More Sour than Sweet? Food as a Cultural Marker in Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet – Mark Shackleton

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Mark Shackleton





Mark Shackleton



Food has been often used as an image to delineate national and cultural identities. The United States, for example, has previously thought of itself as a melting pot, but is now more likely to see itself as a “mixed salad”, a mixture in which there should be both unity and a recognizable and identifiable ethnic diversity. In April 2001 then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook argued in a much quoted speech that the popularity of chicken tikka masala was a metonymic expression of a positive new multicultural Britain:

Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs adapts external influences…Coming to terms with multiculturalism as a positive force for our economy and society will have significant implications for our understanding of Britishness. (Speech to the Social Market Foundation, London).

Food has even been used to define national identity. To the essentialist, you are what you eat. In May 1988, for example, the Crown Counsel for British Columbia argued that Native peoples in that state were no longer “Native” if they ate white society’s fast food. So if the Haida people were found eating, say, pizza, rather than say, fish or pemmican they would lose their rights and funds as status Indians. This prompted Thomas King’s jibe in Green Grass, Running Water, where the trickster Coyote telephones Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday, and Friday replies “Hello, First Nations’ Pizza” (332).

Food has been seen by some as a way in which minorities can gain acceptance in a multicultural society. Optimistic diaspora theorists have argued that, for example, an early sign of creolization in a society is shown by the spread of ethnic food and restaurants. Jim Wong-Chu Chairman of the Asian Writers’ Union in Canada, for example, has said (somewhat naively in my opinion) that once you accept the “foreign food” of another ethnic group you have broken the first barrier and are on your way to cultural creolization.

However, the casual consumption of another nation’s exotic foods can be a very superficial form of pluralism. Which restaurant – Korean, Japanese or Thai will be the flavour of the month this time? As Abdul Mohamed and David Lloyd (1990), speaking within a Californian context, have said “such superficial pluralism tolerates the existence of salsa, it even enjoys Mexican restaurants, but it bans Spanish as a medium of instruction in American schools” (8). In other words, eating ethnic foods does not necessarily mean toleration for minorities. Nor, to take another example, does the fact that tikka masala is the favourite takeaway in Britain mean that Britain is an exemplary multicultural nation state, blessedly free of racism.

And if acceptance of “foreign food” is a sign of creolization that acceptence is of a particular kind. When “foreign food” is sold in restaurants or takeaways it nearly always conforms to local tastes. The takeaway “Chinky” (as it is called) that is so much a part of the British high street would not be recognized as Chinese food by any native of that country. As scholars like Zlotnick (1994) and Narayan (1995) have argued, Westerners’ attitudes to “ethnic foods” may well involve forms of “food colonialism” and “culinary imperialism. They argue that when the British incorporated curry into the British cuisine they were incorporating the Other into the self, but on the self’s terms. A British invention, curry powder, an anglicized version of an Indian spice preparation, was incorporated into the British diet, a process not too dissimilar from the way India itself was ingested into Empire.

But whatever position one takes, whether food is seen as a sign of cross-cultural understanding or as a form of imperialism, it is clear that food is a strong marker of identity and culture. Food is strongly associated with personal and often with national feelings. It can, for example, be associated with home (or an imagined home), in which case it is usually associated with pleasure and nostalgia. Food can also be associated with intolerant nationalism, as in the rejection of another person’s culture, taste and eating habits. Food is, of course, essential to all. It dominates our lives, and is part of the fabric of the way we look at and talk about our world. If metaphors are the things we live by, then food is perhaps the primary metaphor of humankind.

