Kebabs revealed as 18th and 19th century kingly delights

  • Date

    Thu 16 Nov 23

Illustration of George III eating a boiled egg. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Turkish kebabs have been revealed as an unexpected dish fit for a king in a detailed analysis of food eaten by King George III and his son the Prince Regent, George IV.

The study of what was eaten by the kings and their royal households at Kew Palace and Carlton House between 1788 and 1813 has resulted in a database of 3,000 unique dishes served to the kings, as well as 40,000 served dishes.

As well as the top five dishes of chicken broth, sweet tarts, roast capon, roast mutton and asparagus, the research has thrown up a few surprises.

“Turkish kebabs might seem unexpected, but they are part of a group of foods enjoyed by the kings and their households that demonstrate the impact of the British Empire, travel, and trade on eating habits.

“Kebabs were commonly eaten across the Ottoman Empire, for example, as described by British travellers. If anything, it is quite late to see them at the royal table, as recipes had already been in circulation since the 1750s,” explained Dr Lisa Smith, a co-author of the study.

The researchers used data from two kitchen ledgers from Kew Palace and Carlton House which detail the daily food allocations of every table in the two palaces.

The revelation of the kebab on the royal menu inspired an ‘odd one out’ question in a recent episode of the BBC’s satirical quiz show, Have I Got News For You. However, they weren’t the only tastes from abroad found in the analysis.

“Sugar, spices, chocolate, tea, and coffee all appear, reflecting the transformation of the British public’s eating and drinking habits during the eighteenth century. European cuisine like pasta and parmesan were also served at George III’s dinner table. The flavour profile overall was shifting from a century earlier. For example, orange water was being used in place of rose water in confectionary. There were also more varieties of pepper from East Asia and the West Indies and different herbs like tarragon that were typically associated with French recipes,” added Dr Smith, from Essex’s School of Philosophical, Historical and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Dr Smith is working with Essex graduate Dr Rachel Rich, from Leeds Beckett University, Dr Sarah Fox from the University of Birmingham, and Dr Adam Crymble from University College London on the project. Their recent findings were published in Food & History.

Each dish was classified by key ingredients and cooking methods resulting in over 1.3 million points of valuable data and painting a detailed picture of daily eating in the royal households.

George III’s favourite dish was chicken broth. On the few occasions he dined alone he opted for simple food like roast chicken followed by fruit tart. The research has revealed that George IV however favoured richer food, including deep-fried cream and deep-fried potatoes with chicken, a forerunner of chicken and chips.

Dr Smith concluded: “The dataset is useful for understanding the way in which foodstuffs and tastes were changing in this period, as well as how the various members of the royal households, from servants to King, ate on a daily basis.

“Through the data, we explore the connection between ‘British’ food and influences from around the world, including foods from the family’s German background to the soups made from turtles brought from the West Indies. Our project looks at the royal table as a key location for nation-building at a time when ‘Britishness’ was being defined. And crucially, the absence of certain foods, such as curry, can tell us as much about ‘British’ food and changing tastes as the King’s occasional taste for kebabs.”

Header image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.