“First things first, I need a silver saucepan,” I announced, walking distractedly into my living room, eyes glued to my mobile screen. My husband mumbled something, clearly uninterested. “Made of flesh, fish and fowl, a sort of Irish stew, it was considered not very good unless prepared in a silver saucepan,” I read aloud from a digital copy of an 1860 issue of The Calcutta Review. This time I had his bemused attention.

“I am going to make the Burdwan Stew,” I clarified.

He had never heard of it. Until a short while ago, neither had I.

Growing up in Bengal, one would presume, I would have at least got a whiff of a stew named after the eponymous town in the state. But no. I discovered it by chance a few weeks ago while aimlessly wading through documents on India’s colonial history. After that, the references would not stop popping up at me.

I explained to my husband that Burdwan Stew is a hearty dish of roasted (or parboiled) meat, ideally game, stewed with onions, wine and, depending upon the recipe, a quirky potpourri of condiments and seasonings ranging from the juice of Seville oranges to the essence of anchovies, a piquant sauce made of fermented anchovies. “A silver saucepan is easy, but where will you find essence of anchovies?” my husband asked. I had no idea.

Familiar fare

Colonial literature from the late 18th and early 19th century is strewn with references to the stew. In Culina Famulatrix Medicinæ, or Receipts in Modern Cookery with a Medical Commentary, published in 1804, the author, writing under the pseudonym Ignotus, describes Burdwan Stew as a dish “frequently introduced in the East Indies when appetites begin to flag, after eating heartily of two courses and being often dressed by the master or the mistress in the presence of company, it is generally paid great attention to”. But while Ignotus offers not one but two recipes for the stew – one Indian and the other English – he warns against “plain eaters suffering themselves to be led astray by dishes that never were intended for them”.

Intended or not, Burdwan Stew was quite popular among the plain-eating early colonists. It can be frequently found in descriptions of the gaieties of Calcutta society and raffish extravagance of the new arrivals to the city. Sir Charles D’Oyly, a British public official and artist, mentioned it in his burlesque poem Tom Raw, The Griffin (1828) while describing a usual “sumptuous tiffin” at the Writers’ Building: “Here Tom, alighting, found a jovial crew of youngsters around, a spacious table placed, where devilled peppers and a Burdwan stew, smoked on the board, and courted will the taste.”

Burdwan Stew. Credit: Pritha Sen.

Over time, the stew trickled into the bills of fare of colonial Calcutta’s famous watering holes. Walter K Firminger, a historian and cleric, writes in Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta (1906) of a meal at Mr Creighton’s Harmonic House in Lal Bazaar that comprised of the establishment’s usual specialties of porter, oysters and turtle soup along with “a highly seasoned Burdwan stew, served up in a silver saucepan...”

I first came across Burdwan Stew in British epistolarian Eliza Fay’s Original Letters to India, written between 1779 and 1815, among her descriptions of “luxurious indulgences” of a typical Calcutta dinner. Only Fay likens the dish not to an Irish Stew but to the Spanish Olla Podrida – a stew made of chickpeas or beans and assorted meats and vegetables – perhaps because both dishes call for a gallimaufry of ingredients.

However, in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1827), journalist Christian Isobel Johnstone, writing under the pseudonym Margaret Dods, draws more specific links to the roots of the Burdwan stew. She compares the dish with the English devil, a genre of dishes of highly seasoned game meat in piquant sauces, or the French Salmi.

To me, French Salmi seems the more apt comparison, a point on which scholar Ananya Jahanara Kabir agrees. As Kabir explains, both Salmi and the Burdwan Stew “involve second-order treatments of already cooked (roast) meat, where sliced meat, typically game, is incorporated into a sauce to create a new dish.” Kabir adds that “in the Francophone Indian Ocean, the French Salmi became significantly spicy. The Burdwan, too, could become as spicy and tangy as you wanted it.”

