A chundu or two of the domestic economy of Dutch Burgher women in Sri Lanka in the early to mid 20th century through a reading of the domestic cookery book of Ada de la Harpe.
A paper written for the Cookbooks as History Conference, National Centre for Research into the History of Food and Wine, University of Adelaide, 2006
‘Grandmother was a great cook. But then most Burgher ladies of a generation ago were experts in the culinary arts. In those days the housewife provided the family with excellent traditional fare – whether it was in savouries, in sweetmeats or richly garnished rice dishes.’
Deloraine Brohier Not quite the Same, not quite the Other, she stands on that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out.
How to make a Sri Lankan Christmas cake
The bowl was enormous, shallow but wide; brass, hand-beaten, you could run your hand along its polished inside and still feel the small round bumps of the mallet strokes. It was never used for anything but making the Christmas cake. We three brothers would sit cross-legged on top of the table in the back verandah, the bowl in the middle, grasping the mixing spoon; not really a spoon, more like a cudgel, a thick tapering cylinder of dark smooth wood ending in a fat bulb like an inverted medicine dropper. It was easily as thick as my child-arm.
Into the bowl would go first the sugar and the butter, to be creamed till it was pale yellow and bubbled like lava. Then egg yolks, one by one, bleeding their sunspore into the mix. Semolina next, tiny grains like couscous, they would work their way annoyingly into our clothes. Now it began to be hard to stir and the three of us would hold the cudgel together – ugh-ugh! Suddenly, our nostrils prickled with the sharp scent of chopped preserved ginger, chow chow pickle, and preserved pumpkin that came from China in small blue-green glazed octagonal pots, encased in a web of straw which looked ridiculously fragile but could cut your finger if you were careless. Granny would toss handfuls into the bowl, followed by raisins, currants, sultanas, candied peel, chopped pineapple, crushed cashewnuts, all lightly dusted with flour.
The mixture now was nearly impossible the move with the cudgel; we got to our knees, straining with our whole upper body to move this thickening, gravelly mass. Now a fine dusting of crushed spices the colour of chocolate – cinnamon, cardamom, cloves . Next, a sherry glassful of rosewater (musky, swoony), one of honey (thick, dark gold, some comb still embedded), one of brandy and a little pineapple juice if the batter still needed moistening. The mixture became more liquid.
Finally, folding in stiff foamed egg whites, a few more stirs and it was ready to pour into the square baking pans which we boys had lined with buttered brown paper. Then granny and Rosalind walked the pans across the road to Uncle Arthur’s oven – we only had a three burner kerosene stove. We boys stayed behind to lick the bowl, fingers sliding around the edges, coming up coated in yellow/black/purple, sweet, tangy, strongly perfumed batter.
Four or five hours later, an ekel (a straw) taken from the kitchen broom having been poked into the cake and having come out clean, the finished cakes were walked back home, shaken out onto racks, and left to cool.
The making of the Christmas cake was the miracle play whose drama and mystery I can unhesitatingly say made of me a believer in the materially and emotively transformative power of cooking. Granny at these times had all the power and mystique of a high priestess, and her cookery book all the gravity of a sacred text as she ran her finger down the list of ingredients. I longed one day to enact its rites. (Can’t half tell I was brought up Catholic!)
Burgher buggers make better bastards
If hybridity is heresy, then to blaspheme is to dream.
The book is mine now, handed down to me by my mother. I’ve turned to it frequently over the years as I try to recapture and reproduce the food of my formative years in Sri Lanka, for my enjoyment and that of my family and friends.
Somewhere along the way it became a significant text of another kind. It became a way to interrogating the identity I was developing as a Dutch Burgher, a minority Sri Lankan ethnic community of which Ada was also a member, who undertook our own diaspora with the rise of Singhalese nationalism in the late 1950s-1970s. More than this, it has become for me a way of re-inscribing into the narratives of colonialism, particularly British colonialism, a subaltern people who continue to be overlooked in postcolonial writing or elided into the subalteneity of others. This paper is a part of that project.
So who are the Dutch Burghers (diaspora notwithstanding Burgherdom continues)? Most straightforwardly, we are the descendants of employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) who chose to remain in Sri Lanka when the British took over government of the country. The employees of the VOC had been vrijburgers&, free citizens. Those who stayed behind recanted their oaths of allegiance to the VOC and the Netherlands. Many of those who stayed had intermarried with Singhalese, Tamils, and the smaller communities in Sri Lanka. They weren’t all Dutch as the VOC employees included German, Swiss, French, Hungarian and Italian. Over time, the term Burgher became a convenient way for the British to distinguish themselves from their subjects who were the descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese. The word became the ethnic or racial label to describe the ‘people in-between’. The Portuguese were also largely mestizos, descendants of the intermarriage between the Portuguese militia who were the first Europeans to settle in Sri Lanka and the indigenous communities. The descendants of British citizens who intermarried were never classed as Burghers, however. We Burghers are, then, in the words of the alliterative epithet I learned as a child, and which heads this section, bastards, in the sense of hybrids. But for me, the recovery of my Burgherdom has become an opportunity to celebrate Burgher bastardism/hybridity through what Homi Baba has called its ‘enunciative spaces’, spaces which are ‘continually, contingently, “opening out”, remaking the boundaries, exposing the limits of any claim to a singular or autonomous sign of difference-be it class, gender or race…assignations of social differences-where difference is neither One nor the Other but something else besides, in-between…‘ Ada’s cookery book is just such a space as I want to show.
