In a politically correct era, is it ever OK to crave colonialist cuisine?
- By Cheryl Lu-Lien TanCheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a Singaporean writer based in New York, is the author of the novel Sarong Party Girls, A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family and is editor of Singapore Noir.
My British lunchmates on a recent Sunday in Edinburgh, Scotland, were exceedingly polite when my order arrived. Amid their tableau of salads and artfully filleted fish, my plate held Welsh rarebit, the venerable dish that assembles melted cheese, ale, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce atop a slice of bread. I sensed that my companions’ eyes were averted from my selection. Then, someone decided to be more direct and asked, “Do you like British food?”
I always answer this question with an emphatic “Yes!” While this sometimes incites gobsmacked silence, when I interviewed Anthony Bourdain a few years back, he sanctioned my unfashionable palate. “To eat a nicely aged grouse with bread sauce followed by a nice Stilton — there’s nothing better than that,” he said. Yet even his approval didn’t banish a twinge of guilt that I associate with my adoration of stodgy Anglo fare. My ambivalence is shared with others whose nostalgia for a bygone cuisine, architecture, or literature was shaped by imperialism. I grew up in Singapore, which was established as a British trading foothold in 1819 and, except for its occupation by the Japanese empire from 1942 to 1945, remained a British colony until shortly before gaining independence in 1965.
My nostalgia isn’t just outdated — it can sometimes come across as politically incorrect. But I’m not alone in cherishing certain cultural holdovers of colonialism. Today, some vestiges of British rule are among Singapore’s most lovingly preserved landmarks — from lavish Victorian hotels to 19th-century government buildings that are now national treasures. And, though it’s true that Singaporeans prize their indigenous cuisine blending Indian, Chinese, and Malay flavors, many feel historic kinship with bangers and mash and scones with clotted cream, which were as much a part of my gastronomic education as fish-head curry and chili crab.
Many Singaporeans tend to think back with warmth on the country’s relatively benign subjugation. Landmarks throughout the city are named for Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore as a British colony. School history books essentially laud him, along with the good ol’ East India Co., for transforming the island nation from a speck of a trading post along the Malay Archipelago to a prosperous port city that is one of the most expensive stretches of real estate on Earth. In Singapore, some of the best secondary schools are named “Raffles.” The court system is based on British law, and the cricket club plays regularly on the Padang, an expansive green in the heart of downtown. On Saturdays, pubs fill up with the English Premier League faithful. Singlish, the local patois, brims with Britishisms. One of the most common terms — to “talk cock,” which can refer to either shooting the breeze or bullshitting — is derived from the British phrase “cock and bull story.”
Even at an intimate level, outmoded influences and relationships linger. In researching my recent novel, Sarong Party Girls, I investigated the term “SPGs,” said to have been coined when British colonial armed forces would invite local women, often clad in sarongs, to their parties. These days, it has taken on a derogatory meaning as a reference to Singaporean women who seek out expat white (often British) men, whom they view as being of a higher status than locals. Jane Austen’s world is, in some ways, alive and well in the nightclubs of Singapore.
In countries with bloodier colonial histories than Singapore’s, discourse about the structural legacies of imperialism has justifiably gained traction. An Indian MP has called for the dissolution of India’s Westminster parliamentary system, for example. And, in Western democracies, we are compelled to interrogate ever more closely what we eat, wear, and dance to. Pop stars Katy Perry and Gwen Stefani have been criticized for lifting from Japanese civilization — the former for a geisha-inspired performance in 2013 and the latter for her Harajuku Girls phase in 2004. This year, nonwhite women on a California college campus faced a backlash when they demanded that white girls refrain from wearing the hoop earrings said to be part of a non-Anglo aesthetic. And on a nationalistic note, I still bristle whenever I spot “Singapore noodles” on any U.S. (or Scottish) menu. This spicy noodle dish is a pure invention of the West — it simply does not exist in my homeland.
In light of such tensions, a longing for colonial relics can feel indefensible, or at least subversive. And in these hyperattuned times, we are forced to ask whether our yearning should be indulged — and divulged — in public.
But my nostalgia isn’t some form of cultural appropriation, an attachment to products, TV shows, and cuisines that are both tainted and not my own. Aspects of British culture are, in fact, part of my personal and national history. And perhaps this feeling is more akin to the nostalgia in China for 1960s Albanian films or propaganda collectibles. This dates back to an alliance between the two countries that thrived during China’s Cultural Revolution, resulting in transcultural exchanges through film.
At a dinner I attended in Lasswade, Scotland, an Indian-American offered to entertain with a song. This man, who grew up in India, delivered, by heart, a stirring rendition of “Scotland the Brave.” When the applause subsided, I asked, “Where did you learn that?” His answer: “Madras. Where else?” He then explained the influence the Scots had in his native Madras during colonial times and the cultural breadcrumbs that lingered.
When I asked an English friend what he thought of my nostalgia for British food, he shrugged. “All nostalgia is for something bygone.” And, on a recent Saturday, I tested his theory. I picked up some Scotch eggs I’d been eyeing at I.J. Mellis, my favorite cheese monger in Edinburgh: a traditional version and two unconventional variations, one vegetarian and one featuring chorizo. I invited a Scottish and an English friend to taste them.
After one bite of the spicy vegetarian version, the Scot ran to the sink to wash out her mouth. “Oh, that’s vile,” she said. Both friends agreed: The boring old traditional Scotch egg tasted the best. The reason? “It’s the way to make a Scotch egg — it’s just the way to make it.”
Perhaps sometimes we just want what we want, whether it’s steak and kidney pie or an old Scottish anthem. Everyone has an individual history for which they cannot be entirely answerable. And no one should expect otherwise.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister