What’s for breakfast?

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.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

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)

6 responses to “What’s for breakfast?

  1. I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude towards the choko. My mother in my early childhood seemed to be able to cook any soul that may have may have made it appetising, completely away. Yet, there is a family photo of my paternal grandfather sitting under a large trellis in the garden of the house of his uncle (the Govt. Botanist Dr Joseph Bancroft) on Wharf Street (c 1890’s), said trellis being well covered in chokos and greenery. Dr Joseph knew the value of the choko, ripening when few other vegetables were available. Unfortunately, the way to prepare this fruit attractively did not get passed down through the male line!

    • I’m not at all ambivalent – I hate them! I’m sure it’s partly because we don’t cook them properly in Australia, and they are so easy to grow in Brisbane, they were always around in my childhood, when other veg weren’t available. How interesting that Bancroft introduced them, though I’m more grateful to the Chinese migrants who brought in bananas!

  2. This is an interesting question. One cannot surmise that a lack of comment about eating ‘foreign’ food means that the person didn’t. They may not mention it because the comment would not meet a sympathetic audience, or because they didn’t eat foreign food. My family were happy for the Aya to raise their children (or to ship their children back to be raised in England), for their children to learn Hindi, to give their houses Hindi names, but I have no evidence of them eating ‘foreign’ food for breakfast. I think you are right about breakfast being the critical meal. The gendered aspect of this may also be interesting to explore. Were men more likely to try different food than women due to societal expectations?

    • Thanks. The gendered nature of breakfast is interesting – even without the ‘foreign’ issues, it seems to me that men and women ate different things, at different times of day. You get the impression that elite women, at least, ate breakfast later than men, and it was more like what B&Bs today would call a Continental Breakfast – coffee or chocolate with bread and butter. Whereas men started the working day earlier and ate a more substantial meal.

      Part of what I was trying to get at was the silences in diaries about quotidian life – of which breakfast is one important aspect.

  3. Pingback: Ruminations on a Thing | Stumbling Through the Past

  4. Gloria Wallace

    My absolutely favourite journal of those that I have read, is that of Baron Charles von Hugel – New Holland Journal Nov 1833- October 1834, translated by Dymphna Clarke. I love it because it is so “chatty”; he is mixing it in Sydney’s elite society of the time and tells many little tales about his hosts. They really come to life, in his observations. I particularly loved though, von Hugel’s story about trying to obtain an evening meal at the Weatherboard Inn, on route to Bathurst. Despite his many and varied food requests, all the innkeeper could provide was salt pork and eggs. He wants chicken, but according to the innkeeper, there is no chicken to be had. The innkeeper “takes the piss” when he wants to wash, telling him that he is sorry that the Mail did not bring “the perfumed soap from Sydney”.
    The next morning von Hugel heads out for a walk and sees a cock and some fat hens; kills the cock with a stick and takes it in to the innkeeper, commenting that it “must be wild” and asks for it to be prepared for his breakfast, when he returns from his walk. He ends up having to pay 22 shillings for his overnight stay, including the cost of the prized cock. I am sure that was a very expensive breakfast!

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