Ada Henrietta Ferdinands was born in 1883, the sixth of the fourteen children of Frederick William Ferdinands and Henrietta Jansz. Dutch Burghers, like Frederick were held in some esteem and would be entitled to high-ranking jobs (but not as high as the British in most cases). Frederick was a Station Master; Henrietta a wife, mother and homekeeper. Ada remained at home until she took up her post as a governess to the children of a tea plantation manager. It was during this time that she met and fell in love with Lawrence Isidore de la Harpe, a Dutch Burgher of French descent. It was his second marriage. Lawrence was a doctor and served as the Judicial Medical Officer in the southern town of Galle and the surrounding districts. Ada was the Secretary of the YWCA in Galle and also played the organ in the Dutch Reform Church there. My mother Celia was one of two children from the marriage, born in 1922.
My memories of Ada are few; she died when I was six. They cluster around two things: sitting in her room in our house playing with some ornaments she had while she read her bible; and the making of the Christmas cake. So her cookery book is the only way I have to recover the life of a woman whose significance to my life I have only come to realize through writing this paper.
‘Taken as a whole, a woman’s recipe book is the record of her life. The voice and script of the writer inscribed indelibly on the pages become synonymous with the text…The act of reading and cooking from her book makes possible a veritable communion with the writer.’
‘Like any generalization about a feminine literary tradition, generalizations about a feminine cookbook tradition would be plagued with theoretical pitfalls and irritatingly insistent exceptions.’
The recipe books Theophano refers to in the quotation that opens this section are ‘books crammed with printed clippings and handwritten notes…written out in longhand by named or anonymous women’. In these books a woman’s friends might write recipes of theirs that she liked or she might copy into it recipes from other cookery books or women’s magazines. The result was often a collage ‘an assortment of foods in no particular order’. Some detailed the organization of the household servants. Others included ‘ornamentation (including mock title-pages, graphics, drawings, dried flowers), magazine clippings (typically articles and poetry on an array of subjects), and interleaves (notes, poems, articles, recipes, accounts and other ephemera, handwritten or printed)’.
These compendia are fertile ground for reading the lives of their authors. In comparison, Ada’s is a relatively barren text. It’s an undistinguished exercise book of the kind I remember using at school; red cloth-and-cardboard covered, 156 quarto pages, 19 blue lines per page with a red margin down the left side. The cover now shows signs of age and use. It’s blotched pink with rubbing, and there are amoeba-shaped water marks, but on it you can faintly see the words ‘Cookery Book’ written in block letters. The letters don’t have the fluidity and grace of the text, even given one is block the other cursive; I don’t think Ada wrote them. Who did write them remains open; my mum didn’t and doesn’t know who else may have. Apart from this there is no dedication or introduction to the book, nothing to distinguish it should you take it down from a shelf until you open it and find on page 1 the heading Soups etc. and the first entry Dhal soup.
So far so straightforward. But there is for me a mystery at the heart of the book. The book is divided into sections – Soups, Fish, Egg in different forms, right through to Selected Recipes which is mostly a collection of cakes, jams, chutneys and pickles. The structure parallels that of recipe books published at the time, for example, the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book, edited by Hilda Deutrom and first published in 1929, and which remains the single most cited cookery book by Dutch Burghers.
Not so unusual still, then. But here’s the thing. The recipes in the body of the book flow in a continuous stream. Each recipe nuzzles up to the next, and each discrete section butts firmly up against the next; Egg in different forms ends on page 24 and Sauces begins immediately on page 25 and so on. There are two lines left blank at the most at the end of any recipe within a section, and a bare half page between sections, if any at all. The Index at the back of the book also allows for no additional entries as it rigorously catalogues each recipe and section according to its numbered page. Ada’s recipes stop halfway in the book. Here my mother has taken over and the book from here looks more like those Theophano looked at – she has pasted recipes cut out from newspapers and magazines, pasted in recipes written by her or friends, and she has also gone back into Ada’s text and made some notes as she adapted particular recipes – yes, the Christmas cake in particular – to the conditions she found in Australia in the early 1960s.
The inescapable conclusion, taking into consideration the body of the text and the structure and execution of the Index, is that at some time in her life, Ada sat down and wrote the cookbook from start to finish. My mum doesn’t remember well when Ada wrote her cookery book, and Ada did not date the book herself. My mum thinks Ada may have written it during the time she lived with her son and his wife, which would put it in the mid 1950s. Mum says that Ada didn’t have any recipe cards or notes but would have written the recipes from memory. If that’s true, then Ada’s memory and capacity for pre-organisation of her thoughts was prodigious. There are no more than a half dozen places where it is evident she went back and added a comment or a further direction to a recipe; under a recipe for Thamboom Hodie a slanting entry reads ‘Good for invalids’ in the margin beside a recipe for Drumsticks she has added ’10 drumsticks, seeds too if tender‘. She never added a single recipe after Pineapple Preserve on page 110. though she lived for a few years past the guessed time of its writing.
Her book, then, is a hybrid as she was, sitting somewhere between the haphazard intimacy of the cookery books Theophano and others explore, and the instructional formality of mass circulation published cookery books of her time. Why did she write this book at this time and in this way? It was not a book for her daily practice, as domestic cookbooks of this kind generally are; she was no longer actively involved in cooking (always excepting the Christmas cake) or managing a household My mum has no answer for me and the book itself is silent on this at least. But two things may throw some light here. When she began to write the book Ada would have been in her 70s, and it was around this time, too, that she was diagnosed with bowel cancer (mum’s memory is not so good any more and she can’t date the diagnosis any clearer); she died in 1958.
Perhaps then the book is for this: a woman, in her senior years, perhaps sensing or knowing that she had not long to live, sitting down and setting down accumulated cookery knowledge as her bequest to her children and her children’s children. If so, then my initial hesistancy in going along with Theophano’s characterization of women’s domestic cookery books as acts of deliberate literary creation flies out the window and I am left in awe of Ada’s gift.
Dhal soup and other enunciative spaces
“Botanical, culinary and migratory histories can make a mockery of ‘mosaic multiculturalism’ in general. They can show how cuisines are continually hybridizing processes rather than fixed things. They can show that the components mixed together in any hybridizing process are themselves always hybrid. And they can show that ingredients, knowledges, technologies and practices – culinary or otherwise – cannot have any straightforward ‘origins’ ”
I want now to reverse what Ada did, to read back out from the text into the life, or at least the part of the life of which the text allows a reading. In doing this, I want to work from within Heidegger’s concept of Lichtung, (at least, as interpreted by Leela Ghandi) ‘a bringing to light which is also a clearing of space…that enables the most restrictive human consciousness to experience the simultaneity of the familiar and the uncanny, the established and the emergent, home and not-home, the humane, and, equally, the barbaric’. To do so, it seems to me, is the appropriate way to create the enunciative spaces within which to celebrate Burgher hybridity.
Unapologetic, if not yet celebratory, hybridity confronts the reader/cook from the first recipe in Ada’s book.
½ “chundu” [sic] of dhal. Put it to boil in about 6 tea-cups of water – Put in with it (less not more), of a dessert-spoonful of coriander roughly ground, same quantity of Maldive fish well ground, 2 small or 1 large tomato, salt, celery, cinnamon, and any other vegetables, such as carrots. When reduced to about 4 cups, put in about 2 table-spoonfuls of thin coconut milk, and keep on stirring for some time. Then strain and temper with a good amount of red onions’.
Soup, in the sense of a particular category of liquid food, has no precursor in pre-European Sri Lankan meals. It is absent from the discussion by Sri Lankan food historian Doreen Alles of traditional foods. Rasam or pepper water is a spiced liquid that is drunk in some Indian cuisines, including Sri Lankan Tamil, but it is drunk during a meal as a digestive and not as a food. Similarly, canjis/congees, with a pre-European heredity, have more in common with porridges than with soups. The nearest equivalent to this dhal soup in pre-Europeanised South Asian foods is sambhar, a thickish dipping or pouring broth for dosai and idli, fermented ground lentils as a pancake and a steamed cake. Sambhar happens to be based on dhal, and it isn’t hard to see in the dhal soup a hybridizing of sambhar and split pea soups familiar from European cuisines, with dhal being a ready local substitute for peas. Is your head spinning yet? Because past this simple substitution, things get very hybrid indeed.
Maldive fish is a flavouring and thickening agent in Sri Lankan cuisine whose preparation of importation from Manaar in Sri Lanka was noted by Baldeus in the 1670s. It is bonito that has been boiled, smoked and sun-dried till rock hard, hence the need to grind it well, a very different process to those which create it’s cousins in South Asian cuisines, fish sauce and blachang, and to that which produced Roman garum. Maldive fish, however, being a solid, is used more extensively than these cousins and is one of the fundamentals of Sri Lankan cooking in sambols, mallungs (generally sauté’s of chopped green vegetables), and snacks (like vadai, deep-fried lentil cakes), often featuring roughly pounded so there is still some crunch to it.
The other ubiquitous Sri Lankan flavouring that has found its way into the dhal soup is cinnamon. True cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is native to Sri Lanka, and it was for control of the entry of this spice in particular into the European and Mediterranean markets that the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in succession first developed trade settlements and then colonized Sri Lanka. Arguably then, cinnamon is the direct cause of the presence of Burghers in Sri Lanka. It’s a delicious temptation to read its insinuation into the soup as a triumph of the Oriental in polluting the Occidental.
But the appropriation of foodstuffs, as hinted at in the quote opening this section, goes both ways. There is the tomato, unthinkable before 1505 when the Portuguese first dropped anchor in Galle, and now as much a part of South Asian cuisines as that other Portuguese gift, chillies, absent from this dhal soup, but entrenched in much of Burgher cuisine as it is in Sri Lankan cuisine generally.
The ingredient measures are hybrid, too; a chundu is an old Sri Lankan measure based on a tin cylinder but more often in Ada’s time a used cigarette tin; a tea-cup could only be a meaningful measure when tea became established as an everyday beverage among the Britain in the late 19th century; a dessert-spoonful only makes sense in cultures that have a concept of dessert, which Sri Lanka did not have pre European engagement (sweets, yes, but not desserts as a particular category requiring a particular instrument); tablespoons as a measure can only originate and make sense within a culture that eats meals at a table and in which spoons are used to eat meals with, neither of which prevailed in Sri Lanka pre-European intervention.
Taking these elements together, I celebrate this humble dhal soup as a wonderfully enunciative space within a cuisine that continually performs Lichtung. Ada’s cookery book is a whole architecture of such spaces not only within a recipe, but as the recipes nuzzle up against each other: Salmon rice cutlets without the faintest hint of spice sit contentedly next to Spiced salmon with its souse of cloves, peppercorns, mace and chillies; Corned beef, lightly fragrantly spiced with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg sits back to back with Karamanache beef with 12 roasted and powdered red chillies, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, ginger, curry leaves, and saffron.
