South Asian food is more than consumable. It is an emblem of the cultural migrancy brought to London from around the world. The rich and homegrown flavors grown in gardens from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, and parts of Africa and the Caribbean, are carried overseas by the diaspora with as much strength as there is flavor. Mango pickle and spices are icons in diasporic film and literature. “Chutnification” is a cultural motif used by Postcolonial artists that signify the merging of South Asian and western “culture” from the emerging migrancy of the 60s onwards. The hot weather can spoil fruits and vegetables, so preserves are an ever present addition to dishes. The mango is immersed in spices and oils that pack heat.
The potency of South Asian food changed the way Britain ate, inspiring newer and “hyper-authentic” curries disrupting the boundary between the English and South Asian migrants. It’s still surprising to many that curry is not actually from India and the name is an English invention. It still became a derogatory stereotype to label South Asians as “smelly” and “dirty.” Many South Asians have stories about being bullied in the playground because the contents of their lunchboxes differed from white children.
For queer South Asians, being Othered by peers as well as being closeted can lead to a loss of childhood experience. Myself and many other QPOC in their twenties are catching a second-wind of childhood that embraces silliness and a flippancy for authority.
I joined London-based photographer and stylist Zee Waraich for a photo series that reimagines South Asian food in the Western diaspora. We were two queer Punjabis in a bedroom carefully applying cumin seeds to eyelids and powdering turmeric onto fingertips. It was liberating, to wordlessly work with raw materials that bound us together and make it beautiful and editorial.
We personified pickling mangoes, the kutta-meetha and the oil, a reminder of the coconut, olive, and sunflower oils we’d braid into our hair. The food and oils with all the seasoning and care in pickling can eventually look and feel chaotic.
We don’t always appreciate the carefully constructed alchemy of colors and flavors, or the shades of foundation we need to mix together to get the perfect blend. But food can tell us that story. We could turn up to a family wedding with our lipstick in tact and get carried away at the self-service buffet. The post-buffet greasy breathlessness isn’t ever grotesque. We want to celebrate the satisfaction and sensuality food provides outside the confines of western table manners.