Empires and food crimes


Jellied eels and wonder bread

By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


If ever definitive proof were required of the evils of colonialism and the dangers of empire, may I direct your attention to exhibit A: the kitchen.


Such was my most recent epiphany while visiting the island of Malta. Malta, dear readers, is located snugly between North Africa and Europe. It has been continuously inhabited for 4 millennia, and during this time has been part of the continuous flux of political and military power, having been occupied by every conceivable civilisation. Their language is a curious blend of Arabic, Italian, English and a spattering of others. It makes sense, does it not, that theirs must be the cuisine of all cuisines. The melting pot of cultures, a transitory point between the great civilisations, on the sea lanes to everywhere from everywhere for most of history. Ships had to stop here; Maltese sailors traversed the world, returning with a myriad of experiences. Its kitchen should, should it not, be the best of all worlds, the crossroads of civilisation, food-wise?


Alas, such is not the case. Left with the difficult choice of embracing the Sicilian, the Arab, the French, the Ottoman or the Greek culinary tradition (all of whose empires have coveted or acquired Malta), the Maltese people have opted not for the best of each, but have stayed true to one imperial tradition, forsaking all others. Did they pick (I hear you ask) the gastronomic traditions of the French? Might the Greek/Turkish experience have tickled their taste buds, I hear you wonder? Or, having been once part of the fiefdom of the Sicilians, plumped for the rustic cooking of those earthy southern Italians? No, for Malta is clearly a land that is as quirky as George W. Bush after a bowl of alphabet soup. Displaying a complete disregard for common sense these good folk, individual and whimsical as they get, went English. Yes, you read right. They have sought to adopt the Cornish pasty, the ploughman’s lunch, Bangers and mash, the steak and kidney pie as their national fare. Before I start receiving venomous letters from English chefs (naked or otherwise) let me add that they have sought to duplicate not English haute cuisine (a la expensive BBC TV cooking programmes), but have preferred instead to emulate the great British pub tradition. Misguided as this may sound, the Maltese clearly have a talent for such well-considered decisions. Showing great discretion, the Maltese have learnt from the best in each circumstance. They looked to Italy to learn about traffic rules, the proper use of traffic lights, and consideration for pedestrians. From the French, they have learnt the means to efficient local government.  To the Greeks they owe their love for maintaining a high level of public infrastructure.


But I digress. The point here is that just as there are civil crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity, there are also clearly also food crimes. Whatever the British may or may not have done, they certainly seemed to have inflicted a lot of damage on the collective psyche of subjugated nations by inflicting on them English food. (I will pause here to remind the Dutchmen laughing in the background that they too have much to answer for).


Lest you think I exaggerate, may I bring to the court’s attention exhibit B: the eponymous characterless loaf of white bread. This has survived in the US (free from colonial shackles these two hundred years now) as the shameful phenomenon known as ‘wonder bread’. The wonder of wonder bread is that there is any wheat in the making of it at all. This will probably be the only food available in case we ever have a nuclear holocaust, since it is known to have a shelf (half) life of several hundred years. If worn in one’s shoes it is known to destroy fungal growth such as athlete’s foot. Wheat products (along with milk products) are the staple diet of northern European societies, and since no one (apart from supermodels) likes to puke regularly, many of these people have been inventive about the variety to which they have been put to use. However while the Germans, the French –even the Scandinavians – have a large selection of different bread options, the English stuck to one basic taste-free formula, and forced this monstrous experience onto the breakfast table of every former colony in its glorious empire, which as we know, once accounted for almost half of the earth’s surface.  Before some of you English types start foaming in the mouth that I am being unfair; that bread cannot be classified as English food per se, a well informed website[1] has listed it as one of England’s most important dishes. In fact ‘bread and butter’ is apparently the third most popular dish in the UK, [literally: under ‘popular English dishes’] with the following entry:

It is common to see a plate of bread and butter on the table when eating in England. It is used to soak up the leftover gravy on your plate. British bread is delicious when it is bought fresh.


I particularly like the caveat about the freshness.


The damage in some cases has thankfully been limited to bad bread: Some of these conquered lands were able to withstand the onslaught of boiled cabbage, fried kidneys, meatloaf and black pudding by the fact that colonial types did not encourage the natives to dine with them. In such cases the damage has not been irreversible. It has been a perverse cruelty, but not an earth shattering one or irreversible one. Other lands, sadly, were populated by English folk (the US, Australia, new Zealand, and the like), and succumbed to further suffering. These people are not victims of crime, but are carriers. They know no better because they have had no other choice. They too can be redeemed. Others have lost their sense of national identity by that creeping disease that makes leprosy looks contagious: English and American tourism. May I point you to British tourist haunts such as Ibiza, Cyprus and Malta. These people are clearly victims, and the soon-to–be-created UN Food Crimes Tribunal will seek to recompense them for the evils visited on them. 


As with war crimes, ‘ignorance is no defence’. Besides which, these cruelties were often inflicted by British nationals in the full knowledge that better-tasting, more nourishing foods were available to them cheek-by jowl. I had the misfortune once of turning up for ‘Sunday curry’ at an English enclave in Nigeria – the Cricket Club’ – where a liquidy broth in which a teaspoon or two of curry powder, some marmite, a little HP sauce some mutton bones, and vegetables had been boiled with a few handfuls of roasted peanuts floating on the surface for crunchiness. Consumed – I choke here with emotion, for I have suppressed this memory for nigh two decades – with a rice that can best be described as ‘al dente’, to raptures of delight, “oh, I do love a good curry”. Good Grief. (Let posterity note that this event marked the termination of my interest in cricket).


It is possible to argue that had I not wondered into the club, no foul was committed: masochism is no crime. But it points to arrogance, does it not, how a people might have ruled the Indian subcontinent for several centuries, and not have learnt how a curry actually tasted like? Once again, may I raise the spectre of the Dutch, who along with the British went eastwards in search of spices, between them colonised the entire east Asia, acquired these elusive spices in large quantity, to this day dominate some 90% of the world’s spice trade, and somehow managed never to use any of these spices in their own cuisine?


Food Crimes are of course, hard to prosecute. But when individuals can be identified whose actions have sought to inflict harm on food, and when this has been served to unsuspecting ordinary folk who had no clue this was going to be done to them, deserve to be punished. Punishment is in the form of restraining orders placed on such people so that they are not allowed with a 100 metres of a kitchen. There are of course caveats. People, for instance, who voluntarily go to McDonalds cannot claim grievance, because it is well known that McDonalds serves food from which all taste and colour has been expertly tortured. Masochism is another defence. Allowing a McDonalds chef into my kitchen would be designated as inhuman cruelty, but a self-inflicted one.


Let us take heart in the good news. First, that Culinary Civilisation has finally arrived – somewhat belatedly – to the shores of the English isles. A million Indian and Italian restaurants that now crowd their main streets have redeemed these poor unknowing natives.  Second, let us collectively be grateful that white bread was the great curse of the British Empire. At least they didn’t inflict jellied eels on mankind. Jellied eels, for the initiated, is a collection of millions of microscopic sharp fish bones encased by a gelatine-like substance which smells and tastes exactly like axle grease. Now here is a situation where a Bush or a Blair can be a war criminal and a food criminal at the same time: Export a few jellied eels to Iraq, will you?


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[1] http://www.europeguidebook.com/england/docs/england_cui.cfm