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Fish fingers and multiculturalism

  • Published at 03:35 pm December 25th, 2020
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Curry is only the beginning of a culinary discussion on cultures

About 20 years ago the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook made a spectacularly daft speech in which he said multiculturalism was alive and well in Britain because Chicken Tikka Masala was the country’s favourite dish. I so enjoyed taking him down over that. I wrote a big piece for The Independent about how that dish was a concoction, created in a curry house in the 1970s somewhere up north where a customer ordered chicken tikka not knowing what it was and when he saw it was served dry, he made the very British demand that it be given some sauce.

The dish then went back to the bemused chef. Scratching his head, he looked around his larder and found a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup which he opened and heated with some cream and plumped the chicken into it and sent it back to the now delighted customer. As a metaphor for multiculturalism, it shows we have a long way to go. Funnily enough years later a Glasgow MP claimed his city was where this occurred, and I finally came out and did this interview about the whole story being a fake of mine.

This did not make me popular with many people, including Heston Blumenthal. He and I happened to be both staying in the same hotel in Delhi one time and we got chatting. He had a BBC crew with him, and they were making a documentary about that CTM story and they weren’t too pleased when I told him I had created this curry myth. 

The real culinary hero of multiculturalism to my mind is our humble fish finger. When my family came to Britain in 1964 from what is now Bangladesh, I was eight months old, my brother was five and my sister seven. They had a palate for spicy Bengali food, and I didn’t, so whilst everyone else at dinner time had rice and fish curry, I had rice and fish fingers. As I grew older, my spice tolerance levels rocketed upwards and the process was started by a Bengali food preparation technique called bhorta, meaning a mash. Typically, baked aubergines or potatoes were peeled, crushed and mixed with chopped onions, fresh coriander, chopped chillies and a pungent mustard oil.

In the 70s, we became early adopters of the fish finger bhorta and it was my conduit on the road to becoming a truly hardenedcurryholic. It’s now so popular that Nigella Lawson has a version of it in one of her books.

The failure of multiculturalism was what Robin Cook saw as its epitome. Curry houses across the country for decades have been serving up tonnes of CTM to people who know no better and probably don’t care. The folk who work in those restaurants wouldn’t be seen dead eating it –the chefs make a “staff curry” for them, usually made with bony Bangladeshi fish.

The subject of bony Bangladeshi fish became the unlikely topic of conversation the other day with my academic friend Sean Carey, who writes and researches heavily on the restaurant culture of the east end of London. He said that when he visits Bangladeshi restaurants, he avoids the traditional fish dishes that locals order – because he was brought up on fish fingers and presumablyconsiders life is too short to take out all the bones the way Bangladeshis can because we eat this food with our fingers.

There’s even an academic paper which addresses this, would you believe.

So, until Brits start eating fish curry with their fingers, multiculturalism remains work in progress. But the fish finger bhorta might be the mash-up we need to push us thereboth forward for indigenous Brits and backward for British Bangladeshis to complete the process by falling in love with the joy that is the fish finger sandwich.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is a London based entrepreneur who founded Tandoori magazine as well as The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants. He is Chair of EQUAL, a criminal justice action group and is a past High Sheriff of Greater London.


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