entity to sell to the British public. Curry is not a specific dish in Indian cuisines, which are incredibly regionally and flavourfully diverse. Instead, curry as a discrete item (and its daughter, curry powder) were created for import into Britain and sold alongside a barrage of colonial commodities that supposedly captured Indian culture (Zubaida 2009). Thus, “for the British, eating curry was in a sense eating India — at least the ‘tasty’ India of spices and muslins, silks and shawls” (Narayan 1995, pp.65–66). Through the lens of Said’s theories of Orientalism, this curiosity for Indian cuisine and curry highlights the power of fabricating a place through ‘knowing’ it. Orientalism is the body of knowledge about the Orient (an imagined geography) and its production (Said 2003). For Said, orientalism requires and creates authority by denying “autonomy to ‘it’—the Oriental country—since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it” (Said 2003, p.32). England knows India – it serves its foods in its capital, it exports its ‘curry powder’ – and England creates India as it knows it, through control over industry and government (Habib 1985; Habib 1975; Sen 1998). Following Said’s argument, the India that England knows requires English rule (Said 2003, p.34). Much like the unchanging nature of curry, “’Orientals’ for all practical purposes were a Platonic essence, which any Orientalist (or ruler of Orientals) might examine, understand, and expose” (Said 2003, p.38). The India that was, effectively, served daily at Veeraswamy was a singular, unchanging entity, romanticised to appeal to the desires of the colonial visitors. It was created by and for the empire, representing a far off, ruled land in the form of edible information (like curry). Said reminds us that this form of knowledge cannot be divorced from its imperial mechanisms; orientalism both made possible and justified colonization. Veeraswamy offers an orientalist vision of India through the knowledge of its ‘authentic’ curry, an act that deploys imperial violence by making colonisation more palatable and possible.
Veeraswamy constructed imperial power at the scale of the body, in the relationships its customers took part in and the global labour flows the restaurant engaged. As such, the relationships held within the space of Veeraswamy were deeply racialized and gendered. Buettner’s description conveys the colonial performance the restaurant offered, between deferential Indian waiters and white, powerful ex-officials. This performance is situated quite literally in the context of global labour flows, which brought colonial officials from Britain to India and back again. In the reverse, Veeraswamy imported its workers from India, partaking in the stream of cheap, migrant labour from India into Britain. The customer-waiter interactions explicated in Buettner’s work (above) perform colonisation, in that customers got to ‘play act’ the authority of being British in India. They perform Britishness as a position of power and leisure. The officials who visited the restaurant to recreate India would be almost entirely male, as were waiters (see Figure 2, above). This was not out of the ordinary: “one aspect of restaurant culture” in the 20th century, “was the promotion of a form of male homosociability” (Assael 2013, p.687). Restaurants were public, and therefore male, spaces, for both those who visited and worked in them. In relation to the performance of colonisation, then, women did not have a (clear) place in the imperial imaginary (Stoler 1991). In this way, on a macro-scale, Veeraswamy represents a form of oriental knowledge, repackaged for consumption in the imperial capital. On a more micro-level, Veeraswamy offered its visitors a performance of gendered, racialized, colonial identities.
Customers at Veeraswamy also, crucially, interacted with the food served to them. Assael (2013, p.705) reminds us that “[f]ood, like sex, was experienced at the level of the intimate and the material, not merely in the domain of discourse. The cosmopolitanism of public eating was experienced directly and immediately.” As such, Veeraswamy dealt in the realm of quotidian embodied experience. The food it served, much like the people that came to work and eat there, was embedded in new global commodity chains. Being able to cook Indian dishes required “both the provision of ingredients in the metropolitan vicinity and a broader global supply chain. This was facilitated by joint-stock companies, such as the London and India Docks Joint Committee” (Assael 2013, p.695). The existence of a global, colonial commodity chain allowed for Veeraswamy to serve its version of Indian cuisine, which, in turn, bolstered the wealth acquisition of the European companies that fed and facilitated global trade (Assael 2013). On the level of the intimate and the daily, the food served at Veeraswamy perpetuated an imperial economic system. While that system would have thrived without Veeraswamy, it is undeniable that the restaurant (and others like it) are implicated in this colonial economy.
In sum, at the time of its founding, Veeraswamy fed a British desire for London as an imperial capital by providing an image of India for leisurely consumption. In that this image conveyed knowledge about the ‘Orient’ – as monolithic, exotic, and subservient – it cannot be divorced from the process of India’s colonisation. On a more intimate level, Veeraswamy also captures some of the flows between the colony and the coloniser, both in the bodies it held (imported Indian workers and colonists), the way those bodies were made and allowed to act, and the food it served.
Feeding Multiculturalism: Veeraswamy today
Following Gilbert and Driver’s approach, it would be limiting to imagine that Veeraswamy’s imperial history ended in the mid-20th century. Imperial Britishness, complex labour and commodity flows, and Indian restaurants all persisted with the fall of (explicit) colonisation. Today, Veeraswamy, and Indian restaurants in Britain more broadly, encapsulate the tension between multiculturalism and neo-imperialism. These tensions are cast across racial and gendered capital structures, not unlike Veeraswamy in the 1900s.
Today, all across the United Kingdom, curry shops and Indian restaurants populate High Streets. “England’s unofficial football anthem is called ‘Vindaloo,’” and its Foreign Secretary once said that chicken tikka masala was a nationally-recognised British dish (Highmore 2015, p.382). This popularity is not without economic repercussions; Indian restaurants form a multi-billion pound industry (Buettner 2008, p.898). Indian food is no longer reserved for colonial functionaries, it is sung about at football games, eaten after a night out, and nationalistically loved. Alongside the rise in Indian restaurants, starting around the 1970s, was a rise in immigrants of Indian descent (from East Africa and India) and immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh (Palat 2015, p.180).
