Travelling with cuisines: Immigrant entrepreneurs and the remaking of culinary cultures in Copenhagen
Cuisine, like any socially constructed thing, is not fixed but is continuously redefined as it moves through time and across space. Particularly, when cuisines travel, they are simultaneously reshaped by their new environments while retaining impressions of where they came from. This process of remaking a cuisine is not an abstract one but is concretely realised by individual producers of cuisine, especially those who consciously travel with it. Comparing the experiences of two migrants in Copenhagen, we explore how they engage with the construction of their national cuisines in the development of their own food businesses. In their business strategies, they engage with the constructed nature of cuisine and specific imaginations of where it came from to remould the dishes they serve and meet the desires of their distinct customer bases.
Maryam is the owner of a Malaysian food-stand in an international food market, CPHFood. She caters to mostly local Danes and tourists to Copenhagen in search of a cosmopolitan eating experience. She proudly explains the aim of her business is ‘to show the world, this is Malaysian food’. Maryam serves two dishes; chicken satay and Nasi Ayam. Driven by her desire to ‘promote our food’, she selected these dishes because they are distinctly Malaysian. Maryam is, however, sensitive to the fact that her Western customers may not be familiar with Malaysian cuisine. In fact, she argues that its exoticism in Copenhagen adds a considerable degree of value, ‘it’s from Malaysia, which they cannot find anywhere here.’ Nevertheless, Maryam adds that ‘you have to make sure it is acceptable to the other countries, otherwise, they won’t like it’. This negotiation between making the dish desirably exotic but palatably acceptable to her Western audience directly informs the reproduction of her cuisine in Copenhagen. While she maintains her dishes are Malaysian, she is forced to adjust the ingredients and recipe based on her own understandings of the Western palate. She claims, ‘here they are more chicken lovers than meat lovers’, and that there is a wide demand for vegan options. Consequently, she serves her peanut sauce ‘vegan-ready’ and uses bland chicken instead of the more authentic beef tenders.
Balancing her customers’ paradoxical desires, Maryam strategically produces a version of Malaysian cuisine that is attractively exotic but also non-threatening to the Western palate. In doing so, she however admits, ‘my satay here is not the same as what we have back home’. This admission sits awkwardly with her desire to show the world authentically Malaysian food. The tension rests on the sticky issue of ‘authenticity’ and what is authentically Malaysian cuisine. For Maryam, authenticity is produced in numerous ways that are largely defined by the consumer’s imagination. To Malaysians, authenticity stems from a shared knowledge of the specific ingredients and preparation. However, Maryam’s Western customers do not share in this understanding. This enables her to adjust the preparation of the dishes, while maintaining their Malaysian identity in other ways based on how she believes her customers imagine her homeland. For instance, knowing that her clientele perceives Malaysia as exotic, she decorates her stand with tropical flowers and silhouettes of the Kuala Lumpur skyline, constructing an imagined faraway home for her food. Engaging with her customers’ imaginations of an exotic Malaysia, Maryam remakes her cuisine in a way that may not be completely authentic to her, but is authentic to her foreign customer’s imagination and her business in Denmark.
Maryam’s efforts contrast with those of Omar, the Palestinian-Lebanese owner of a café in one of Copenhagen’s Middle Eastern immigrant neighbourhoods. Catering to a large Middle Eastern immigrant community, Omar is concerned with creating a place his customers ‘can feel at home and eat the kind of breakfast they are used to’. He offers a wide selection of Lebanese and Palestinian dishes, and selected them ‘because they are exactly the dishes we used to eat in Lebanon’, reflecting his intention to provide a culinary diasporic home for his largely Middle Eastern customers. Similarly, the café space is designed to give his customers a ‘Middle Eastern feeling’, not to whisk them away to some foreign land but to prompt nostalgic connections to a distant home. He expects his customers to be familiar with the Middle East, and so he constructs an imagined home for the dishes that his immigrant patrons have a longing for.
At the same time, his menu includes a selection of Lebanese-Danish/European fusion plates, such as a flatbread pizza or Middle Eastern ‘brunch’, that could hardly be labelled traditionally Lebanese. Omar explains they are ‘mostly for the New Danes’ (second-generation immigrants in Denmark), and admits that ‘we don’t really know them from our countries, but they are so popular here. Our own children love them’. By meeting the tastes of these younger customers, Omar is not completely giving up on his desire to create a diasporic culinary home for his patrons. He understands that these younger customers feel at home in both Middle Eastern and European flavours, so he expands his menu to reflect his customers’ own expanding ideals of home. Unlike Maryam’s use of exotic imaginaries of her cuisine, Omar focuses on producing food that represents something familiar to his customers, whether it originates in the Middle East or not. By serving pizza or brunch alongside Lebanese plates and in an environment designed to be nostalgically Middle Eastern, Omar is able to create a culinary home for both his immigrant patrons and their children.
Travelling with their cuisines and developing food businesses in Copenhagen, Maryam and Omar do not simply reproduce their culinary culture in Denmark. They reshape it in reference to imaginations of where it came from and the realities of where it is now. They engage with their customers’ imaginations of their cuisine and create dishes to provide them with distinct experiences – be that feelings of home or meeting the exotic. Sensitive to their surrounding environments, they adapt, remould, and create unique value in their cuisines as they navigate global flows and specific localities.
Samuel is an MA student on the Advanced Migration Studies course at the University of Copenhagen. His research interests include the relation between culture and migration, and more recently histories of migration in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is currently completing his MA thesis which explores mobility between the British colonies and Central America at the turn of the 20th century. Beyond research, Samuel dedicates his time to refugee and migrant activism.