As someone who grew up on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, I often rued the fact that the picnics of my childhood in Bengal were nothing like the ones in my favourite books. There were no drop scones and homemade ham, no jam tarts and anchovy sandwiches, and definitely no lashings of cool ginger beer. To my eternal disappointment, the picnic baskets of my childhood typically contained limp slices of lightly toasted bread, a hardboiled egg, a banana and joy Nagarer moa, a crumbly, sweet Bengali confection made with popped rice, khoya and date palm jaggery. I would eat the hardboiled egg (the only link to the Famous Five picnics of my dream) and pass the rest of the contents around. Usually, the bread had no takers.
That is not to say that none of our picnic meals were exciting or colourful. On some winter Sundays, our large joint family would head to the verdant maidans near the Victoria Memorial, carrying casseroles of different colours and sizes. In them would be Bengali wintry treats like shukno aloor dum and koraishutir kochuri (fried bread stuffed with spiced green peas) along with vegetable chops or croquettes made with sweet winter carrots and beetroot. For the grown-ups there were flasks of milky tea and for us children a crate of Mango Frooti.
I enjoyed nearly all picnics but the one I looked forward to the most was the annual affair at my uncle’s club where liveried catering staff brought us dainty sandwiches, shredded boiled chicken, batter-fried fillets of fish and mutton croquettes. It wasn’t exactly Famous Five food, but it was close enough.
The menu at the club was evocative of Kolkata’s colonial past, when potluck picnics were “one of the chief forms of social activity” for the British colonialists. “The British took their wilful picnicking with them when they colonized India,” writes historian Megan Elias in her 2014 book Lunch: A History. In their picnic baskets would be a mix of European and Indian food: cold ham and tongue, naan or parathas, steamroller chicken (so called because the chicken fillets were flattened before being crumbed and fried), potato cutlets or rissoles, sausages, spiced beef, lettuce and tomatoes, and fruits like Alphonso mangoes and Indian jujube.
These picnics were no rustic affair. Author Jennifer Brennan recounts in Curries & Bugles: A Memoir and Cookbook of the British Raj that they often involved “snow white tablecloths, silver cutlery, crystal glasses and finger bowls” along with liveried servants serving cold champagne (to make a show of the sahib’s superiority).
Centuries before British sahibs and cold champagne came to India, Indians were enjoying recreational outdoor eating their own way. Classical Indian art and literature are strewn with references to picnics and garden parties of the upper crust. A terracotta sculpture from the Sunga period (185-73 BCE) discovered in Kaushambi, for instance, “portrays a picnic party moving in a chariot”. In its centre is a big platter of “cooked food with clear suggestion of rice, sweet balls, round cakes, etc.,” writes Vinod Chandra Srivastava in his book History of Agriculture in India, Up to C. 1200 AD.
The Mahabharata describes a picnic so sumptuous that it drew comparisons with the carousels of Teutonic knights from polymath Rajendralal Mitra. Attended by Krishna, Balaram and Arjun, the picnic had all kinds of alcohol. There was Kadambari, distilled from the ripe kadamba; Madhvika, distilled from the petals of Bassia Latifolia; arrack; and rum seasoned with fragrant blossoms. The picnic spread featured roasted and curried meat; sauces made of tamarind and pomegranate; haunches of venison boiled with sorrel, mangoes and condiments; and assorted meats dressed in ghee and seasoned with radishes, lemon, sweet basil, asafoetida, pomegranates and more. The showpiece was a young buffalo roasted on a spit and dressed in ghee. After the entrees came sweet cakes and rich confections like the Ghrita purnaka, made of sugar, flour and ghee that Mitra saw as the predecessor of the present-day ghewar.
Vatsayana’s Kamasutra, composed around 3rd century BCE, describes Udayan Yatra or day-long garden picnics enjoyed by rich men and their courtesans, with a retinue of servants bringing them their meals. At the end, the picnickers would take back with them a twig, leaf or wildflower as a token of remembrance.
The Mughal emperors and their courtiers too had their share of picnics in their ornamental gardens, sometimes by moonlight. Persian artist Mir Sayyid Ali’s famous 16th-century painting The Princes of the House of Timur features Humayun seated on a pavilion, enjoying a garden party while royal servants carried food and drinks to guests seated under the shade of a Chinar tree.