Burgher food is often like this. Deloraine Brohier says ‘In savouries, the Burghers excelled in the patellos or curry patties, the dainty pastry filled delicacy is Portuguese in name and origin. The bollo cutlet or frikadella is more of a Dutch origin but spiced up in Sri Lanka with green chillie, garlic and the small red onion. In sweetmeats, the Burgher household wife excelled in love cake, bolofiado and breudher. Specialties of curry dishes were carmenache or the smore, while in rice dishes the lamprais was a very special meal of a Burgher household’. Bolofiado (also spelt Bol Fiado or Bolo Folhado) is of Portuguese origin, with rosewater and cashews snuck in. Breudher (spelt Broeder in Ada’s book) is a bready cake, presumably of Dutch origin, though it’s form is like panettone, even to the use of a fluted mould, and is customarily eaten at New Year with lashings of butter and slices of red rinded Dutch Edam cheese. Smore is a pot roast flavoured with lime pickle, coriander, cumin, fennel, cinnamon, and chillies, and coconut milk as the cooking medium. Love Cake is another semolina based cake, again with rosewater and cashews, which most likely is of Arab origin. But there are also in Ada’s book very straightforward recipes for dishes like Butter Cake, Broiled Beef of Mutton, Vegetable soup, none of which have any truck with spice, dry fish, chillies or coconut.
Hybridity reaches its apogee in the two great celebratory dishes of the Burghers. In Lampraya (Ada’s term, more usually written as Lamprais), the padi fieldworkers transportable lunch of boiled rice, dhal and one curry wrapped in a banana leaf meets the Indonesian Dutch rijstafel, literally rice table. A bed of pillau (pilaf) rice with raisins, rampa (pandanus leaf), cardamoms and cinnamon is boiled in stock made from parboiling four meats – chicken, pork, mutton and beef. The rice is then piled with a heavily spiced curry made from the meats, frikadells/frikadella, ash plantain curry, chilli sambol, cucumber and onion sambol, prawn blachang, with a splash of thick coconut milk on top. The whole is wrapped in banana leaf and baked.
The Christmas cake takes a bog standard fruitcake, ramps up the spice content, and widens the pool of sources to include elements from the Chinese – preserved ginger and chow-chow pickle; and Arab traders – semolina, instead of wheatflour, rosewater, cinnamon, nuts, honey, citrus flavourings were all common ingredients of Arabic cakes and sweets, but they may also have entered the Christmas cake via European adoption of these flavourings through the constant contact between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian peninsula.
But hybridity doesn’t stop at the individual items of food; it orders the meals in the day. My cousin, Patsy Alvis describes the meals of her childhood like this:
‘Breakfast- hoppers, stringhoppers, pittu etc…All of these were served with kiri hodhi & sambols. These breakfast foods became popular as dinner party fare much later. Lunch was rice, beef or fish curry (hardly ever chicken) two or three vegetables curried, mallung & a fry- dry fish or salted fish (jaadi) or maybe sausage (lingus). Tiffin was an afternoon snack- bread butter & jam or maybe pancakes with a coconut filling dropped scones (pikelets) or if the baker had any small cakes. Late in the evening was dinner- a meal with an English influence- soup followed by stews, mince, rissoles, pies etc. Dessert was not of the ice cream type- very few homes had frigs. There baked custards blancmange& jam, stewed fruit & custard & seaweed jelly usually made on coconut milk or fresh fruit’.
The order is the same as that of British colonial households in the Raj years, and Dutch colonials between the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century.
It’s in such an order that soup can take its comfortable and rightful place, at dinner, where the Burgher hybrid/subaltern performs as a European. But of course, those Burgher bastards can’t perform Europeanism without disturbing its straitjacket and the soup is as likely to be a bland mutton broth as it is to be the wondrously named Thamboom Hodie, concocted of coriander, cumin, caraway, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, onions, garlic, ginger, Maldive fish, tomato, curry leaves and green chillies cooked up in coconut milk and soured with tamarind or lime or goraka (gamboge). And lest this seem all one way, that breakfast of stringhoppers (steamed mats of rice vermicelli) was very likely to be accompanied by scrambled eggs to which fresh chopped onion and green chillie had been added.
This ordering of meals is not apparent from Ada’s book, only the order of the European performed dinner through its replication in the structuring of the sections of the book as a whole. But this is not the only aspect of Burgher culinary culture that is hidden in Ada’s book.
Two other questions present themselves. Where did Ada get her recipes from? It’s a question particularly pertinent to the recipes that bear not a trace of any European influence in either ingredients or method of cooking – Karamanache, Saper Dhom (a fish curry, in effect), Pork curry, Brinjal pachchadee (a pickle) Mango temperado (also a pickle), Flah or wat-a-lapa (a steamed coconut milk custard of likely Persian origin usually rendered as vlah or wattalappam).
And then, did Ada actually do any cooking?
To deal with the first question. Theophano identifies the production of the domestic cookbooks she studied as ‘a communal affair. Women then as now were exchanging recipes for food and medicines…In the course of day-to-day life, by exchanging recipes and other household advice, women generated their culinary knowledge collaboratively and wrote their cookbooks cooperatively.’ Ada’s cookery book has no ascription of the recipes to help the reader identify the social networks that generated them, but some surmises can be made.
The Burghers of Ada’s generation were the product of 400 years of intermarriage between the Singhalese, Tamils, Moors, Portuguese, Dutch and the other Europeans in the employ of the VOC. (The Moors of Sri Lanka are the descendants of Arab traders. There have been substantial Arab communities in Sri Lanka since at least the mid 13th century, and certainly Arab trade contact well before this. ).
