Ten migrants living in London reminisce about the food that keeps the memories of  their homelands alive

Words and images by Tanya Houghton

Editor’s note: What is home? Is it just a physical place or a tiny dot that you can point to on a map? What helps us build a certain notion of home in our minds? Is it the people, the relationships, the tiny everyday objects we use, the pots, the chairs, the pets, the photographs, the food…? Would our stories of home be the same if we spoke a different language or cooked with different ingredients? How much of our real selves remain as we adopt newer cultures, cuisines and flavours? How much of it can we carry with us as we move on in search of newer, sometimes safer, homes?

The following photo-series, which captures the nostalgia that ten migrants living in London feel for their homelands, raises many such pertinent questions that are especially relevant in today’s turbulent times. Photographer Tanya Houghton uses little remnants from their memories to recreate images that represent what home means to them through carefully designed, evocative photographs. For these youngsters, food memories remain their strongest links to their motherlands. We join them as they try to visually recreate their personal histories through the food they ate back home and continue to eat now in London. This work, titled A Migrant’s Tale, is soon to be exhibited at the MMX gallery in London and at the Urban Photo Fest later this year.

In the context of the current border crisis, the word migrant has been recontextualised far beyond its original starting point. Through this exploratory research, I aim to reclaim this word, which essentially means moving the idea of home far from its physical and geographical location. Home is a place that stretches far beyond borders; it is a place that we carry within ourselves. We are all constantly migrating from and to the homes we have created for ourselves in our heads through our many memories and imaginations.

For this series, I spoke to 10 migrants living and working in London about their relationship to food. They narrated their stories to me–tales of their home and of their motherland. My work explores the use of food in their daily routines and their ability to pin this down as an access point to their homeland. Through a decoding process, their stories were reduced to a series of objects and food items, and placed alongside donated photographs of their family. Still-life shrines were created through a visual reinterpretation of the stories they shared with me. These shrines sit alongside their portraits and are accompanied by their own words from our conversations. Aided by memory’s ability to archive interrelated images and the need for such a generational retelling of tales of ancestry, the stories we tell ultimately live on through our daily practice and celebration of the food we choose to cook.

A Migrant’s Tale, thus, challenges the concept of home being created through multiple groundings of fixed geographical points and argues that the notion of home is an amalgamation of rituals performed through routine practices; practices through which one is able to perform a cognitive migration, travelling to and from an internal home carried within. It is a collection of narrative explorations of home and nostalgia, told through the language of food. This body of work represents a collaborative reworking of the migrant’s tale, thus exploring the relationship between the narrator and the interpreter, and stresses on the use of photography in creating a visual retelling of the migrants’ stories.

Christin

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Korean; Born and raised in Canada; 7 years in London.

“They moved to Canada in the 1970s. My dad lived in Niagara and Toronto for a bit and my mum came later. The family is interesting because they used to run this fish plant, like on the coast of Canada. So there was a lot of seafood in our lives growing up. The first thing I do when I go back home, which is indicative of how well my mum knows me, is that we go for this food.

“My mum was the type of person who grew up in a traditional Korean home, where the wife cooked. So she cooked, and  I never really cooked growing up. But between all the women, they each have their different techniques and they sit around the table with their family and [discuss] who made which Kim chi, how different it tastes. Some were sweeter; some more acidic.

“This is how I feel about food culture in general, you should go and eat what’s best in that country. If you don’t embrace what is done best there, then you are kind of going for a sub par standard of what is available somewhere else.”

Veronica

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Irish; Born in Alaska and raised in Ireland, 3 years in London.

“We lived in Alaska. Mum had us kind of baking and cooking from a really young age, especially during the winter, ‘cause there’s not much to do. You really can’t go outside. The one thing [from then that] I still make is banana oatmeal muffins. I don’t know why, but their smell just reminds me of growing up.

“At my parents’ house, it’s really different, you know, in summer time, it’s just like you have everything. You walk out [of] the back door and you have all your own herbs; you can pick all of your own salads.

“My dad is kind of a hunter-gatherer, so he kind of likes collecting limpets off the rocks on the beach and we’d fish loads of mackerel. Come September, he would tin some for the winter. A lot of the other people were just single men who moved up there on their own and were my dad’s friends and they would all come home on a Sunday and we would sit down together for meals.

“That’s a big thing for me when I’m cooking. I love having a space [where] other people can sit and talk. It’s that social thing. Even while preparing the food, it’s really important.”

Joshua

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British heritage, born and raised in the UK, 5 years in London.

“She took me to the school on a Saturday to meet the headmistress to see if she would give me a place, ‘cause I’m not actually Chinese and the school was for Chinese people. So she gave me a piece of paper and just said, “Write down all the characters you know”.

“He would get up at four in the morning and go to the fish market to get fresh food. We would pick out fresh squid that was caught that morning and I would watch him take the intestines out.

“In Japanese there’s a word; it’s called meibutsu. It literally means famous thing or named thing and every region has a meibutsu. For example, in Hirosaki in the north of Japan, apples are meibutsu. Being in Japan really revealed the pathology behind food and food culture for me, so it’s very much ingrained in how I like to eat now.”

Ania

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Polish heritage, born and raised in Australia, 7.5 years in London.

“She’d give us jobs and it was good because I learnt a lot. Although I wasn’t so into food, I always had a sweet tooth. That’s where I think my love for baking began. I don’t know if it’s reality or just a memory, but everything seems so laborious the way my grandma or my mum did things. So I like to churn things out quite quickly.

Black lemony tea always reminds me of my grandparents. They just drank it all the time. It has an aroma and if I smell that, it just takes me back to their kitchen.

