THE DIGEST

It's Alimentary.

Not Quite Digested

Hello valued readers!  The silence since the last blog post and return back to Australia from USA  has been deafening. I can only blame it on a grant I am writing. Like most national level grants this one is complex, has many facets to consider and in short, difficult to write. Of course it is on food history and it has taken a life of its own...

Rest assured I have a couple of posts in the pipeline for you.  First I'll be dissecting my experiences on eating out in America versus eating out in Australia. Themes include tipping - pros and cons - or is it just con con con, the restaurateur conning the customer to pay his wait-staff for him; ways of cooking and ways of serving; the globalisation of food pretensions; and the costs of eating out, comparatively speaking.

Another post will be on coffee snobbery. I'll write on the fact that less than two decades ago cafe coffee in Australia was a mild version of dishwater. But now there are more baristas than the entire population of Finland. All hissing and frothing away at coffee machines the size of oil tankers. And the snobbery of Australian coffee drinkers, travelling thousands of miles overseas to criticise the coffee of foreigners, to laugh at their late discovery of the flat white, and so on. So, please wait up for me!

No Food for Thought: Have Academics been Served?

I know it’s supposed to be a meeting of minds, of sharing ideas, of gathering feedback on one’s research and writing, and of marvelling at one’s voice - but look - touring academics have to be fed. Depending on the type of conference and the length of it, breaks for refreshments can be welcome, productivity-boosting interludes. There’s also - and here’s the real belly of the beast - the impact of funding cuts to academia to consider. Conferences have become income-generating events, or organisers at the very least try to claw back money to complement/supplement funding provided in the hiring of venue, transport and accommodation costs for keynote speakers, publicity costs, etc.

Australian academic conference registration fees are notoriously high, averaging USD500 upwards. Until recently, the food served at Australian conferences has been generally poor, sometimes a few stale Arnott’s biscuits are thrown carelessly on a tray, and into the vicinity of a couple of urns of tea and coffee.

But perhaps I exaggerate… perhaps, because of the high registration fees now charged, lunches are more interesting and satisfying. But nothing is more satisfying than eating at Asian conferences. Invariably most meals are delicious and varied. The most memorable one I can think of was for an international graduate conference at the National University of Singapore some years ago. Morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner were all hot meals, featuring dishes from all over Asia, and no single dish was repeated throughout the three-day conference. Malaysian conference meals are just as appetising. There are exceptions to this regional rule: last July’s Association for Asian Studies-in-Asia conference held in Singapore was disappointing. Only cocktail-type finger foods were served and not very Asian ones at that.

Water supply for AHA talkfest

Water supply for AHA talkfest

So, then, perhaps conference size has to do with the quality of catering as the AAS-in-Asia attracts large numbers of participants.  Although last year’s International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS8) in Macau managed the catering rather well, culminating in a most sumptuous closing seafood banquet dinner for the approximately 1500 scholars from fifty-six countries who attended. The annual prestigious American Historical Association (acceptance rate at 50%) this month saw 6000 scholars presenting in one form or the other and venues for panels were spread over the Hilton and Sheraton hotels. And the food? Neither good nor bad as none was to be had! There was nice refreshing New York City water though! The registration fee was about half the average Australian fee. And the ridiculously reasonable rates for the four-star hotels negotiated by the AHA left us with some nice pocket money to go out on our own.  Specialists to the core, perhaps it’s better if everyone in the academia-food-supply-chain follow this example of only bothering with what they’re good at.

To be fair, the “food catering” item in a conference budget has to be pulled in this and that direction for it and the rest of the budget to be justified. Once approved, unless the academic/research assistant/event organizer takes a special interest in the menu, choices are often left to the catering company...  unless the conference is a food conference. Having been to several, they are mostly excellent. The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, held in St Catherine’s College each year, excels in this regard. Each year, the meals provided take on a specific theme. For example, last year’s theme was on Food and Markets, most of the meals were organized by Elizabeth Luard and as every year, well-known chefs were brought in to cook them. The annual symposium is generously sponsored both for young food practitioners/researchers and in food and drinks. Below is a dinner menu from last year, with dishes cooked by The Guardian’s food writer, Allegra McEvedy.

Chorizo, lomo and croquetas de bacalao

Peas, broad beans and radishes

Manaquish flatbreads

Sheep’s cheese with herbs and spices

Pig sarnie

Porchetta rolls with salsa verde

Crispy pig’s ears and crackling

Cime di rape & tallegio pizza

Strawberry, mint and hibiscus jelly cups


A still-mouth-watering memory of great conference food was the 2006 “Cookery Books as History” at the then Research Centre for The History of Food and Drink, University of Adelaide.  For me, the stand-out dish was roast chicken from Kangaroo Island. Half expecting food history to repeat itself, I was slightly disappointed that last year’s “Food Studies: A Multidisciplinary Menu” at the same university yielded no such pleasure. Every lunch came in a brown paper bag. Day one: falafel. Day two: falafel. Day three: falafel. You get the drift. Perhaps outsourcing food to third party event organizers has something to do with it? Annemarie McAllister and Billy Frank, academic hosts of the 2011 ‘Food and Drink: their Social, Political and Cultural Histories’ at the University of Central Lancashire International Conference, in Preston,UK, had a winning idea with a “preconference dinner”.  Casual Italian fare at a downtown restaurant made for a great ice-breaker.  All the other meals were carefully thought out, using local produce, and the farewell dinner showcased historic recipes.