For many, this intermarriage was a business necessity. Pomerantz and Topik put it this way:
‘Success for many Europeans in Asia also demanded intermarrying with the local population…Even though the British and Dutch agents represented some of the first modern capitalist enterprises organized as joint stock companies, they relied on the traditional means of business alliances: marriage’.
Then, too, the South Asian and South East Asian trading posts of the European powers were not attractive places for European women to migrate too. European men again were willing in these circumstances to take indigenous partners.
Undoubtedly the women entering these marriages, certainly the earliest of them, brought into their households the foods of their communities, as did the Indian wives of men in the employ of the British East India Company. Over the years, it’s undoubtedly the case that mothers passed these on to their daughters and shared them with others in the Burgher community much as Theophano’s women did.
Ada may well have swapped recipes herself and either written them down as hers, or adapted them and put her versions down in the cookery book. She may also have collected recipes from newspapers and magazines of her time and transcribed them, adapted or not, into the cookery book. She may have tried recipes from other cookery books, like Deutrom’s and again written them down adapted or not into her cookery book. These are all practices Theophano identifies as common to the writers of the domestic cookery books she studied.
But there is still one other source, and that source also provides in part an answer to the question of just how much cooking Ada herself did.
The subaltern’s subaltern
[He] would sit in the sunlight drinking beers, which he ordered ice-cold, and finishing them before the sweat evaporated from the surface of the bottle.
Different race and class (and gender), servants illustrated the otherness of the colonized subject in its most poignant clarity. E Locher-Scholten
When I began this paper, I thought I knew where I was heading, a celebration of the lives of Burgher women through their food which then became the grand plan for Lichtung and the creation of the enunciative spaces of the hybrid. I hadn’t counted on the consequences of engaging with Lichtung.
As I went back through the recipes in Ada’s book, I became aware that missing from it were recipes for the substantial part of what I actually ate during an ordinary day in Sri Lanka. Where were the recipes for the pol sambols, mallungs, fish curries, vegetable curries, stringhoppers, pittu and the hundred other dishes that I consumed with such pleasure so regularly?
What I had ignored, was the truth of the production of the Burgher table. Ada, Deloraine Brohier, Doreen Alles, my mother, were not the ones who actually did the majority of the daily cooking, nor does my Burgher second cousin living currently in Sri Lanka. The servants in the Burgher household, like Rosalind, first my ayah (nanny) and later our cook, are the subaltern’s subalterns. They never speak for themselves; at best they are spoken about or for. More often though, they are not any part of the story told. Yet large parts of the story cannot happen without them. Where would my curry lunches of schooldays have been without Rosalind to cook them and Appuhamy to bring them to me, riding his bicycle with tiffin containers on the luggage rack? From whom does Michael Ondaatje’s father, sitting in the sunlight on the verandah of his wife’s house, order his beers? Would Ondaatje’s mother have ‘marched off through the tea estate” in the night with her children ‘bundled up’ to escape another of her husband’s drunken ‘tirades’ if there hadn’t been four servants on whose shoulders they were carried? And of course, Burgher women of Ada’s generation and before, like the memsahibs of the Raj, may very well have learned how to cook indigenous dishes from their indigenous cooks.
Ada’s cookbook is complicit in writing them out of their essential place in Burgherdom, so now it’s time that ‘respect must be paid’. To do this I turn now to four sources; Elisabeth Locher-Scholten’s account of totok women (a Dutch citizen born in Holland and living in Indonesia) and their servants in Java between 1900-1942; MacMillan’s work on women in the Raj; Allen’s collection ‘Plain Tales from the Raj’; and my parents, aunts and uncles, and Anne-Marie Kellar, a Dutch Burgher still living in Sri Lanka, all of whose recollections have been of immense value in writing this paper.
I acknowledge that the positions of these three communities of women were not socially or culturally equivalent. Ada was not a woman of the Raj who, In MacMilllan’s words, ‘in her miniature empire…had many of the same problems as the men on their larger stage. How was she to rule her subjects? How was she to keep India under control?’ Nor was she a totok or a Eurasian (I am using Locher-Scholten’s term here) woman in Indonesia in the early years of the 20th century. Totok women were part of the emergence of a fully-developed colonialism in Indonesia in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and so engaged, says Locher-Scholten, in forwarding the ‘Ethical Policy, the Dutch variant of the British ‘white man’s burden’. Eurasian women perhaps had more in common with Burghers, being those descendants of intermarriage between Dutch settlers and Indonesians, but Locher-Scholten’s study does not deal with them and so I have no material for comparison.
However, the three communities were contemporaneous over a number of years and do show very similar basic patterns of relationships between the householder and the servants. The differences, I suggest, are due to the fact that the Burgher women of Ada’s and my mother’s generation were not involved in a colonial project, or at least not directly. That was the province of the British woman householder. If Burgher women had been involved in some kind of aculturation process during the years of Dutch settlement in Sri Lanka, by the time of Ada’s generation they had had 200 years over which to drop the project as their subalternship became clear, or were denied a further place in the project, hybrid and hence perhaps not trustworthy of the project.
This is pure speculation on my part and needs further exploration outside of the scope of this paper. Here I can only note that there were indeed differences in the relationships between householders and servants across the three communities. The discussion that follows considers all the servants of these households – ayahs, houseboys, batmen, sweepers, launderers cooks and other, but focuses on the cooks.