The proliferation of Indian food in Britain raises questions about multiculturalism, viewed critically through the lenses of gender and race. On the one hand, perhaps the rise in Indian restaurants represents a genuine interest in and respect of Indian culture on the part of white Brits. It may reflect positive financial decisions for South Asian immigrants. For both, Indian restaurants might create a daily meeting ground of cultures. On the other hand, the popularity of Indian food with white Brits may coexist with virulent racism. It could even serve a subliminal desire to reaffirm white, imperial nationalism through an orientalist rendering of India. For those who work in them, Indian restaurants might mimic the economic constraints of colonisation. In actuality, of course, Veeraswamy and its peers do not fulfil one of these realities wholly. The following section aims to explore where Indian restaurants land on this spectrum, finding that they fall foul to an orientalist, monolithic, consumable representation of India. Yet, it also argues that daily experience can build progressive multiculturalism.
On the whole, Indian restaurants in London sell a mass-produced, homogenous version of India, ready for consumption. This serves to advertise London as a multicultural hub, without necessarily tackling racism. The majority of dishes Indian restaurants offer are not authentic (Highmore 2008). Chicken tikka masala is a perfect example – tikka is a Punjabi dish that was westernised when chefs added tomato sauce. It has been rendered static, as a curry shop favourite (Basu 1999; Highmore 2008; Buettner 2008). When the foreign secretary declared it a national dish, she conveyed a sense that British people know and have ownership over Indian food – a strikingly orientalist rhetoric. This language leads Palat (2015, p.180) to argue that the rise in Indian restaurants was partially due to “the imperialist nostalgia of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.” Here, chicken tikka masala’s popularity is employed as a testament to the country’s multiculturalism when it really expresses a desire for the ‘exotic’ (Buettner 2008). Stanley Fish (1997) labels this “‘boutique multiculturalism,’ where there exists only a ‘superficial or cosmetic relationship to the objects of its affection’ – a far cry from a full acceptance of either the cultures or the peoples in question” (Buettner 2008, p.869). Boutique multiculturalism is orientalist and superficial; it perpetuates neo-imperialism rather than tackling racism (Goldman 1992).
At the same time, it is important to be cautious of taking this argument too far. While boutique multiculturalism may be manifest in British ‘Indian’ dishes and their assimilation into Englishness, Indian restaurants can be meaningful for people of South Asian descent and can offer the possibility for genuine multiculturalism. In research on South Asian identity in London, Watson and Saha (2012) found “The majority of students described regular weekend family visits to Indian restaurants” (Watson & Saha 2013, p.2030). One said, of a kebab restaurant, “cos they are Asian they speak with us, got something in common and it’s our kind of food, it feels like home” (Watson & Saha 2013, p.2030). For these interviewees, ‘ethnic’ restaurants create space to feel at home, to bring family, or to make a community. It can provide a showcase of South Asian culture for others, expressing cultural pride through, albeit westernised, cuisines (Narayan 1995, p.76). Adopting Stuart Hall’s concept of multicultural drift, these authors argue that “it is important to emphasize the quieter and subtle ways in which British cities have simply become multicultural spaces,” replete with places of encounter within and between cultures (Watson & Saha 2013, p.2032). Thus, the restaurant space may open up the possibility for progressive movement towards inclusion. It provides “inconsequential encounters” between cultures and a safe space for people of South Asian descent (Watson & Saha 2013, p.2020).
How does one view a restaurant like Veeraswamy in the present day? I propose that Indian restaurants need to be viewed not only through their symbolic meaning, but also through the racialized, classed, and gendered ways they impact real people’s lives. In the end, both imperialism and multiculturalism play out on the scale of the intimate in significant, structure-producing ways (Watson & Saha 2013). As Narayan (1995, p.79) points out, what those “who are concerned about ‘food colonialism’ need to think about most are not the original cultural contexts of these ‘ethnic foods’, but rather the complex social and political implications of who produces and who eats such ‘ethnic foods’ in western contexts.” Indeed, real people work hard in the United Kingdom to produce food, grown around the world by others, to serve to yet more. Indian restaurants in Britain have generated significant amounts of work for South Asians. This work is still heavily gendered; women are “virtually never seen waiting tables in Indian restaurants” (Narayan 1995, p.75). It is also remarkably small-scale, as most curry shops are still family-run (Palat 2015, p.186). Yet, being a small business does not imply that curry shops have provided (economic) empowerment to British South Asians. “Many restauranteurs lead a precarious existence, earning low profits in a saturated catering market and struggling to stay afloat” (Buettner 2008, p.890). To deconstruct Indian restaurants in Britain today, we must think of them symbolically – as modalities for orientalist knowledge or a performance of imperialism – but also materially, as places of work and leisure. We must ask who works in these restaurants (often struggling Pakistani and Bangladeshi men) and how their lives are impacted. It is, therefore, deficient to deride Indian restaurants as neo-imperial or manifestations of multiculturalism, alone. They are defined, importantly, in their material specifics.
In sum, Veeraswamy’s imperial role is not a simple, concluded one. Historically, it brought the colony (India) to the coloniser. It helped construct London as an imperial capital saturated with orientalist knowledge, it contained racial, patriarchal relationships between immigrant staff and customers, and it served food that depended on and funded the global imperial economy. Today, Veeraswamy is amongst thousands of Indian restaurants in the UK. The popularity of Indian food raises questions of boutique multiculturalism, whilst also offering jobs and space for people of South Asian descent. Finally, this paper argues that the lived experiences of workers and customers, particularly as raced, gendered bodies, are central to this analysis. Working from this dialectic allows us to consider multiple readings – positive, negative, and contingent – of Veeraswamy.
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