True, there is no standardised recipe for Burdwan Stew. While early recipes such as Ignotus’s Indian Burdwan call for simple ingredients – a few tablespoons each of Madeira wine and essence of anchovy, a blob of butter rolled in flour, some shredded onions and a hint of cayenne pepper – the later iterations are bolder and spicier. For instance, Mrs Dalgairns’ recipe, published in her 1829 cookbook The Practice of Cookery, demands an elaborate assortment of spices and condiments. To recreate her recipe, you need mushroom catsup, lemon pickle, cucumber vinegar, soy, a mix of ale and white wine, and a spicy sauce called corach escavecke – all sauces and condiments born out of the interaction between Europeans and the colonised East.

Culinary necessities

Last October, food historian Pritha Sen served up hearty bowls of Burdwan Stew, loosely based on Mrs Dalgairn’s recipe, at a pop-up in Kolkata. The day’s menu was themed around colonial recipes that have gone out of circulation. Sen’s rendition of the stew combined diced chicken and mutton cubes with onions, mushroom catsup, anchovy paste, soy sauce, chopped preserved lemon pickle, chilli powder, butter and a little flour, all gently simmered together for a few hours in a rich mutton broth flavoured with carrots, onions, celery and a cup of red wine. The elusive corach escavecke was substituted with a dash of the hot Habanero sauce. “I finished it with some more butter and what was called Baganey Moshla in those days – garden herbs like parsley, coriander, a touch of rosemary and thyme,” said Sen. “The idea was to showcase dishes that clearly demonstrated what we call fusion cookery today, and the Burdwan Stew is a solid, early example.”

Kabir sees Burdwan Stew as a perfect example of creolisation in that it embodies “the creation of something new through exchange, negotiation, collaboration and compromise” that transpire when diverse groups mingle “in tightly demarcated spaces, such as the clusters of European settlements along India’s coastlines and broad riverways like the Hooghly”. In this view, Burdwan Stew is not just an arbitrary medley of elements of European and Oriental culinary practices. It is rooted in the need of the early European settlers to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances – to reheat cooked food in the hot weather to avoid spoilage or to invent dishes fit for portable cooking in jungle camps.

Lost flavour

In Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan (1835), English travel writer Emma Roberts, who toured the country in the early 1800s with her sister and brother-in-law, writes about the several “very excellent dishes” that were invented keeping in mind “the cooking apparatus suited to a jungle or some unreclaimed waste hitherto unconscious of culinary toils. A Burdwan stew ranks high among these constructions…” The emphasis on a saucepan made of silver, a metal that heats quickly, making it apt for cooking over a spirit lamp, is explained by this rustic, portable cooking. “The spirit lamp and the silver saucepan indicate that a kind of European modernity that is...quick to adapt entered the Indic space. This is the creolising rather than the civilising mission,” said Kabir, who explored Burdwan Stew with writer Ari Gautier at Le Thinnai Kreyol, their online initiative celebrating India’s Creole heritage.

But what exactly is the stew’s connection with the eponymous town in Bengal? In her book Picnic Crumbs (2012), Anabel Loyd hypothesises that “the town of Burdwan...67 miles north of Calcutta was...a district headquarters in British India and it seems reasonable to think that travellers between the two might have so named their regular camp stew”. Kabir offers a more complex reasoning: “The reason for choosing the name Burdwan could have been to do with affiliating the stew to that milieu of the early British presence in Bengal, the military camp in the mofussil as a dynamic and unpredictable space of change, as opposed to the French way of life that would have been prevalent in Chandernagore.”

The rustic stew lost some of its iconic status in the Raj Era as the colonisers began to favour more refined dishes of European lineage, particularly French, over spice-laden Oriental hybrids. I am yet to embark on my mission of recreating Burdwan Stew in my Kolkata kitchen. Perhaps I will once I have sourced a silver saucepan and a bottle of Madeira. The spirit lamp will still be a challenge.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.