I want now to look at a number of literary treatments of food as a cultural marker, comparing first of all Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Both novels are set in London and both have food as a central metaphor of acculturation. Mo’s novel is set in the 1960s and moves from a Chinese restaurant in Soho, to the establishment of one of the first Chinese takeaways in the suburbs of South London. Smith’s work has a wider panorama, with a time span from the Second World War to the London of the late 1990s. One of the central characters is Samad Iqbal, a Bengali who is the headwaiter in a Leicester Square Indian restaurant owned by his cousin Ardashir. My third text is Salman Rushdie’s latest novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which is transnational in scope, moving between Bombay, London and New York. Food is a less insistent metaphor in this work, indeed music rather than food is the dominant trope, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice the prime structural underpinning. Nevertheless, I shall argue that food is an important motif in this and other works by Rushdie.1

Let us consider first of all the irony that ethnic foods and restaurants do not really introduce a much-needed sense of pluralism and multicultural understanding, but in fact reinforce the dominant. This can be demonstrated on the linguistic level in Mo’s and Smith’s works through what might be called “linguistic domestication”. In Sour Sweet the name of the takeaway that the Chens set up in a South London suburb is called the Dah Ling Restaurant. “Dah Ling” is the name of Lily and Mui Chen’s home village, but by “linguistic domestication” or what Timothy Mo calls “natural attrition” it becomes anglicized to the “darling restaurant” and the two women become known as “the Darlings”(SS 95). In White Teeth Samad Iqbal, the infinitely polite, eloquent and educated head waiter, finds himself surrounded by a sea of English philistinism. Silently squirming he hears Lamb Dhansak, a spicy curried preparation of lamb with lentils, pronounced “Lamb Dawn Sock”(50); Gobhi Aaloo Saas, a dish containing cauliflower (gobhi), potatoes (aaloo) and spinach (saag) becomes “Go Bye Elo Sag” (48); and Chicken Jaalfrézhee (48), chicken with onion and spices, is called “Chicken Jail Fret See”.2 All served with chips, of course.

Linguistic domestication mirrors gastronomic domestication. As both Mo and Smith ironically observe, “ethnic food” served in Britain is in fact really British food. In Chen’s takeaway “The food they sold, certainly wholesome, nutritious, colourful, even tasty in its way…bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine” (SS 105), whereas Ardashir’s Indian restaurant is simply a larger and brassier version of all the popular ingredients that make up the classic British Indian restaurant: “…pink tablecloth, loud music, atrocious wallpaper … sauce carousel”, and of course “meals that do not exist in India”(WT 51). Chen’s struggling takeaway in the suburbs and Ardashir’s ersatz tourist trap in the heart of the West End are in fact food factories catering to local tastes. Rather than being symptoms of global understanding they are instead yet one more example of the homogenizing effect of the profit motive.

This leads us to the question of so-called authenticity. One of the reasons for going to a foreign restaurant is to sample “authentic cuisine”, but the search for the “genuine taste” of another’s culture, gastronomic essentialism if you like, is doomed from the start. Food, like ethnicity or any cross-cultural exchange, is a matter of fusions, mixings and hybridity. As both Mo and Smith humorously observe, there is no such thing as “authenticity”. Before Chen moves to the suburbs he works as a waiter in the Ho Ho Chinese restaurant in Soho. The waiters prefer Chinese customers, who they can chat with about the shortcomings on the Chinese-language menu or the latest gossip from Hong Kong, But the proprietor prefers Westerners who consume expensive and unsuitable wines and do not, like the Chinese customers insist “on a meal made up of fresh materials, authentically cooked, and presented at a highly competitive price” (SS, 29). “Authentic” Chinese prices and cooking customs in London spells bankruptcy. In White Teeth the customers favoured by the waiters are the more cultivated theatre crowds who tip big and enquire after the Eastern origin and history of the food. The younger waiters happily fabricate the information required, their furthest expedition East being their own homes in London’s East End – Whitechapel, Smithfield’s or the Isle of Dogs.

