Keith St Clair Butler’s novel The Secret Vindaloo serves this as a starter: ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.’

The line was written a couple of centuries ago and is credited to the lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. I am sure the French gastronome had no idea who an Anglo-Indian was, let alone what their palates preferred. In any case, their fusion-kitchen was, like the community itself, still a work in progress. Incredibly, it still is!

But if I told Brillat-Savarin that even now my lunches are more Indian and dinners more British, and that I eat a bland stew or pish-pash with as much relish as I do a zingy pork vindaloo or prawn malai curry, he would certainly have told me that I belong to a fusion-people. Now if I tell you that I tuck into a medium-rare steak (beef naturally!) using a steak knife and fork, having relished a tasty fish curry lunch with my fingers, both with equal dexterity, you will tell me that I am an Anglo-Indian or resemble one at the table.

It’s true, you are what you eat. We certainly are! So, if your palate is evolving, you probably are, as a person. And if your staple diet straddles two continents like a culinary colossus, chances are your ancestry or upbringing does too.

Butler has used Anglo-Indian cuisine as a telling metaphor for his community and cooked up a delightful khichdi of food and turn-of-phrase, swimming in a gravy of mixed-blood. So how does one best describe this fusion food that has evolved over centuries, as has the community? Community researcher Richard O’Connor says, ‘Anglo-Indian food is neither too spicy, nor too bland; neither too Indian, nor too continental; but a delectable mix of the two.’

Gordon Maher, one of the community’s most prominent leaders in the diaspora, agrees with him in Paul Harris’s delightful short film Anglo-Indian Cuisine: ‘Because it was a hybrid community, it embraced a lot of the British and Portuguese standards. But it was actually tinged with the Indian flavour; so many of our foods were hybrid fusion foods.’ However, like good Anglo-Indians often agree to disagree, Blair Williams, a Calcutta–New Jersey crossover, has a different take on the balance: ‘Anglo-Indians ate, cooked, loved Indian food. They did not cook, eat, or like English food. From a food point of view, we were very Indian.’

A person who has never cooked – an Anglo, Indian, or Anglo-Indian dish in his life isn’t the best authority on this matter of vital importance to the community, Anglo-Indologists, and others who are merely curious about what actually goes into the making of an Anglo-Indian. Since I have never churned a dekchi and have no intention to blemish my very Indian reputation of staying out of the way when professional domestic help is laying it on in the kitchen, I don’t have the right to pass judgment on this. But since I am a pay-too (affectionate term for a foodie in many Anglo-Indian homes, obviously derived from payt, the Hindi for ‘stomach’) and like many of my ilk, live to eat, I have the audacity to air my views. I would say a vast majority of Anglo- Indian dishes is a little of this, a little of that, and plenty of itself. Permit the pay-too’s tongue to do the talking.

There are a handful of dishes that are as they were when our European forefathers were here; then there are a handful of dishes that are completely Indian in texture, taste, and spirit. But these two handfuls can be counted on the fingers of any food connoisseur. The rest of all Anglo-Indian cuisine falls into the category of a fusion in the dish itself.

Let’s put it this way: it’s like watching an hour-long fusion concert – ten minutes of The Beatles, followed by a raga-solo by Pandit Ravi Shankar, topped by forty-five minutes of the sitar maestro jamming in with the great band, his sitar conversing with George Harrison’s lead, while Ringo Starr enjoys the struggle of matching the frenetic pace set by Ustad Zakir Hussain’s tabla.

A large chunk of Anglo-Indian cuisine is not two separate servings of continental and Indian, where east is east, and west is west. The twain did meet and keeps meeting effortlessly and seamlessly every day in most Anglo-Indian kitchens.

The twain may not have met so completely when India-born English poet Rudyard Kipling was romancing the subcontinent, but the process had well and truly begun a few centuries earlier, and over the last century or so, has evolved as a standalone cuisine. Different, unique, dynamic – it is different from its sources, unique in flavour, and characterized by constant change. So, let’s start from when it all began.

The birth of the Anglo-Indian community is inextricably linked to the spice trade. When Vasco da Gama sailed home after his three-month stay in Calicut in 1498, his ships were loaded with pepper. Soon, Europeans headed to Lisbon and not Venice to trade in spices, and before they could say ‘big
bucks’, the Portuguese were back in India. Barely seven years after Vasco da Gama’s home run, Lopo Soares hit a real home run. His nine ships set sail from the Malabar coast carrying unbelievable amounts of pepper, ginger, and cinnamon in thousands of kilos.

