As an Indian American wandering through Scotland, there isn’t a lot I find familiar. Instead of finding the local Ralph’s, I’m at the neighborhood Tesco trying to figure out what an aubergine is. Already, I’ve gotten lost countless times on the streets that change names every few feet, and the California sunshine I’ve come to know and love has been replaced by a perpetual gray.
But the one familiar thing I have found is Indian food — a lot of Indian food. It seems as though for every Scottish pub and burger joint, there’s a Mother India or Mumbai Mansion right next door. It’s a surprising taste of the spices back home in a place laden with meat, potatoes and salt. Scotland even has National Curry Week next month. From a culinary perspective, it makes sense; Spice-laden curries are the stark opposite of traditional Scottish cuisine, often criticized for its blandness.
But Scotland isn’t exactly a “brown town” — in fact, a massive 96 percent of its population is white. Historically, the appetite for curry in the West was born out of the spice trade but rose in the 19th Century, and today much of the UK’s Indian cuisine has adapted to European tastes (read: bland). The Scots have retained their love affair with the cuisine from the former British colony, with whom flourishing trade enabled their growing political power. Indeed, modern Scottish-Indian food is a prime example of how centuries-old political history affects aspects of cultural life today. Even though the power disparity between a colony and its colonizer could not have been wider, colonization left each nation with cultural remnants for centuries to come — for India, it was cricket and tea, and for the UK, it was Indian food.
Even to a tourist, it’s clear that Indian cuisine plays an extraordinary role in Scottish life. Given its history, I’m confronted with the question: Is Indian food in Scotland more Indian or Scottish?
The Scottish newspaper, The Glasgow Times, put it this way: “Perhaps it’s time we learned from them and started to regard Indian food as ours, as part of our own culinary culture, rather than some sort of exotic otherness that we have no stake in.”
Maybe for such a hallmark of Indian culture to flourish in a largely white nation, it requires either an exoticized perspective or a complete co-optation. The scenario bears parallels to other outcries of food appropriation. As a writer recently wrote on the appropriation of pho in America, “western countries have long adopted and profited from developing nations’ dishes, sometimes exoticizing and fetishizing them in the process, and failing to give due credit to the originators.”
What’s missing in the reimagining of ethnic foods in Scotland and elsewhere is a renewed appreciation of the origins and evolution of the cuisine itself.