The next question, whether plural eating means a plural society, is clearly answered in the negative in both Sweet Sour and White Teeth. In Sweet Sour, for example, the English do not learn about China through eating Chinese food. The transaction at the Dah Ling takeaway is mechanical and firmly based on mutual indifference: “She (Lily Chen) and the customers ignored each other; they couldn’t even look on another in the eye. Each regarded the other as a non-person” (SS, 135). Similarly in White Teeth the cultural pluralism suggested by the names of the shops along Willesden High Street “Mali’s Kebabs, Mr Cheungs, Raj’s, Malkovich Bakeries” (WT, 54) is purely superficial. It is not a sign of liberalism, just a sign of safety in roughly equal minority numbers. As Alsana, Iqbal’s wife, notes as she hurries down the street “‘Liberal? Hosh-kosh nonsense!’ No one was more liberal than anyone else anywhere anyway. It was only that here, in Willesden, there was just enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while windows were smashed” (WT, 54). Alsana’s observation, made in the 1970s, is still true today: recent surveys in England have shown that racial violence is statistically higher in the countryside, where there are fewer minority groups, rather than in the more cosmopolitan cities. There is safety in numbers.3

But despite these manifestations of mutual disinterest and qualified integration, both novels suggest that there is an attraction in the “other” which leads to the possibility of merging, and again the key metaphor is food. In Sour Sweet Chen, Lily and Lily’s sister take a trip in the car to Brighton where they have their first encounter with fish and chips:

‘Shall we try? Chen asked .
Mui was already half-way through the door.
And the food was quite good, really not bad at all. Even Lily…had to concede it was good stuff as she bit a long finger of potato in half. (SS, 159)

This scene shows in miniature the different degrees of resistance to British life shown by the Chens. Mui is the most outgoing, the most willing to assimilate – indeed she has a child by an unnamed white man – and she is the first through the fish and chip shop door. Lily is the most resistant, the one who is most reluctant to concede the virtues of one of the few British contributions to world cuisine, and it is she who holds onto Chinese values to the end. Chen is midway, never mastering English, but more tolerant than Lily about the inevitable anglicization of their son, and it is he who suggests they try fish and chips for the first time. In White Teeth the fifteen-year-old Irie, like Zadie Smith herself, part Jamaican, part English, feels herself drawn irresistibly to the middle-class “Englishness” of the Chalfens, the attraction of the “other” being put in terms of food, forbidden fruits:

When Irie stepped over the threshold of the Chalfen house, she felt an illicit thrill, like a Jew munching a sausage or a Hindu grabbing a Big Mac. She was crossing borders, sneaking into England…” (WT, 283)

Irie’s naive need to merge with the quintessential “Englishness” of the Chalfens is ironized by Smith, who adds that the Chalfens are in fact third-generation German/Polish immigrants, “née Chalfenovsky” (283). But Smith’s main point here is not to mock Irie, but to observe that immigration and merging with the “other” is the universal experience and a universal attraction.

In what sense then does Sour Sweet or White Teeth express a positive sense of hybridity, a successful merging or creolization of different cultures? Mo’s work shows the way the Chen family slowly adapt their Chinese cultural knowledge to make it fit the new milieu. At school Man Kee, the young son of the family, learns the English tea song (“I’m a little teapot short and stout…”) and Lily is delighted, interpreting this new information in the light of Chinese values and customs: “Imagine the English having a tea song. This was really quite civilised of them – for a change” (SS, 212). There is also the surprised discovery that Man Kee’s standard fare at school, mince and jam tart with custard, is really quite good, and it is this that is served rather than barbecued pig or sweet and sour pork to the Chinese grandpa’s aged English friends. But again the Chinese perspective is not forgotten, Lily worrying that the sweet jam tart might be served too swiftly after the salty mince, and thus disturbing “the whole relationship between yin and yang” (SS, 252). But there is a generational difference. Man Kee’s integration into British life is seen as relatively trouble-free, whereas situation for the adult Chens is seen as more problematic. The novel opens “The Chens had been living in the UK for four years, which was long enough to have lost their place in the society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new” (SS, 1). This sense of in-between disorientation becomes even more marked the longer he lives in England. In Chapter 19, midway through the novel, Chen experiences what Edward Said refers to in “Reflections on Exile” as the pleasures and pains of exile, a “double vision” both disorientating and pleasurable, sour and sweet, in which the new environment is experienced against the memory of these things in another environment. The smells of the English spring are so “indescribably alien” that “they set his nerves singing”. The mud in the garden “was like a paddy field but for the heaps of dirty snow”. “Chen felt at home and yet not at home. He had been more comfortable rootless” (SS, 135).