“What I noticed was a real adversary to not doing a full English breakfast when I first opened. Like, people came in and that was their expectation. To me that was really strange. It was like, I don’t go to someone’s home and tell them to rearrange the furniture in their house because certain things don’t fit a certain way.

“I miss the sunshine, I miss being able to walk down certain streets in Melbourne and having so much choice for, like, where to eat and where to have coffee, and actually I could spend the whole day just eating my way through it.”

Lamin

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Gambian heritage, born and raised in Gambia, 21 years in the UK.

“The way I would prepare my food, the way I want to eat it and love it and enjoy it… it’s a kind of love, you know it’s a kind of love. A feeling you have to give the food you’re making. If you don’t give the feeling of it, if you don’t like doing it in a way how are people going to love it?

“Yeah, the peanut butter sauce is something like, a certain way. Like back home when it rains and it’s kinda cold in a way, when they make the peanut butter sauce, with the spice and the lemon, [and] when you eat [it], that’s kinda something that warms you.

“There was a time in 1981, it was during the overthrown government in Gambia, so she used to [be] scared to be in the kitchen alone with all blacks flowing everywhere, [and] I used to be there accompanying her and watching.

“Some people inspire me a lot. Food… in life, food is everything. ‘Cause [of] the joy food gives people. If you don’t have that joy anywhere and some smile, nobody can give you that smile. And, your body, when you eat certain food, your body reacts… and nah man, food is everything. Whether people see it or not, food is everything. Food gives you paradise in your life.”

Yvonne

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French-Scottish heritage, born and raised in the UK, 6 years in London.

“So in our house family meals times were super important: the pinnacle. My mum has always enforced us sitting down to eat together. To talk, to share food, to break bread; it’s like a super French thing to do.

“Like, Christmas takes a month in the planning, it’s really funny. There are a lot of email exchanges, about changes to the recipes and if we can do this and if everybody will be happy with the changes.

“There is a book. My dad has a recipe book that is handwritten, he writes up things that he has worked on over the years. It has kind of quite weirdly become a bit of a, um, a bit of an inheritance issue.

“Coming together to eat food, isn’t just about putting fuel into your body, it’s about breaking bread with someone and, you know, over food is when you can actually talk to somebody, you know, you can talk a lot about a lot of things over dinner. You know there is nothing sadder than eating alone, there really isn’t.”

Natalie

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Italian-Welsh heritage, born and raised in the UK, 7 years in London.

“She got a job in a café and met my granddad that’s how she ended up in the north east of England. She would cook every day, bake every day and food was quite a huge part of their daily life.

“My dad is very much a feeder and that’s what I am. In our friends group, Ben and I have adopted this role, incidentally, of being the feeders, so we cook food for everyone and that’s just kind of our thing now.

“So I guess that whole nurturing and just really loving food and cooking it and putting emotions into it, I guess, is what my dad has passed onto us–me and my brother. So it’s pretty much like central to my life really.

My grandma was such an amazing cook, like everything was so flavoursome. She had a skill but she would never tell us what she had done. Now I feel the same way about my dad, all his recipes I try and replicate, but can never do it in the same way: there is something he does with his cooking.”

Juergen

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German heritage, born and raised in Germany, 13 years in the UK.

“Well, when I was child, my brother and I, we always were in the kitchen in our house. Our flat was quite small, so [the] kitchen was the centre and we helped a lot in baking.

“In Germany, no one would get the idea of baking bread, the farmers had their woodfired ovens in the courtyard, but otherwise bread was fantastic.

“We had loads of rabbits. We had a breed of rabbit that was cuddly, black fluffy balls, as long as they were small, and changed colour when they became adults, really big. So there wasn’t that attachment to adult rabbits.

“I don’t know, I never had a lot of homesickness, so when I moved around in Germany I never felt really homesick. I like [the] mountains in the Black Forest; I like walking there. My wife says I look different when I’m there…. I know the place even in areas that I haven’t been to. I know my way around [there]; I get lost in cities.”

Freddie

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Spanish heritage, born and raised in Spain, 3 years in London.

“I guess, like, it’s important to me more than the food, like all the rituals and processes to have good food with my family in Spain. My Grandfather had a farm and every Sunday we’re there; my family is like super big.

“All the women, they eat and talk about things they did in the week. All the men like having arguments about politics and things like that. And, that is what I mean [when I say that I] like the ritual.

“In that place, I saw how anarchism was going really well. Like [there was] no money at all, just like basically changing things [around]… I know when I was little, no one in my family bought eggs or tomatoes or potatoes, never.

“When I go there, it’s like, I’m in the kitchen, I see my mum, but I don’t think there is nothing like [the past]. It is not a book of shadows where you can find the secret recipes.”

Mia

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Swedish heritage, born and raised in Sweden, 30 years in London.

“That summer house has been in my life from when I was born. I think they bought it when I was one. So that was my root, that was my tree; that was my root in Sweden. You actually went out, and you know they loved animals, they were very respectful and they would shoot one moose a year, and then that was it, you would eat nose to tail and it would last the whole year.

“I remember quite often, in summer, we would have blueberry pie and also every autumn, every single autumn, we would go out two or three times during the week and sometimes travel further north to pick blueberries.

“If the wind came up during the night you would not sleep, you would have to watch the boat [so] that the anchor wouldn’t get loose. ‘Cause then the boat would drift into the cliffs, and then you have no boat, then you’re going nowhere.

“I guess we don’t take the sun and the light for granted, the same as you do in other places in the world. You relish the light. If it’s light outside you just mustn’t be inside, you have to be outside, ‘cause you feel like you’re missing out on something otherwise.”