Looking for a keema matar recipe online yesterday for dinner, I stumbled across Afelia’s Kitchen. A British Bangladeshi Londoner and mum of 4, she cooks what I can only describe as Anglo-Bangla fusion family grub, and has – deservedly – 82,000 Instagram followers for her simply photographed, clearly explained and tempting-looking recipes.
I’d been expecting the website to deliver just South Asian recipes so, on delving around, was surprised to find pakoras and make-ahead Ramadan ideas mixed with pasta dishes, coleslaw and one for masala spiced roast lamb with roast potatoes and – intriguingly – a spicy gravy that combines naga pickle (which I’d never heard of but looks hot enough to strip paint) with sriracha sauce and (wait for it) Bisto. I’m sold.
I share Afelia’s Kitchen not just because you really should try the keema matar, but because food is often used as a proxy for the benefits multiculturalism brings and I can’t think of a more iconic fusion recipe than a classic Sunday roast with a South Asian spice rub and savagely chilli’d-up Bisto. It made me think about cultural integration, and how bad politicians are at approaching it.
Here’s what fusion looks like when attempted from the top down. European Union politicos across Europe and Africa submitted recipes for a collection celebrating the cultural diversity of Africa and Europe. It was billed in a press release as ‘the ultimate diplomatic tool to bring two continents to the table’, but I suspect its impact was probably confined to bringing the people who produced it to the table of a no doubt tasty but impact-free dinner, before disappearing largely without trace.
Politicians being rubbish at approaching cultural integration is a problem, because politicians also push immigration, diversity and the movement of people. There’s a piece missing. I humbly suggest that Afelia’s Kitchen gives us a clue as to what that piece is.
The missing piece is mothers. Coming at it from another angle, Mary Wakefield discusses here the below-the-line chat of mothers debating whether or not it is okay for Muslim mothers to stop their children socialising with non-Muslims. I can see why a devoutly Muslim mum would do it: you live surrounded by people who profoundly do not share your values, and you want your children to grow up with the right values. So you try and control their environment. All mothers do it, in different ways, all the time: whether it’s managing screen time or screening their social circles.
Going by the photo on her website, Afelia is a hijabi, but you can see by the food she cooks that her life, and the life of her children, is not held apart in this way, because neither is her food. I’m willing to bet her kids will grow up with a mix of friends from a range of cultures, plus a high tolerance for very hot chilli. Good for them. There is no going back now to the overwhelmingly white Britain of decades gone by, even if we wanted to; the only way forward is integration. But politicians don’t seem to know how to approach this.
The EU’s celebration of culinary diversity will, I humbly suggest, achieve precisely nothing to forge bonds between people of different backgrounds because it was not created by mothers, nor even with mothers in mind. Frankly if politicos did try and create a fusion recipe book for mothers with the aim of forging links across different cultures, it would almost certainly be so cringe-inducing as to sink without trace as well.
But if the kaleidoscope of cultures that now makes up modern Britain is ever to settle more comfortably than at present into a new iteration of a more widely-shared national culture, my hunch is that it will take several generations, and it will be driven by mothers. Looking up recipes from a style of cooking they aren’t familiar with, so as to make something for a kid who’s coming to play. Allowing space for those playdates to even happen. Seeing that process move forward glacially as their own children grow up and do the same. If you want to help the process along, give mothers the space to do what they do. The problem for politicians is that this aspect of culture isn’t easily amenable to top-down interventions. If it were to be approached at all, it might be done obliquely, for example by supporting the existence of more and better spaces where mothers from different cultures might find themselves rubbing shoulders while getting on with their lives. That’s how it starts.
Politicians are rubbish at culture, and cultural integration, because they have nothing really to offer mothers. Because politicians rarely if ever think about family life except as something to meddle in. But if it’s not a stretch to quote Steve Bannon in a discussion of cultural integration, politics is downstream of culture, and all culture starts, ultimately, with mothers. If we are to leave this uncomfortable and fragmented cultural moment for the sunlit uplands of some more harmonious national culture, our politicos will have to put a bit more thought into how public policy can support giving mothers with different backgrounds the space to come together, and to let their children do the same.