Conference food organizers have to wrestle with the growing number of requests to cater for food allergies, taboos and doctrines along differing health, religious and philosophical lines. Some of these meals are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher, halal, etc. The risk is that when these special preparations are placed on the same table as the mainstream meals, they soften get gobbled up by the masses! When I first attended North American conferences I was surprised that there was tea and coffee and pastries on arrival, each morning. I made the mistake of commenting that wow, they serve breakfast before the day’s proceedings! An American soon put me right: no, no, no, breakfast is the other thing, Americans love their carbs!

Have you any weird, wonderful food tales from conferences or organized events? Share your meals and theories!

How I Became a Food Historian

For my history honours I wrote a rather unremarkable and unsatisfying dissertation (“Empire and Sexual Opportunities: The Sequel?”) on sex and so for my PhD thesis I decided to focus attention on food. Seriously, I’ve always been interested in food studies/history. After high school I had wanted to pursue a degree in nutrition but I was so bad in maths and science that I did not have the required subjects for enrolment.  So, like what some people with failed aspirations do, I did a course in journalism and in the years that followed I worked for newspapers and later as a civil servant, at the same time freelancing for syndicated news agencies and other publications.  I continued to do freelance writing when I travelled with my husband to Tanzania, the Sudan, Indonesia, Germany and England.  But all the time, as an expatriate wife in Africa and Asia (in some ways dangerously similar to the colonial wife, a specie at the heart of my thesis), my interest in food never waned.  I learned to cook Tanzanian dishes over open fires in remote villages and brew Eritrean coffee in a refugee camp...

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. I was nine years old when British North Borneo became independent and joined the Federation of Malaysia. Of course, I remembered nothing of the event nor was I aware that I lived in a colony. My paternal grandfather came to North Borneo in the waves of migration when the British encouraged Chinese labour to help build the colony.  It would have been similar beginnings on my mother’s side. While my childhood memories are sketchy, the things I remember most are mainly to do with food. As the tuans and mems (or sahibs and memsahibs in India) were indulging in their colonial-hybrid cuisine of curries, mulligatawny, chicken country captain, pishpash, kedgeree and the like, we the colonized ate foods from our respective ethnic and racial groups. It was years or decades later that we sampled the diverse cuisines outside of our own, which the multicultural community offered. Today of course urban Malaysians and other urban-people worldwide are exposed to cuisines from all corners of the earth.

I remember trekking to my aunt and uncle’s rubber plantation in Sandakan to pick rambutans that were grown among the rubber trees. In my child’s mind that was an expedition to the vast jungle over exciting terrain, but in truth it must have been a smallholding excavated from primary forests. In 1877 Sir Henry Wickham had smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds out of Brazil to Britain. The race to produce rubber from the latex of rubber trees in the colonies was on. I remember every Chinese New Year my uncle and aunt would steam the sticky new year cake over a large cauldron. When it had become firm and pliable for the new year they would slice the huge cake with a length of wire. 

I remember attending Hakka weddings in the countryside where rickety tables were set up in the open, heavily laden with the most delicious festive dishes. There was succulent white chicken meat that was poached in abalone soup. Men carrying buckets of this soup would come to each table and ladle it into thick porcelain bowls with rooster designs. There was crispy skinned roast chicken with seasoned salt to dip in. There was black velvety mushroom stew that had been simmered for hours with fatty pork. There were deep fried prawn fritters. Prawn crackers were a child’s delight. There was duck in sour plum sauce. I remember Sunday mornings after mass (the Christianisation of the colonised with a promise of enrolment in English language schools, and therefore job prospects, was conducted by European missionaries – in British North Borneo they were the San Franciscan nuns, La Salle Brothers and Mill Hill Fathers from the UK and the Netherlands) we would go to the Sandakan upstairs market and have the best breakfast of cuttlefish in a rich brown sauce served over kangkung. Another just as delicious alternative was wonton noodle soup. Was it 50 cents a bowl? There was not a colonial in sight! At the tuckshop of the Catholic primary school run by British Franciscan nuns were meals and snacks both so delicious and nutritious they would delight Jamie Oliver. There were crispy pancakes made with shrimp and spring onions; grilled dried squid spiced with fiery chilli, fried noodles, sweet potato puffs with bean paste, banana fritters... all cooked on-site by the rotund tuckshop lady.

Fast forward a few decades. High school, journalism studies in New Zealand and tertiary education in Australia had all been possible because of the acquisition of English language in these mission schools. In between I went to Tanzania, got married there and wrote a manual for expatriate wives. I returned to Malaysia to have a baby, then lived in Germany and England. Back to Africa, this time to the Sudan. My husband’s United Nations work took us to Indonesia; other postings that followed included Azerbaijan, East Timor and Serbia. When my daughter enrolled for university study I followed suit. I triple-majored in history, political science and German. One thing led to the other and in 2010, at the age of 56, I was awarded a PhD in History with Distinction from The University of Western Australia. The rest is food history...

Currently I am on a three year postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Wollongong in Australia. I am working on a book length project, Urban Food Culture in Asia Pacific: Sydney, Shanghai and Singapore in the 20th Century to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

Up in the Air

Economy class passengers have this eternal hope that the tray placed in front of them will somehow reveal delectable dishes. More often than not the hot main dish tightly entombed in aluminium foil reveals variations of the flight attendant’s war cry of ‘chicken or beef?’, accompanied by rice, Asian noodles, pasta or potatoes.  

On a trans-Tasman flight in May 2014 on QF161, the airline took on the undemocratic stance of providing only fish curry, a highly contentious move given the average Westerner (by far the majority on this flight) might be less disposed to select fish and/or curry as a safe eating option. The white fish was cooked in an indeterminate sauce with one sliver of tomato, sitting side by side with white rice. Visually distressing but not inedible – if truth be told – it was quite comforting especially for this hungry passenger. The side dish of salad was not a salad, but a sheaf of spinach leaves, without even an adornment of another vegetable for colour. Chlorophyll overload for the senses! I think there may have been a sachet of balsamic vinegar dressing. (Aside – some popular airline salad greens are curly-leafed lettuces – perhaps they are less likely to wilt. However, corrugated iron is similarly hardy.) To complete the meal there was a midget Boost chocolate bar for dessert and packaged cheese and crackers. And there seems to now be now a widespread practice of handing out packets of ice-cream mid-flight? It may just be me, but I somehow don’t relish ice-cream on board – it’s always slightly chilly in the cabin environment … Big tick to those airlines that offer crisp apples in between meals. Brownie points to those that place bowls of fruit and other snacks at strategic points of the aircraft.

I puzzle at pre-meal drinks that are trolleyed out minutes before serving meals accompanied by snack packets of peanuts the size of postage stamps with six tiny said peanuts inside. What’s the point? Another pointless offering are chilled bread rolls. Bread rolls, yes! Warm bread rolls, a bonus! But stone cold bread rolls? Why would you do that? It would have been just fine to toss the bread rolls on delivery into an old carton box rather than refrigerating them?  A half remedy for the passenger is to place the offending roll onto the unopened hot foiled dinner for a few minutes.  Results may vary, but the procedure goes some way towards making her feel like she’s taking matters into her own hands.

For now, most airlines go through the motions of providing “meals” on board, handing out menus with a couple of choices for main meals. You go through the menu and try to select the least objectionable dishes. Airlines generally get on the nationalist game by providing “national dishes” of their home country. Malaysian Airlines used to serve satays ad nauseam on all flights. Currently Cathay Pacific serves rice congee on most flights – comfort food for Asians. Congee doesn’t go down well for most Caucasians, many having a slight aversion to watery rice, some liken it to cat vomit (story on food aversions/taboos forthcoming). My friend Andrea packs her own delectable stash of snacks for her frequent intercontinental crossings.

Keeping good food warm and fresh on board an aircraft flying between 20,000 to 40,000 ft must be hellishly difficult and/but a difficulty all airlines grapple with. This makes me wonder – why bother with providing a hot meal at all? Current medical research advises not to over-indulge with both food and drink on board so it would make sense to provide good quality snacks of fresh fruit (apples, mandarins), dried fruit (figs, apricots, raisins) nuts (almonds, brazil nuts, peanuts) and hard cheese. If all this seems too pedestrian, supplement with enclosed pastries such as small meat/chicken pies, curry puffs or Chinese steamed meat buns.  All these heat up well in the confines of an aircraft galley kitchen and even makes better business sense in terms of storage and labour costs.

Until airlines follow my good advice there are ways seasoned travellers try to look for variation to the standard chicken or beef. Ask for kosher/halal/vegetarian/seafood meals – they may not be much better than the standard meal but at least you get served earlier than the hordes. Pity the passenger who is vegetarian/vegan when mainstream airline meals seem so problematic. Leaf of limp lettuce anyone? Tofu on a stick? Last year, on a reputable Asian airline when I had requested for a seafood meal, the shrimp came in the size of ants, buried in mounds of gluggy rice. Not all airline meals are bad of course. Air Asia’s nasi lemak, which you pre-purchase on booking your air ticket from Asia’s most popular budget airlineis excellent.

Despite the great food served by some budget airlines they are lacking in other areas of basic service, such as flight cancellations with no prior warning and no compensation.  Flying with an appetite can be the great human leveler or act of compromise. Post your airline food experiences! Nostalgic tales of meals from above in decades past when passengers weren’t treated like cattle? Or were they?