It’s origins are debated, but the evolution of brunch takes us to plenty of alternative ways to spend quality time at the dining table – or more surprising place settings – today.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

It’s origins are debated, but the evolution of brunch takes us to plenty of alternative ways to spend quality time at the dining table – or more surprising place settings – today.

Brunch with a dip at Meli Ho Tram Beach Resort

CARRIE BRADSHAW did not invent brunch. 

Despite an association it garnered as being a luxury pastime for those like Bradshaw (the lead character in Sex and the City, played by actress Sarah Jessica Parker), a designer-sunglasses- and Italian-shoe-wearing metropolitan with a penchant for mimosas before lunch, brunch has long been around before the TV series first aired. Although, admittedly, historians cannot pinpoint a specific time of origin. 

One legend points to English hunting breakfasts which, delayed until the return of participants, was then served heartily – to include eggs, meat stews, fruits and desserts. Another theory surmised it came from late-morning breakfasts as a result of early-morning pre-church fasting. What is sure though is the actual terminology ‘brunch’ was only coined in the late 1890s by English writer Guy Beringer, who 

had allegedly grown tired of traditional, heavy post-church meals and wanted something in between instead. “Brunch is a hospitable meal … [it] is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper; it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings. It sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week,” he wrote.

Then popular periodical Punch picked up his article and by 1920s his very fashionable idea even spread across the oceans to Chicago, where celebrities and elites would stretch their legs after long hours on the transcontinental train. Since most restaurants were closed on Sundays, the serious responsibility of feeding these sophisticated stomachs mid-morning came down to hotels, like the famed Pump Room restaurant, in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel – decades later frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

Brunch in the US then was very much a meal for the privileged, who chose to blatantly disregard Prohibition with flare. The concept didn’t permeate the wider public, however, until at least three decades later, when enjoying a tipple or two during daylight became less of a stigma, and post-World War II working women and men started seeking respite from a laborious work week, perhaps also made easier by the invention of convenience foods like frozen orange juice, boxed cake mixes and even powdered Hollandaise sauce. It was seen as an affordable luxury, a two-in-one meal featuring treats not consumed during the week of pre-work fast oatmeal breakfasts. 

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Fumi Hong Kong’s beautiful Japanese spreads

In the 1980s – coincidentally also when eggs Benedict was all the rage in New York – brunch culture evolved into the lavish event we understand it to be today. Thanks in part to the influence of pop culture slight tweaks were made, like extending it into a weekend-long affair from a Sunday-only one, and incorporating bottomless cocktails and other drinks – which would have been fathomless only a few decades ago. 

Like its fluid definition, the exact components of brunch are equally up for debate. Nova lox (salmon from Nova Scotia, Canada that’s cured and then smoked), smoked sturgeon, caviar and mimosas are classic brunch items in New York while Atlanta highlights southern fried-chicken Benedict atop buttermilk biscuits; and brunch time in Las Vegas means all-you-can-eat buffets comprising jumbo crab legs, lobster and oysters. One constant these days, however, is the inclusion of the Bloody Mary cocktail, sought-after for its alleged effectiveness in rectifying hangovers. But that’s just in America.

Other countries have been observing brunch for a long time without even calling it that. In Guangdong (Canton) province in China, for instance, dim sum is a crowd-pleaser among both young and old. In Jamaica, it’s a cooked ackee fruit with fiery scotch bonnet chillies served with boiled plantain, breadfruit and optional rice and peas. The mouth-watering nasi goreng – stir-fried rice, eggs, meat, chock full of spices is prominent in Malaysia and Indoneseia, and the list goes on. 

What’s eaten is important, as is the how. Fumi in Hong Kong brings Japanese flavours with sushi and tempura galore, highlighting items like Hokkaido red king crab, Kuroge Wagyu tartar with yuzu sauce; a seafood platter with abalone, scallop; and, a takoyaki station that serves piping hot octopus balls – guests are encoraged to try to make their own with a chef who makes sure fingers are not burned. 

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Made-to-order pasta stations and fresh seafood rolled right up to your table is what defines luxury brunches at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh.

Australian head chef at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, Joel Wilkinson, describes brunch as a “ritual”, rather than a meal. “Brunch is different from a weekday breakfast or lunch where the main goal is to either jump-start your day or get you through it,” he says. “Brunch should be a relaxed affair that stretches in time. That’s why brunch fare is typically served in a buffet or ‘family’ style so that you don’t feel rushed. You can take your time while enjoying the company of friends.” At his hotel, he offers a number of small stations serving charcuterie and salads, cheese, free-flowing Bordeaux or Champagne wines, pasta cooked à la minute, fois gras and a packed chilled seafood bar. Those who cannot be bothered to shuffle food around can request a trolley because “these days, real luxury is time and authenticity”. 

“For brunch, people are looking for the best way to celebrate the weekend, they’re looking for well-prepared food and genuine service.”

An even lazier option is found in southern Vietnam. Meliá Ho Tram Beach Resort’s “floating brunch” is served, literally, on a floating tray in the private pool in guest villas. So you’d just need to change into your bathing suit – or not – and literally dive into your plate of pastries, bacon and more with an optional champagne. If getting prune-like skin in the morning is a concern, guests here can also consider their own in-villa barbeque party. 

To quote the Punch article that began the trend: “to be fashionable nowadays, we must ‘brunch’.” So whether it’s stacks of barbecued meats or poached eggs swimming in Hollandaise sauce that tickle your fancy, and whether you regard it as a family endeavour or an excuse to have a drink or three with your best buddies, brunch has always been an accessory of the well-heeled – so much so that Carrie Bradshaw might as well have invented it.