A more recent account of a royal picnic is provided by the portrait artist Charles Baskerville. In 1937, he says, the Maharaja of Jaipur hosted a picnic for which lunch had to be sent in a lorry. On the menu that day was European food along with an assortment of Indian dishes, such as a cold curry of boar head (without the eyes) and peppery leaves of spinach fried in batter. “Of course, a hamper of whisky, beer, gimlets, cider and water” was taken along for the picnic, Baskerville clarified.
Codified into rituals
While for royals picnics were often occasions for epicurean excesses, for non-royals they were rooted in the innate hankering for communing with nature. In many parts of India, in fact, this act of eating together in the outdoors has been codified into rituals – a periodic reminder to connect with nature and let the rest-and-digest system kick in.
In Tamil Nadu, on the 18th day of the Tamil month of Adi, people gather on the banks of River Cauvery or some other water body to celebrate Adi Perukku, the onset of monsoons, with oblations to the water source. “The ritual is followed by al fresco picnic, on the banks of water bodies, comprising a variety of spiced and flavoured rice – lemon rice, tamarind rice, coconut rice, curd rice, etc. [These are] easy to pack in banana leaves and eat off them,” said food writer and author Sudha Tilak.
In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the highlight of the month of Kartika is Kartika Vanabhojanalu, a ritualistic picnic that mandates eating under amla or Indian gooseberry tree. It is believed in Hindu mythology that amla is one of five trees where gods reside and eating under it cleanses the body. The meal traditionally served on Kartika Vanabhojanalu is a vegetarian fare: pulihora or tamarind rice, crisp vadiyalu, punnukulu or fritters, sweet purnaloo, saporous curries, spiced lentils and rice.
Hazeena Seyad, a champion of the food of her native Ravuthar Muslim community, says there is a tradition of picnicking at waterfalls in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, in the monsoons that has given rise to its own culinary habits. “Dishes like coconut milk rice, tamarind rice, curried meat, onion raita and brinjal chutney make up a typical Tirunelveli picnic meal,” said Seyad. “The food is either brought from home or cooked in tents at the picnic site.” Among the popular destinations in the region is Coutralam, a town surrounded by waterfalls and mango and coconut groves that has lent its name to a picnic essential – a chutney called the Kuttala that is made with coconut, dry red chillies, tamarind, garlic and mustard seeds.
Across India, every community has its quintessential picnic food. For food writer Vernika Awal, the classic Punjabi picnic meal is sukhe aloo, bharwe karele and namak-ajwain ke parathe. “We typically rolled the spiced potatoes or vegetables in the parathas to avoid making a mess,” said Awal. In the west, typical Goan picnic food is chutney sandwiches, salted beef tongue sandwiches and soft drinks – all portable and convenient to eat.
Instead of bringing food from home, some cultures prefer to cook on an open hearth at the picnic spot. Between January and May, when val beans are harvested in coastal Maharashtra, many rural communities organise popti parties. On these occasions, a one-pot dish is made with val beans, boiled eggs, seasonal vegetables like potatoes and brinjal, and meat marinated with spices. The clay pot is lined with medicinal Bhambrut leaves, stuffed with the culinary delight, sealed and upended in a shallow pit with a fire built on it.
Back in Bengal, traditional picnics called choruibhati were often spontaneous affairs centred on the act of cooking together in the open. Picnickers would often bring one ingredient each from home and share the cooking responsibilities to turn out a simple meal. The women took on the prep, while the men did the cooking.
Every year in the winters, my Bengali family still heads to our farm in a village near Chinsurah for a choruibhati-style family picnic. The difference is, we no longer make the food. Hired cooks from the nearby town of Chandannagar gather under a big shamiyana to engineer a delicious meal – lentils cooked with fried fish head, batter-fried aubergine, hot rice, cabbage cooked with potatoes and green peas, and fish caught from our pond fried to a crisp in mustard oil. The highlight of the meal is a reddish-brown mutton curry savoured with a squeeze of lime. It’s all familiar food that we eat all year round – but it tastes better under the winter sun.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.