I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.
The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.
What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.
And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Centres with a significant British population, such as Calcutta, developed a new Anglo-Indian cuisine of chutneys, kedgerees and mulligatawny – and misapplied the word ‘curry’ to anything vaguely hot. The Portuguese also had amalgam foods in their colonies, such as Goan vindaloo, named for the wine vinegar with which it is made, and chicken piri piri. It’s worth remembering that chilli, now so omnipresent in Southeast Asian food, only arrived in the region with Europeans bringing it from South America.
Some people became converts to Asian food. One businessman I wrote about worked for years for Jardine, Matheson in Canton and Macao, and when he moved to New South Wales in 1848, he brought with him his Chinese cook. Others were less adaptable, complaining bitterly about the nasty foreign food.
What did my man, Walter Davidson, eat for breakfast when he lived in Macao between 1812 and 1822? Just once, he mentions in a letter how much he is looking forward to raspberries when he goes home to Scotland, but otherwise it’s impossible to know. What did they all eat, these displaced Europeans perched uneasily on the edge of Malay, Javanese or Chinese worlds?
In a world where food is global and every city dweller can choose between MacDonalds and yum cha on a daily basis, it’s hard to think back to a time when foreign food was both unfamiliar and disconcerting. Ethnographers distinguish between those who love trying new foods, and those who don’t. Nowadays most people (or at least most of the people with Internet access who are likely to read this blog) are cosmopolitan in their tastes: hence the general enthusiasm to find the latest ‘ethnic restaurant’.
But it wasn’t always so – and it still isn’t necessarily so at breakfast time. Watch people milling around the breakfast buffet in an airport lounge or large hotel, and those differences are immediately obvious. Some people try the unfamiliar, with Westerners enthusiastically sampling congee or pho, and Asians getting stuck into bacon and eggs or lox and bagels. But others will seek out something familiar from the buffet. It’s breakfast, after all, and far too early to be adventurous. On my first visit to Singapore, I ate delicious murtaba roti from a street stall most mornings – but I still needed to retreat for a fix of coffee from the hotel café afterwards.
Nobody talks about normal meals in their letters and diaries – except when they are unexpected. Colonists in Australia, for instance, always mention the oddity of celebrating Christmas dinner in summer – and often make the point of reassuring the relatives that, despite this, they still ate a traditional hot meal with Christmas pudding. Because the other thing about choosing familiar or unfamiliar food is that it is a great signifier of cultural nationalism.
So I was intrigued to find one unusual reference to food in Travers’ diary. In 1816, Tom went back to Britain on furlough, and while there, he married Mary Leslie. They returned to Bencoolen [now Bengkulu in Sumatra] where in July 1818, Mary gave birth to her first child. Tom had spent a long time in the East, but Mary was a new arrival, so I was surprised to read that following the birth,
For twenty-one days she never put her foot to the ground, being [fed] entirely almost on kunji [congee] and giving baby as much as she could take, and she was doing as well as well can be. [97-8]
Tom complains in his journal that they had no success trying to grow potatoes in Bencoolen, so they depended on local ingredients cooked by servants who were unfamiliar with European cuisine. No doubt they adapted, while adhering to the contemporary European belief that women should be kept isolated and on a ‘low’ diet without much meat in the weeks following childbirth, when the risk of puerperal fever was high.
Congee, a rice and chicken porridge, is usually served at breakfast these days. The Chinese find it the ultimate comfort food, and the Internet is full of claims about its restorative value. It would certainly be suitable for a new mother who needs to build up her yang after childbirth, and it is even said to increase milk production. But I wonder how Irish Mary felt about living on it for 3 weeks?
John Bastin (ed), The Journal of Thomas Otho Travers 1813-1820 (Singapore, 1960)