A taste of empire: food, the colonial kitchen and the representation and role of servants in India, Malaysia and Singapore, c. 1858-1963

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated] This thesis is a social history of colonial food practices in India, Malaysia and Singapore and of the contribution that Asian domestic servants made towards the development of this cuisine between 1858 and 1963. This approach locates the thesis within the increasingly important historical literature on ‘foodways’ – practices associated with food and eating – within the colonial context.

It departs from other scholarship which maintains that colonizers (Europeans) followed a completely different diet from the colonized (Asians) in order to differentiate the rulers from the ruled. Instead, it argues that a distinctive colonial cuisine emerged as a result of negotiation and collaboration between the expatriate British and local people. The cuisine evolved over time and was not subject to a deliberate act of imposing imperialistic designs but involved a process of consuming local and European foods through the efforts of indigenous servants. The memsahib’s supervisory role in the household, the servants’ local knowledge, the lack of European foods and the availability of local ingredients contributed towards the colonial cuisine. Nevertheless there was space for social distance and separation.

This study emphasises one of the paradoxes of the hierarchical relationships between the ruling elite and the ruled (domestic servants) and the development of the colonial cuisine. Essentially, domestic servants were generally represented as dirty, dishonest and lacking in intelligence in colonial circles and yet they were responsible for the preparation of food for the family. The study employs the media of domestic cookbooks (Victorian, Anglo-Indian, Malayan and Singaporean), household management manuals, memoirs, diaries and travelogues to investigate the culinary practices in the colonial household, clubs, hill stations, hotels and restaurants.Responses from thirty-one ex-colonials to a questionnaire who were resident in the three colonies supplemented the above primary sources.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009

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