Mem y cookie: la cocina colonial en Malasia y Singapur

Translated title of the contribution: Mem and cookie: The colonial kitchen in Malaysia and Singapore

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This paper examines the emergence of a distinctive colonial cuisine in the British colonies of Malaysia and Singapore beginning in the late nineteenth century. This colonial cuisine evolved over time and was a combination of culinary practices derived from European and Asian foodways, much of which came from colonial India. As in India, this acculturation developed through the reliance of colonizers on their domestic servants for food preparation. While domestic servants (as cooks, or known locally as "cookie") were generally represented as dirty, dishonest and lacking in intelligence according to colonial narratives, they were responsible for the preparation of food for the family. Asian cooks in the colonial home played a much more crucial role than the negative image painted of them by British colonizers and other historians. While the mem (short for memsahib, meaning mistress) held the supervisory role of the household, it was the physical contribution of the domestic servants that enabled her to fulfill this function. The large number of servants employed enabled the mem to make the colonial home move seamlessly between the private domain of the home and the official venue for the empire's tasks. The mem as the head of the household decided on the rituals and tasks that defined the colonial space as home, and as a bastion of white imperialism. In contrast, it was the cooks' local knowledge that procured food. Most kitchens were fashioned according to the requirements of the servants and the cooks did all the cooking, usually preparing local dishes. The argument is that, had it not been for the servants' input, the mems would have had to work harder. As it was, the work of the servants not only saved white labour, it helped shape colonial culture, despite the Britons' best efforts to keep themselves socially distant. Colonial cuisine would not have developed with such distinctive features without the skills and local knowledge of the Asian cooks. This paper employs a variety of primary sources to investigate the roles and representation of mem and local cooks. Cookbooks and household manuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from both Britain and the colonies are used to investigate the representation of the memsahib-servant relationship. These publications not only typecast native servants as unworthy but attempted to teach colonizers how to avoid behaving in ways that could be seen as inappropriate. The pejorative image of servantsin the colonial home and the dependence of Europeans on their services were characteristic of the contradictions of colonial life. Evidence from cookbooks and household guides indicate that colonial cuisine included the hybrid dishes of curry, mulligatawny, kedgeree, chicken chop, pish pash as well as the inimitable meal of tiffin. Colonial newspapers published in the colonies have also been used to analyze the social life of colonizers, particularly on formal dinners where local cooks prepared feasts at colonial clubs. Diaries and travelogues on reminiscences also became tools in articulating the identity of the good colonial wife and perpetuated racial prejudices against servants. Responses from questionnaires sent to Britons who resided in the colonies were also analyzed for this paper.

Translated title of the contributionMem and cookie: The colonial kitchen in Malaysia and Singapore
Original languageSpanish
Pages (from-to)621-650
Number of pages30
JournalEstudios de Asia y África
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015


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