chapter
11 Pages

Introduction

The subject of this book is the cuisine associated with the British expatriates who governed, worked and settled in India, Malaysia and Singapore between 1858 and 1963. This colonial food was a unique hybrid; it was distinct and different from the food practices of Britain and Asia, but at the same time incorporated dietary components of British culinary traditions and embraced indigenous ingredients and practices from the colonies. In this respect it can be seen as one of the precursors of contemporary fusion food. In examining the development of this cuisine, this book advances two central, interrelated arguments. The first of these is that this food was developed largely through the dependence of British colonists on indigenous domestic servants for food preparation, and that this dependence has a wider significance in terms of the development of colonial culture. In making this argument, this book disagrees with much of the current historical scholarship on colonial food that suggests British colonists consumed a totally different diet from local peoples in a deliberate attempt to differentiate themselves as rulers from the ruled. The evidence presented in the following pages will show that there was no clearcut colonial divide between the two opposing sides and that in relation to food production a close relationship existed between British colonizers and their subjects. The second, closely related argument put forward here is that British colonists

did not control or direct many of the domestic tasks, including food production, that were central to the functioning of colonial homes and recreational venues; nor were these spaces as segregated as colonial rhetorical imagery would suggest. The reality and practicality of settling in lands vastly different from Britain, along with colonists’ dependence on the local inhabitants, necessitated negotiation and collaboration, especially between mistresses and servants. This dependence resulted in colonists seeking to maintain social distance in ways that were contradictory and paradoxical. The local servants

were seen as dirty and carriers of disease but were intimately involved in the preparation of food; the hill stations were established as refuges from the local people and the unhealthy tropical lowlands but relied upon domestic servants to provide essential services; clubs were an extension of the white colonial home but were staffed by armies of local servants. In this regard this book builds on the scant extant histories of domestic service in the British colonies and highlights the importance of the role of local servants in the colonial household. The image perpetuated by colonists and other Europeans of incapable, dirty and dishonest servants under their employ was quite different from their role of feeding their colonial masters. I argue that domestic servants were fundamental to the wellbeing of Europeans in the colonies; they were responsible for performing the physical tasks of maintaining the home, the hill stations, rest-houses and clubs; leaving the memsahib (a European woman in the British colonies) ample time for leisure and for promoting and maintaining the image of European colonial prestige. Furthermore, native servants, particularly cooks, were instrumental in the development of the colonial cuisine that is the subject of this study. Their knowledge of local ingredients and where to source them, their cooking skills, their resourcefulness and the cheapness of their labour together contributed to the development of a uniquely hybrid style of food. India is the primary focus of this study because, in its 200 years of being

the ‘jewel in the crown’, the Raj served as both an inspiration and a benchmark for British colonial culture. Civil servants and soldiers; entrepreneurs, missionaries and adventurers; the British men and women known generically as sahibs (a European man in British India) and memsahibs all attempted to uphold the image of empire through their codes of duty and responsibility. This study also includes an analysis of Malaysia and Singapore, not as a comparison to India but rather to illustrate that colonial culture in the form of food and patterns of domestic service was transplanted to, or replicated in, other colonies in Asia. This wider examination is in keeping with American historian Thomas R. Metcalf ’s notion that ‘ways of thinking formed during the Indian colonial experience found expression, as the British struggled to come to terms with their new colonial subjects, in comparable, if different forms of knowledge elsewhere’.2 Some of these practices took hold and evolved around local conditions while others were discarded. If scholarly work on food history and domestic service is rather thin on the ground for India, the situation for Malaysia and Singapore is even more dire. I have considered Malaysia and Singapore together in this book because for the purposes of this book, the two societies were and are socially and culturally similar.