Supply grew over the next two or three decades, as Portuguese influence and control slid upwards on the west coast to Goa and the Gulf of Cambay and had outposts on the Coromandel Coast and in Bengal. The Arabs lost their dominance over the spice trade. The Portuguese had ridden the wave. They had arrived! Having tasted blood, and the spices of India, they kept coming, kept staying, kept growing. The Dutch, French, English, and the rest followed. The rest is history – but it all began with spices.

It’s time to dig briefly into a historical perspective of Anglo-Indian cuisine and what influenced it through the ages. Colleen Taylor Sen, in her delicious serving of Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India does just that, beginning with an interesting take on the Portuguese influence:

‘While the Portuguese imposed quasi-westernization on local folk in the Malabar region through the sixteenth century, they themselves lived much like Indians. They chewed betel nut, drank arrack, and hired Indian cooks. By 1670, at least 20,000 Portuguese and their descendants were living on the other coast, in the Bengal region. For servants and cooks, they took on Moghs (people of Burmese origin) from Sylhet and the Chittagong Hills, who for centuries had worked as deckhands and cooks on Arab ships trading with Southeast Asia. They quickly learned their masters’ culinary arts and became famous fortheir bread, cakes, and pastries. The British later recruited them as seafarers and cooks, and today, Sylhetis can be found running Indian restaurants in the UK and New York City.’    

Soon, Portuguese men ate Indian food with their fingers – usually rice, salt fish, mango pickle, and other dishes that they were completely unfamiliar with. Taylor Sen goes on to say, ‘The Portuguese capital Goa became famous for its meat dishes, especially those using beef and pork. Many classic Portuguese dishes, now referred to as Goan delicacies – like vindaloo, xacuti, fish and prawn balachao, and salted beef tongue – were enlivened by the addition of spices.’

The aroma of spices lingers to this day in every AI home, particularly lunchtime. Not as strong as in a Goan or Tamilian home, but far stronger than in a London restaurant serving curries for European palates.

As the community’s most prolific cookbook writer Bridget White puts it: ‘My Nana taught me to never overdo or underestimate the spice factor in our cooking.’ If I, as an Anglo-Indian, need to thank the Portuguese for adding spice to and into my life, quite honestly, I don’t need to thank the Dutch or the French for too many things on my table. But let’s be fair to them by acknowledging a couple of their culinary contributions to us. To the Dutch we owe the art of baking dough and the use of yeast, cutlets of minced meat or fish shaped like a ball (what the Dutch call fricadelles), and a curried beef steak (smore). But it’s our equivalent in Sri Lanka, the Burghers – the people of mixed European (especially Dutch) and Sinhalese or Tamil descent – who have plenty to thank their ancestors for, since they have their own distinctive hybrid cuisine, influenced by the Dutch.

To the French we say ‘thank you’ for a couple of servings. The Anglo-Indian pancake and pan roll with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings have been derived from crêpes; French onion soup, crumb chicken (poulet goujon is the French name for it) and one of my favourites, fish meuniere – a lightly batter-fried fish. If you’re ever in Kolkata, try it at Mocambo, a vintage restaurant just off Park will never be the same again!

In Puducherry, a former French colony, there are still a few dishes that the French left behind: a stew called ragout, heavily flavoured with garlic and aromatic spices; meen puyabaisse (fish bouillabaisse); rolls (lamb stuffed with minced lamb) that are a New Year’s Eve speciality; and a rum-soaked fruitcake served at Christmas, simply known as Pondicherry cake.

But it was the British who influenced the Anglo-Indian kitchen more than other European settlers, dominating three of the four meals.

Right till the 1970s, rarely, if ever, would you be served an un-British breakfast, tea, or dinner. The usual lunch menu, however, was rice, dal, a vegetable bhaji (pronounced doll and baaji in all AI homes at the time, and some even today), and a curry; but it was an English breakfast and a very British dinner of soup, a roast, fish and chips or cutlets, with Yorkshire pudding, and a custard or bread pudding for dessert.

As for tea, the whole concept was as alien to India as the Mad Hatter’s tea party was to Alice. That changed when British women started sailing in. Comprising sandwiches, even plain bread and butter, scones, cakes, or pastries, and of course more than a single cup of tea, it had more to do with chatting at the club or a healthy gossip session in someone’s living room than the actual snacks that were served.

The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community

Excerpted with permission from The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community, Barry O’Brien, Aleph Book Company.