White Teeth is not too dissimilar from Sour Sweet in that the cross-cultural mergings of the younger generations offers a positive sense of hybridity for the future:

It is only this late in the day, and only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). (WT, 281-2)

On the level of food the ironies of cross-cultural hybrid stews which break down essentialist barriers can be found at O’Connell’s Pool House (run by a Cockney Arab called Mickey), where an Irish flag rests beside a map of the Arab Emirates, and chips, egg and beans (but no bacon) is served to the Caribbean, Bengali and British customers until Magid, the son of the Muslim Sami Iqbal, returns from Dhaka and insists on having a bacon sandwich. Smith’s optimistic perspective is that a common humanity unites us, or as she puts it “there is no more English than the Indian, no more Indian than the English” (282). However, Smith does also acknowledge that not all are willing to accept that fact: “There are still young white men who are angry about that” (282), and are quite capable of violent racial attacks. Overall, Smith’s message is sweet, but the sour is not altogether forgotten.

Moving from Mo and Smith to Rushdie is to move from the primarily realistic to the mythic, though there are clear parallels between White Teeth and The Ground Beneath Her Feet: both books have male twins who have a preternatural connection with each other, both are books of ideas with an epic scale, and both take the facts of recent history and spice them with literary (and in Rushdie’s case mythic) fabrications.

Food, particularly food imperialism, is a constant motif in Rushdie’s work. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, the narrator is one Moraes Zogoiby, the illegitimate descendant of Vasco da Gama on his mother’s side, and the last Moorish Sultan of Granada on his father’s. He personifies the plurality of modern-day India. In Moraes’ view of history the West’s conquest of the East can be put down to the peppercorn. “Pepper it was that brought Vasco de Gama’s tall ships across the ocean” (4), or his mother more colourfully puts it “From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight-clear…They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart” (5). Similarly, in The Satanic Verses food and colonization are linked. In the novel Saladin Chamcha is a latter-day immigrant figure, a demonic figure to white racists. His entry into British society can be regarded as a “colonization in reverse”, the Empire striking back, if you will. Sent by his father to an exclusive English boarding school Saladin is presented for the first time with a kipper at breakfast. Knowing no better, he eats it bones and all, his fellow-pupils watching him in silence. From this he learns the painful lesson that no-one helps the immigrant in England: “England was a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it” (44), but it also leads him to the resolution that nothing will stop him. “The eaten kipper was the first victory, the first step in his conquest of England” (44). Rushdie, himself part of the wave of colonization in reverse, reminds the English that this is not the first time that England has been colonized: “William the Conqueror, it is said, began by eating a mouthful of English sand” (44).

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet the food motif is established in the opening chapter. The novel opens with Vina Apsara, a pop star diva, waking from a dream in which she sees herself as a human sacrifice, food for the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. This early on establishes the theme of the cult figure as the sacrificial victim of the media, and parallels between Vina and the death of Princess Diana are made. The narrative then tracks back to the night before when Vina had picked out a man from the crowd, who now lies dead of a drug overdose in her bed:

She had picked him like a flower and now she wanted him between her teeth, she had ordered him like a take-home meal and now she alarmed him by the ferocity of her appetites, because she began to feast upon him the moment the door of the limo was closed (2)

This sexual feasting links Vina with the maenads, the female votaries of Dionysus, who represent the uncontrolled power of female sexuality. Maenads were known to tear men apart in their frenzies, and this is how Orpheus met his death. Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara are a modern day Orpheus and Eurydice, but they also the Hindu pair Kama (the god of love) and Rati (her name means “erotic desire”).

