#233 Processed food, sugar, spices and British Colonial History with Sathnam Sanghera

07 Feb 2024

Sathnam Sanghera’s journalism has covered far reaching topics including racism, homophobia and even pianos in train stations which he bizarrely doesn’t like. But when he decided to turn his attention to Empire and Britain’s colonial history, the backlash he received from the public and even some historians was fierce and unnerving. In fact, Sathnam has received abuse online, ridicule and even death threats.

As a person of Indian heritage with their roots in the divided provinces of Punjab and Bengal, I thought I knew a lot about British history. But I didn’t realise how little I knew until I read Empireland and watched some of Sathnam’s incredible documentaries on Channel 4.

Today we tell the story of British Imperialism through the lens of food. Spices, Sugar, Potatoes, Cauliflower and even processed food. These are all ingredients I thought I knew about! But when you dig a little deeper you can uncover just how incredible our past is and what we can learn from. 

As we negotiate a new relationship with the wider world, it’s never been more important to understand the nuance of our national history. At no point in todays discussion do we refer to Empire as either good or bad. Like the weather or our relationship with our immediate family, it’s complicated. I also think the medium of social media is the wrong place to have these discussions that require compassion instead of judgement as we wrestle with uncomfortable and sometimes brutal historical truths. 

I hope todays discussion will enable you to cherish food in a new light that appreciates its complicated past, as well as how grateful we should be for the variety and selection that adorns our market shelves.

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in Wolverhampton in 1976. He entered the education system unable to speak English but went on to graduate from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. He has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards twice, for his memoir The Boy With The Topknot and his novel Marriage Material. Empireland has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, was named a Book of the Year at the National Book Awards of 2022, and inspired both the Channel 4 series Empire State of Mind and Sanghera’s children’s book about the British empire Stolen History.

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Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in Wolverhampton in 1976. He entered the education system unable to speak English but went on to graduate from Christ's College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature. He has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards twice, for his memoir The Boy With The Topknot and his novel Marriage Material. Empireland has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, was named a Book of the Year at the National Book Awards of 2022, and inspired both the Channel 4 series Empire State of Mind and Sanghera's children's book about the British empire Stolen History. He lives in London.

with Sathnam Sanghera
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