The Afro-Asian Grocery: Unpacking Stories of Food, Exile and Community

Located on St. Marks Road in Bristol’s Easton neighbourhood, Bristol Sweet Mart is an ‘Aladdin’s cave of food’. It first opened its doors in 1978 and tells the story of how a family of exiles transformed their lives, and those of the communities around them. Owner Kassam Ismail Mojothu found himself in a ‘refugee’ camp in Watchet following the Asian expulsion from Uganda in 1972. After visiting Bristol one day, he decided to settle there with his wife and six children. The grocery, now a thriving business, boasts a product selection of 8,000 different items from around the world. Mojothu himself has been honoured by Bristol City Council with a plaque to celebrate his contribution to the region.

Bristol Sweet Mart plaque

Why is this important? This story of the humble origins of a family grocery demonstrates that Afro-Asian connections are not just a feature of the Global South. The migration of approximately 103,500 East Africans of South Asian heritage to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s attests to the entanglement of global identities.

The exchange of peoples, goods and ideas between East Africa and the Indian subcontinent has existed for centuries. In the chaotic politics of decolonisation, however, hundreds of thousands moved to the UK, Canada, India and elsewhere. During oral history interviews I conducted with diasporic South Asians from East Africa, migrants discussed their African connections. While inter-ethnic differences prevailed amongst South Asians in the UK, interviewees freely discussed their so-called ‘Africanisation’. Much like the author M G Vassanji, they explained ‘we have been Africans for generations’.

Photo credit: Mohammed Amin

One of the most interesting sites of Afro-Asian connectedness as narrated by my interview participants relates to food. This is significant because food is connected to time and place in important ways. One of the first kinds of shops established by East African Asian migrants in the UK were small grocery shops that catered for Indian and African cooking. Memories of plantains, cassava chips, antelope, bazari (pigeon peas in coconut), banana and amaranth leaves, ugali (maize), and mishkaki (chicken kebabs) were fused with Indian spices.

A further example of this includes Bobby’s restaurant on Leicester’s Belgrave Road, which has made a name for itself as a Gujarati vegetarian restaurant. Ugandan exiles, Mr Bhagwanjibhai and Mrs Manglaben Lakhani, opened the restaurant in 1976, putting to use Mr Bhagwanjibhai’s entrepreneurial experience, and Mrs Lakhani’s culinary talents. The restaurant serves traditional Indian sweets to Africa’s ntamu mtoto (sugar children).

Here in Britain, East African Asians embraced their new settings, adapted their homes, their language, and their customs to include local, multi-local and transnational elements. The changing traditions of East African Asian food to incorporate aspects of Indian, African and British cuisine has resulted in the development of a distinct new cuisine. Meera Sodha, a Ugandan Asian chef and author of the cookbook Made in India, Cooked in Britain, has written about how her mother’s daily cooking habits led to many ‘happy accidents’. She has described the ‘magical alchemy of local Lincolnshire produce and Gujarati knowhow’.

Meera Sodha’s guest menu at Bristol’s Thali Café

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s The Settlers Cookbook similarly traces the story of migration and food. Alibhai-Brown asserts that food ‘gave migrants one way to belong’. Her recipes for spicy shepherd’s pie and saffron and lime Victoria sponge form part of a continuum, reproducing memories of home comforts in diaspora.

Interview participants would frequently offer East African Asian dishes, and would delight in pointing out their African influences. It is from this merging that a distinct East African Asian identity is communicated in diaspora. Food, as argued by Panikos Panayi, can be understood as an aspect of ‘appearance that differentiates one group from another’. In the absence of physical reminders, East African Asian dishes in this way can serve as an important signifier of difference, a source of cultural memory and a site for cross-cultural interaction.

This, I hope, shows that these diasporic South Asian identities are importantly East African. They are, as Avtar Brah argues, ‘constituted in the capillaries and sinews of the economic and social life worlds of Asians and their experiences in East Africa’ — or in other words, they are constituted in Afro-Asian connections.