A Brief History of Food & Drink in Five Objects

Five ancient artefacts from The British Museum, London, related to food and drink.

The world’s greatest repository of antiquities? Or a vainglorious testament to the arrogance and narcissism of empire? Either way, the British Museum has long engendered discussion and debate.

But as a child, all this flew largely over my head. As far as I was concerned, the British Museum was always just a bit.. well, dull.

Egyptian mummy? So what! Roman statue? Meh! The sheer scale of time and place just washed over my youthful mind without tingling any neurones of appreciation.

And so years passed, and it was not until my 30’s that I ventured back. This time, I felt a palpable thrill as I gazed round the entrance hall – all the more gripping for its unexpectedness.

Stepping tentatively into the cavernous glass-domed Great Court was like venturing into an oversized snowglobe. But rather than chintzy little reindeers or rickety Brighton piers, there were actual sphinxes and sarcophagi – millennia-old relics staring back at me, like they were alive and breathing.

Over time, it struck me just how many objects related to food and drink: not only cutlery, crockery, and utensils, but also in the glorified representations of feasts or hunting.

I had such a sense that, regardless of time and place, food has always been a central pillar of civilisation. It is more than a sustainer of life: it’s a gatherer of people, a connector of communities, and a shaper of identity.

Over time, I’ve been steadily making note of display items that have piqued my gastronomic interest, and I’m picking out five of them here – each originating from a different era and region, each with a culinary theme and a story to tell about the society of the time.

One of these stories is about the museum itself, and how the shadow of colonialism has shaped its collection… but more on that later. For now it’s time to buckle up – you’re about to go 5000 years back into the past…

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Food Music – Nasi Lemak at MEI MEI

Nasi lemak at Mei Mei London - a Singaporean dish of fried chicken, fried egg, rice, cucumber, peanuts and anchovy.

How do we know things?

I don’t mean knowledge or facts. I’m not talking about words, labels or content.

I’m talking about perception. How do we perceive the world, at a level that’s most basic and raw? Without the steady stream of thought that continually tries to make sense of our perceptions. Or even ourselves.

I’m talking about the canvas, before we slather it with words and thoughts and worries and musings. A canvas that is ever changing, moment to moment, steeped in the restless world we find ourselves in.

Take this very moment. You’re reading words on a screen. Your brain is effortlessly crunching all those nouns, verbs, and conjunctions: framing them against your accumulated bank of knowledge, experience and attitudes.

But on another level, writing is just sticks and swirls.

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‘Meringues’ – a poem by my boy, aged 9 & 3/4

Big fluffy meringues made from sugar and eggs

Have you ever seen a white meringue,

With the sugar and the egg and the whole shebang?

Well I made a bunch with my dad one day

After watching Bake-Off in the month of May.

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Butter Chicken at DASTAAN is the Best in the World (..and so much better than my Dad’s!)

Butter chicken masala curry at Dastaan restaurant Surrey, garnished with cream and coriander

Monday

So Dad decided to make a curry tonight. He called it “leftover curry” because he made it out of vegetables left over in the veg box that he didn’t know what to do with. Like swede. He reckoned if he put it in a curry, perhaps we wouldn’t notice. But when it’s big and orange and tastes disgusting, there’s no way we wouldn’t find out.

You see, me and my big brother are always one step ahead. Nothing gets past us. And if Dad thinks he can sneak onions into a curry, then he’s got another thing coming!

 

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Eggy Dates at NANDINE – From Kurdistan to Camberwell

Eggy dates at Nandine in Camberwell is the perfect breakfast to showcase Kurdish cuisine

I was born by the mountains. I was born in the mist. Who knows exactly how or when I came to be. All I know is that it was long ago. And that time is best measured in generations and not in years.

I was born from people’s lips, as they gathered around the fireside, my words spilling out in the same breath as their old stories and tales. Words that mingle as they drift over the flames, forming and reforming. And in this way, I am forever being renewed.

And so it is. Generation to generation. From village to village. I am cast through space and time like pollen sailing in the wind.

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