In this world of postmodern myth words exert an endless fascination, and food puns abound. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama, that most English of Indians, who remembers with nostalgic longing grouse moors and English honey, is “a goat to the slaughter”, and will be pitilessly snubbed when he returns to London. Rai, the narrator, a photographer whose nickname is Juicy (“you see this, you see that” he says as he points his camera) wonders whether the Orphic Ormus is just Vina’s “Indian fling, her bit of curry powder” (220). Rai, like Rushdie himself, a lover of wordplay, says that the Siren appeal of the exquisite voice is devastating. Unless, like Odysseus, you stop your ears with clay and tie yourself to the mast “That goose of yours? It’s fried.” (171)

To Homi Bhabha, Rushdie’s work is a key illustration of the notion of hybridity. Chamcha, in The Satanic Verses, for example, is seen by Bhabha as an instance of the “in-between” condition standing “in-between two border conditions” (224), exhibiting the “liminality of migrant experience” (224) and “the indeterminacy of diasporic identity”(225). Through Chamcha the Classical question is raised whether the crossing of cultural frontiers permits freedom from the essence of the self (Lucretius), or whether migration only changes the surface of the soul, the essential identity remaining intact (Ovid). This debate is returned to in The Ground Beneath Her Feet through the notion of disorientation, literally “loss of the East”, the shaking off of national limitations and the entrance into a free space where identity can be renegotiated or even refashioned. In Sour Sweet Chen experiences disorientation as both pleasurable and painful as the smells of England come to him in spring. But in Rushdie’s work this is taken much further – the idea of disorientation as liberation:

What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on – what if it’s all a scam? What is all of it – home, kinship, the whole enchilada – is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut you ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! (193)

This vision of global cosmopolitanism would appear to have great appeal to Rushdie himself, though a tension is still maintained in The Ground Beneath Her Feet between the realities of actual place and the joys of transnationalism. Note that Rai’s vision of disorientation is hypothetical (“What if…”), and the dream is countered by the strong pull of home – the smells and tastes of Bombay that Rai lovingly evokes:

O fierce intensity of childhood seeing!…I remember a couple of Navjotes spent guzzling food served on the leaves of plantain trees, several Holis drenched in colour…the pungent mingled smells of putrefaction and hope…I remember Bombay. (172)

In “Imaginary Homelands” Rushdie explains that Midnight’s Children was born after a return to Bombay, and The Ground Beneath Her Feet is still partly the exile’s attempt to build a lost city, an India of the mind. But it is also a novel that links continents and cultures and explores the universal consciousness of myth – that whole enchilada.


1. See also Mita Banerjee. The Chutneyfication of History: Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Bharati Mukherjee and the Postcolonial Debate. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2002. Back to text

2. I am grateful to Florence D’Souza for decoding these culinary conundrums. Back to text

3. See “Risk of race attacks highest outside Britain’s big cities, survey reveals”, The Observer, Feb 18,2001.,2763,439683,00.html accessed 30.11.2004. Back to text


Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Cook, Robin. “Robin Cook’s chicken tikka masala speech”.,2763,477023,00.html accessed 30.11.2004.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. and Lloyd, David. “Introduction Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse: What Is To Be Done?” in The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

Mo, Timothy. Sour, Sweet. London: Abacus, 1983.

Narayan, Uma. “Eating Cultures: Incorporation, Identity and Indian Food”, Social Identities, 1995, Vol 1:1: 63-97.

Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet.. London: Vintage, 2000.

_____________ “Imaginary Homelands” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

_____________ The Moor’s Last Sigh. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

_____________ The Satanic Verses. Harmondsworth: Viking, 1988.

Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. R. Ferguson et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

Wong-Chu, Jim. Unpublished taped interview with Mari Peepre.

Zlotnick, S. “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England”, presented at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Food and Culture, University of New Hampshire, March 1994.


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