Who were these cooks? In the Javanese households Locher-Scholten describes, the cooks were all women. Allen’s interviewees mostly speak of men cooks. Blunt says The only female servant likely to be employed within a British [Raj]household was an ayah, who acted as a maid for her British mistress and often cared for young children. In my families’ households cooks were as likely to men as women; Rosalind and Appuhamy are the two cooks I remember; my uncle Anton at different times had a Tamil woman, and a Singhalese man, Nonis; Anne-Marie Kellar remembers her grandmother’s cook Jane (a Singhalese woman) and also a Tamil man.
Locher-Scholten and Allen give no information on the age of cooks on entering service. In my families, their ages were quite varied. Rosalind was in her mid-thirties when she became my ayah. Nonis was 16-17 years old when he began working for Anton, and the ayah Anton employed to look after his first child was 60, a Tamil woman who came looking for work she could not find in her village. Anne-Marie Kellar describes cooks in her families’ households as being ‘very young’. Sometimes they could be very young indeed.
‘All of the servants I had came looking for work or were brought by parents wanting to know if we required ‘home help’. I recall one man, he had a little girl (about 9-10 years old). He was told by a family up the street that we had a new baby and could possibly use the girl. The girl was neatly dressed and was carrying a bundle of clothes. We employed her to look after Carinne. I think she was offered three meals a day and Rs 15 a month. Premawathie (the girl) slept on a mat in the children’s room. It was usual to protect young female servants from prowling males!’ Anton van Reyk
Our Burgher household cooks were either Singhalese or Tamil, and occasionally a Moor. They came into Colombo looking for work from villages either at the borders of the city or in remoter rural areas. My family doesn’t recall any of the servants making regular visits back to whatever their families were in their home villages. At the most, they may have returned there for short stays during the Buddhist New Year. Premawathie returned to her village when she was ‘grown up. That seemed to be the usual trend of events especially if they were very young girls. She went back to her village and we never saw her again’. Patsy Alvis suggests this was common practice; ‘Women usually left in their mid twenties to marry having worked for ten years or so & accumulated a small sum of money. And then if the marriage didn’t work out they went back to the relative security of a roof, meals & a monthly wage.’
More often, they stayed in service most of their lives. They moved between households when circumstances changed for the Burgher family. When we left Sri Lanka, Rosalind was employed by my uncle for a short time. When Anton migrated, Nonis went to Anton’s brother, and Gunadasa, his brother, to Anton’s his sister-in-law. They moved between generations of the one family. ‘My grandmother’s cook, Jane, came to work for us when my Dad got married to my Mum. She was already trained by Nanna, and knew exactly what Daddy liked to eat!! Nanna made sure of that!’ They may have left service if their circumstances changed. ‘One of our ayahs had a daughter who worked with her for us – when the d. was old enough. The daughter was quite good looking & learnt English while with us. She left to be a nannie with some well-to-do- family & married a Singhalese gentleman’.
This last is one of the few recollections of any of the servants’ families other than those who may have been servants in the same household. My mother does not recall any family for Rosalind or Appuhamy. The Tamil ayah Anton hired did have a husband and children, but Anton never saw them. None of the servants in the Kellar household were married. Similarly, of the women servants in Java and Madura in 1930, 72 percent were unmarried.
Recruitment of servants varied. They may have come door-knocking independently, or been brought as Premawathie was. More often, though, they were recommended by someone else in the family, were handed down through the family, recommended by other Burghers, or very occasionally by the other servants. My Aunt Marie said ‘They were the answer to a Housewife’s Prayer. When a young lady was to be married, her mother and mother-in-law looked out for a cook woman for her. Some were recommended by family and friends. None of my family recalls anything like the Batavian Bedienden-kantoren (offices for servants) or The Association for Housewives in the Indies (Vereeniging voor Huisvrouven in Indië) which ‘provided its members with bediendenpassen (evaluations, or letters of recommendations, which employers completed after one year of service); it published advertisements and organized contact addresses’. Nor do they mention any ‘local Club (which) kept a registry of reliable, or at least no especially unreliable, servants’. But in Java, too ‘Recruitment of servants took place mainly by word of mouth, either on the recommendation of other trustworthy servants or though the intercession of European friends’.
Whatever the recruitment process there was a fairly standard interview conducted by the Burgher householder.
‘The cook was selected after an interview during which they had to give an account of what they could cook, especially for the dinner menu and they would rattle of a litany of all their accomplishments, eg. beef steak, stew, pot roast, roll cutlets (or rissoles as they are commonly known here), chops etc.’
‘A cook who could “prepare a nice rice table and serve a reasonable European dish” was considered “of inestimable value and incalculable dignity.’
They don’t appear to have had to show they could do this, and there was usually no written recommendation asked for or offered. As with the women of the Raj, perhaps for the Burgher householder ‘Testimonials, purportedly written by former employers, should always be treated with suspicion; they had probably been bought in the bazaar or borrowed from another servants’. The capacity to turn out the inevitable trio of dishes was not always entirely appreciated. ‘I remember my mother throwing her hands up in exasperation when once interviewing a cook who, when asked what “issaraha kaama” ( European food) she knew, replied “Istew, Bistake, Cutlis”!! Mother exclaimed “that is all they know to make”.’ The cooks, along with the other servants, had free accommodation and meals, may have had their bedding provided (camp cots or mats usually) and had their medical expenses met. Some received gifts of clothing on birthdays or Christmas. They were paid varying amounts. When Nonis started work for Anton at 16 years old, he was paid R40 a month. My mother thinks she paid Rosalind R30 a month. Both of them said this really just ‘spending money’ as most of their material needs were met. Anne Marie Kellar recalled:
‘Salaries of course varied with the times, but were usually not very much. These people were so very poor and had next to nothing in their villages, so it was a huge privilege to work in our homes and live comfortable lives. They were paid monthly, and were given holidays usually for the Sinhala New Year, when they went home having spent a lot of their earnings on new coloured cotton fabrics for the women’s’ “cloths” and jackets and also on men’s sarongs. They would return from their villages with a box full of Sinhala sweetmeats!’
