chapter  1
27 Pages

What empire builders ate

The fundamentally hybrid character of the colonial cuisine derived from a multiplicity of influences, including the food practices of the Britons who ruled India, Malaysia and Singapore and the food traditions of the indigenous peoples from these colonies. The development of this distinct and separate hybrid cuisine among Britons can arguably be seen as the precursor of fusion food. Significantly, this cuisine developed largely through the reliance of colonizers on their domestic servants for food preparation. Among the handful of scholars to have considered food history and imperialism, some assume that consumption of certain types of foods became markers in distinguishing the colonials from the colonized. This school of thought contends that British colonizers consumed only British types of food in order to differentiate themselves from the colonized.2 This chapter, in contrast, argues that the British did not eat only British foods but foods strongly influenced by Asian cuisines. Indeed, it demonstrates that the food practices of the British in Asia constitute a recognizable and legitimate cuisine with distinctive features. Furthermore, this colonial cuisine evolved over time and was not a deliberate act of imposing imperialistic designs but involved a process of combining local and European ingredients and dishes through the efforts of the indigenous servants, under the broad direction of their memsahibs. In departing from what other scholars maintain, this book contends that a distinct colonial cuisine emerged as a result of negotiation and collaboration between the expatriate British and local people. Nevertheless, within this relationship there

was space for social distance and separation. This chapter reconstructs the emergence of the colonial cuisine by examining Anglo-Indian and other colonial cookbooks, and personal accounts from my questionnaire, diaries, autobiographies and travelogues. In food production and consumption, there was no clear-cut colonial divide

between two opposing sides. I have examined whether certain foods consumed by the colonizer were peculiar to each colony. This study argues that the colonial experience was a fluid enterprise and foods eaten by colonizers in each colony made geographical leaps to other colonies, and, in the process, post-colonial societies adopted and adapted to ‘colonial foods’. Anglo-Indians came from different occupational backgrounds, from the armed forces, administration and commerce, and different classes with different dietary habits. The colonized in India were from different castes and classes, again with different dietary practices, and these influenced the food practices of Anglo-Indians. Thus, the colonial cuisine was a hybrid cuisine with some elements of British foodways and components of foodways from the colonies. The cuisine that was adopted by the majority of the British in India,

Malaya and Singapore was replete with peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that evolved over decades and were influenced by various factors, such as the availability of Western and local food, cooking facilities, input by domestic servants and traditions from the home country as well as the colonies. This was in spite of the diverse groups of British colonizers who came from varied backgrounds, in the government sector were administrators, health professionals, educators, military personnel; in the private sector were importers and exporters, retailers, those working on agricultural plantations and still others engaged in missionary work. Each group adopted food practices peculiar to their social standing and their professional status. Within India there were differences in foodways in the presidencies, districts, hill stations and urban centres. In colonial Malaysia and Singapore dietary habits differed between those who lived in urban centres and those in rural environments. Differences also existed temporally – food habits were markedly different from the time when colonial rule first began to the period immediately preceding independence. In addition, the groups from which domestic servants in the colonies came were just as disparate. The diversity of the groups that were in differing castes, ethnicity, races and religions added their peculiar influences to food and food preparation. The colonial cuisine with its hybrid dishes of countless types of curries, mulligatawny, kedgeree, chicken chop, pish-pash and the inimitable meal of tiffin (light lunch or snacks, the Sunday curry tiffin is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3) was familiar and recognizable to the colonial community and only absent in the grand banquets at Government House. The colonial cuisine persisted well beyond the end of colonial rule for both ex-colonizers and postcolonial societies and has survived in some of the clubs, hotels, restaurants and rest-houses in the colonies aswell as in the homes of former colonials spread across the globe. Respondents to my questionnaire indicate that they revisit their favourite dishes of the colonial era at home. At

the same time, there seems to be a following among the elite in postcolonial societies who frequent those clubs and hotels where the cuisine survives.