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Along the curry mile

<strong>Balti Britain: a Journey Through the British Asian Experience</strong>

Ziauddin Sardar


Early in his personal account of British Asians, Ziauddin Sardar takes us to the Midlands, the home of balti cuisine. With gentle humour, he disabuses us of the notion that balti is particularly traditional, or unique. Not only does it have nothing to do with Baltistan, the mountainous north-west of the Indian subcontinent, it does not have much to do with balti, a Hindi/Urdu word for bucket, either. A modified version of karahi, the Indian wok, balti is a Midlands improvisation, a British variant supposedly in tune with the palates of these isles.

Sardar's primary interest is in these kinds of adjustments, which have grown the more Asian lives have become enmeshed in Britain. Interestingly, Sardar uses "India" to describe the ancestral home of British Asians, while consistently reminding us that he comes from Pakistan. This is to evoke pre-Partition India and the commonalities of the land mass between the Durand Line and the jungle on the border with Burma.

There is no one defining British Asian experience, at either the individual or the collective level

Sardar's account draws primarily on his own life: the child of Pakistani immigrants, he endured racism at his school in Hackney before working on the pioneering Eastern Eye at Channel 4 and establishing himself as an important voice in the British discourse. Sardar goes beyond this story, however, showing the historical links between India and Britain. A committed anti-racist and anti-colonialist, he makes the angst-ridden discovery that his grandfather fought for the British and was honoured for valour in imperial wars. He notes that 20 of the 27 Victoria Crosses awarded in the Burma Campaign went to Asians.

Sardar argues that Asians have enriched British life. In support of this idea, he turns to cricket, culture, cuisine and cinema. A broader sweep including business would have made the point more forcefully: Swraj Paul, Karan Bilimoria, Kirit Pathak and Gulam Noon do not figure here; without them, Britain would have been poorer, in every sense of the term.

Such absences prove Sardar's point - that there is no one defining British Asian experience, at either the individual or the collective level. The book is a rich and vivid portrait, but primarily that of a particular British Pakistani Muslim experience. Other stories remain untold, among them the Asian/black experience of the 1970s, when the two communities came together and strengthened the anti-racist movement. We do not meet Jayaben Desai and her co-workers organising at the Grunwick photo lab in 1976. Neither do we hear of Hanif Kureishi. And there is scant reference to Salman Rushdie, even though the "Rushdie affair" was a milestone in forging British Asian identity, within and without the Muslim community. Indeed, since then, Hindus and Sikhs, too, have been intolerant of art or theatre they do not like.

An Indian meal cannot include the whole menu, and even a buffet offers only a selection of dishes from particular regions. That is why you won't find dosas at a tandoori restaurant in Southall, nor fish pakora at a Gujarati savoury stall in Wembley. We leave it to the chef to select the ingredients and make a balanced meal.

Sardar is a wise chef and offers us an engaging tale. And, fortunately, he is also conscious that there are other, unexplored restaurants along the curry mile.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama