Today, December 1st …
The hotel that Somerset Maugham said symbolised “all the fables of the exotic East” opened on this day in 1887 in Singapore. There are no prizes for guessing that it was The Raffles.
It was the “high noon” of the British Empire, and the hotel was unflinchingly Colonial - with mod-cons. There were modern electric fans, but there were also punkah wallahs to work the canvas ceiling blades via ropes attached to their big toes. One must keep up appearances, mustn’t one?
Food was always a feature at The Raffles. The imported European chefs turned out hearty mutton-chop breakfasts that were, like the strict dress code, entirely appropriate for England. But there was Tiffin. Raffles was famous for its “Tiffin” - an Anglo-Indian concept first appearing at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
“The English corresponding term is luncheon: but how meagre a shadow is the European meal to its glowing Asiatic cousin.” [Thomas de Quincey].
This Asiatic cousin was a light, informal meal, usually buffet-style, of a variety of curry dishes served with the usual accompanying sambals. No mutton chops.
The word comes from a North England dialect word meaning “to take a little drink”. In other words, its original meaning may have suggested the liquid refreshment enjoyed by the sahibs and memsahibs who were naturally very thirsty in the tropical heat. Their drinking was facilitated by the “chit” system at The Raffles, which meant that drinks were never paid for at the time of consumption (a bit low-class, that) but were signed for, (and often never ultimately paid for), by the largely the long-term and permanent residents.
And what would be a discussion of The Raffles without instruction for its signature “tiff” for your next liquid lunch?
Singapore Sling: one half gin, one quarter cherry brandy, one quarter mixed fruit juices, a few drops Cointreau and Benedictine, a dash of Angostura bitters; top with a cherry and a slice of pineapple.
Should you insist on food too, for your tiffin lunch (or BBQ, if you must), here is a very simple Raffles recipe named for another of its literary guests.
Brochette of Prawns Rudyard Kipling.
350 gm King prawns, skewered and seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon juice. Fry until just done. Place on a bed of Saffron rice. Heat up some chopped Mango chutney, and pour over. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and serve.
Tomorrow …. Eating backwards.
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