Where did they learn their cooking? The Sinhala and Tamil dishes they generally brought with them from their homes. Cooking the istu, istek, cutliss and other European dishes were learned either from the Burgher householder or from other cooks in Burgher households. Most of the servants were not literate in English, though many were literate in their own language. Rosalind would write up the daily accounts of her spending in Sinhala and read them in Sinhala to my mother. In the room she shared with Appuhamy there were always Sinhala newspapers and magazines. Nonis was taught to read and write in English by Anton, but that appears to have been rare. ‘The cooks did not use any ‘Cookbooks’. It was just a matter of taste, smell and experimenting.’ Locher-Shcolten writes ‘The kokki has no professional education; she was trained on the spot and was valued for her skills. In the 1930s, the Association for Housewives organized cooking courses on ‘the European menu’ for indigenous kokki, another indication of the ‘totokisation’ and ‘professionalisation’ processes of colonial modernity.’ Ada certainly was not writing her cookery book for the instruction of the cook.
Most women spoke with their cooks in Sinhala, or English if the cook was Tamil. This was the habit in Raj households as well. ‘It was a point of honour with us in the established civil services never to talk to the servants in anything but their own language,’ states John Cotton. Some servants while not being fluent in oral or written English did understand. ‘They never spoke English, and considered it very rude to do so, but for sure they understood the language very, very well! Our old cook from the plantations, Arumugam, spoke English in a quaint way’.
But in the Raj there were also those who viewed English-speaking servants as ‘untrustworthy’. Indeed, the memsahibs of the Raj generally kept a much tighter reign on their servants than did Ada and her generation, or indeed the women of my mother’s generation. (remind them of ther role Raj women saw themselves having to play)
‘…one’s attitude was that they were menials…everybody shouted at the servants. They were the most frustrating people. They always had some very good reasons for why something wasn’t done, which you knew – and they knew you knew – to be an absolute lie.’
The relationship between the householder and servant when it came to cooking reflects this view of them as menial, not always to be trusted. The recollections of the memsahibs of the Raj are full of the control they exercised over their servants.
‘It was not customary for the memsahib to intrude into the bobajee-khana. Instead, cook appeared armed with his account book every morning, to be followed by other members of staff in strict order of seniority. ‘This magnificent figure,’ recalls Mary Wood, ‘would come in and we would gravely do the accounts for the day before. We had so many plates of soup at one anna, we had had chicken for four, fish for four and so much fruit – and I would pay for that. We’d then decide what we would eat that day…He would then produce a pile of plates and on these plates he would say he wanted flour, sultanas, this, that or the other.’
‘The other field of battle was the kitchen. Here she waged a constant struggle to make sure that the servants kept it clean and that the cook produced British meals and did not cheat her too much. A good housekeeper inspected the pots and pans daily…’’
Locher-Schloten notes a similar practice among the totok women. My mother and aunts recall a similar ritual, but one that was much less controlled. The Burgher householder would meet with the cook and go through the menu for the day, the dinner meal in particular. She would then give the cook an amount of money with which to buy the ingredients. But she did not then dole out the quantities of ‘flour, sultanas, this, that or the other’; the cooks were trusted to take what was needed and tell the householder when supplies were running low. They were required, however, to give an accounting for how the daily petty cash was spent, either in the evening or at the beginning of the next day. It was generally the cook or other servant who would do the food shopping on a daily basis from nearby markets. This separation of householder and servant in the Raj through the control over provisioning was embedded by other practices. Servants slept in separate quarters; the kitchen itself was often not within the house; they ate food they cooked only for themselves; and their contact with children of the household, particularly adolescents, was strictly controlled. Locher-Schloten describes a similar ‘cordon sanitaire’ in the totok household.
‘Children should not be allowed to eat the food servants gave them, instead mothers should feed the children themselves…Children should also be forbidden to have conversation with the Indonesian servants, as this would hamper their language abilities and five them the wrong Dutch accent… Teenagers should be kept away form the servant quarters, because there they might learn about sexuality, which was considered improper…
Relationships in the Burgher households of my family and that of Anne Marie Kellar were much more relaxed. Servants often had separate quarters, but they were likely to be a room in the house near the kitchen. Men sometimes slept just inside the front door as a security measure. Ayahs often slept on the floor of the room of the children’s room. Many are recalled as sleeping in the kitchen. Rosalind was allowed independently to discipline us, both verbally and with a good smack across the face or body when needed. They ate separately, but they ate the food they prepared for us. In Anne Marie Kellar’s childhood household ‘the children in the family were closest to the servants, and next the lady of the household, but last of al the master. He would have little or nothing to do with the servants except maybe the driver.’ I recall spending many hours sitting in the room Rosalind and Appuhamy shared, playing cards, or Singhala childrens’ games or pouring over their Sinhala magazines.
This more cooperative relationship in managing the household extended to cooking the meals. Practice varied from family, but it was generally true that the cooks would take the entire responsibility for breakfasts and lunches, while dinner – the nominally European style meal – would be either prepared by the Burgher householder or by the cook under her supervision, and the Burgher householder would reserve cooking specialties for herself, with the Christmas Cake and the Breudher being the most sacrosanct in this regard.
‘Of course! the revered Christmas Cake and Breudher were never made by anyone else! My maternal grandma did much more cooking than my paternal nanna. Granny had her specials. Jewel like marzipans which were laid out to “bake” in the sun, and looked too good to eat! Then she made her famous trotter stew– heavenly! Then there were her Turkish Delight, Marshmallows, Chocolate Fudge, etc’.
Anne Marie Kellar
‘Talking about recipes your paternal grandmother did a pol kiri badun to die for & her duck salmi was out of this world’.
‘She used to teach the women in the kitchen. It was a question really of them learning to cook by looking. So she didn’t have to prepare it all the time. She would occasionally cook European meals for the night; stews and roasts and things like that’.
Celia van Reyk
‘Our mother always cut up the meat for curry – especially as the Sir Lankan meat bought daily (fresh) from the market butchers was full of nervous tissue – tendons, gristle, sinews etc. Occasionally the cook woman was requested to take the meat back to the butcher in exchange for a better portion! It was a delight to watch our mother perform this chore – with a very sharp knife. The meat was unrecognizable after she had finished. Perfect. (The cooks) had a flair for cooking and knew the basics because it was what they ate in their own homes. They boiled rice to perfection & could make sambols, mallungs, curries – vegetable, fish, meat etc (dry fish! – yum). What they didn’t know to cook was the ‘issara kame’ – first course – which we had at night – with bread – but they soon learned. Auntie Nita had a woman who made an excellent chicken pie – having to make the pastry – decorated with pastry flowers and leaves & tasty! They were also familiar with our breakfast menus – hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, roti, kiribath – because they cooked these in their home.
Marie van Reyk
Let me not make it appear that all Burghers were so relaxed or amiable with their servants. Anton notes ‘Some servants were illiterate, and treated more like slaves’. Patsy Alvis was equally forthright ‘Did you really believe in a democratic society in SL that treated servants in any other way than vassals! That is extreme I know but to this day that is how a servant is considered in some homes out of the towns & cities. In Burgher homes they were generally treated reasonably well & ate what was cooked for the family but I know of families who had a pot of inferior rice for the servants & the dogs!’ Locher-Scholten observes a similar pattern among the totok households; ‘European housewives did not do the cooking themselves. At most, they occasionally made something special (kokkkerellen) such as a cake or a special Dutch dessert for their husbands.’ But where the relationships were strong and supportive, when it came to partings, both sides experienced a sense of loss.
‘Nonis and Gunadasa were very sad to see us leave and we were very sorry to have to say goodbye to them. We did not feel bad leaving them as we made sure they went to homes where they would be well looked after. They were so reliable and good that everyone was clamouring for them.’
Anton van Reyk
Rosalind’s story has an unhappy ending. When my granny died, Rosalind had a nervous breakdown, so strong was her love for granny. My brothers and I returned home one Saturday to be greeted at the front door by Rosalind stabbing at us with a knife and hysterically screaming. She went back to her village for three months to rest and recover. My brother Chris says that she had a ‘devil dance’ done over her, a practice we were familiar with from times when this exorcism ritual had been done on people in the tenements behind our house. She returned to us and worked for us until we migrated at the end of 1962. One of my last memories of that day is of Rosalind throwing herself at my mother’s feet crying distressingly and asking to be taken with us. Even had we wanted to do that, it would have been impossible under the White Australia Policy which existed at the time. Mum can’t remember what happened to Rosalind after this. My maiden aunts and my paternal grandmother moved into our house and brought their own servants with them. Mum thinks Rosalind went and worked for my Uncle across the street for a while. Chris says he recalls that she moved through two or three positions and then returned to her village. I have a picture of my granny and I have her cookery book. I have nothing of Rosalind until now.
Copyright (C) 2006 Paul van Reyk
References Brohier, D Back to my Grandmother’s kitchen
The Ceylankan Number 24 (Vol VI. No 4) November 2003
Trin T. M.When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge 1991
Bhaba, H. K. The Location of Culture New York; Routledge 2004
Gandhi, L. Postcolonial Theory. A critical introduction. Allen & Unwind: Sydney 1988
Joustra, K. To be, or not to be a Burgher: That is the question The Ceylankan Number 24 (Vol VI. No 4) November 2003
Ferdinands, R Proud & Prejudiced. The story of the Burghers of Sri Lanka. Melbourne: R Ferdinands 1995
Theophano, J. Eat my words. Reading women’s lives through the cookbooks they wrote. Palgrave: New York 2002
Deutrom, H. (Ed) Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book. London:The Association of Newspapers of Ceylon Limited. First Edition 1929.
Cook, I., Crang, P., and Thorpe. M. Regions to be cheerful. Culinary authenticity and its geographies in Cook, I., Crouch, D., Naylor, S., and Ryan, J.R. (Eds) Cultural turns/Geographical turns: Perspectives on cultural geography. Prentice Hall: Essex 2000
Alles, D. Facets of Sri Lanka 2. Traditional foods and cookery down the ages Colombo Doreen Alles 1997z,br> Collingham, L. Curry: A biography London: Chatto & Windus 2005
Locher-Scholten, E. Women and the Colonial State. Essays on Gender and Modernity in the Netherlands Indies 1900-1942 Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2000
Pomeranz, K. and Topik, S. The world that trade created. Society, culture and the world economy 1400 to the present. Armonk: A.E.Sharpe 1999
MacMillan, M. Women of the Raj London: Thames and Hudson 1988
Allen, C. Plain Tales from the Raj London: Abacus 2004