Ruskin Bond is a treasure trove of tales, all imaginative and delightful, but none perhaps as delectable as those of Mehmoud the khansama. A family cook at Bond’s childhood home, Mehmoud came to work with a reference from none other than the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. Mehmoud’s eccentricity leaps off the pages of Bond’s Tigers for Dinner. He claimed to have shot leopards and wrestled cobras as easily as he cooked kofta curries, pies and duck roasts. But, while his stories were comical and quirky, his job was not. In colonial India, being a khansama was serious business.

Back then, British homes were microcosms of the Raj itself. Just as the Empire required a byzantine bureaucracy to function, so too the British memsahib needed a legion of native domestic workers – khidmatgars, bawarchis, masalchees, among others – for her home to run smoothly. With so many cogs in the wheel, the hierarchy was predictably complex, but at its undisputed top stood the khansama.

Popular culture would have us believe that the khansama was just a professional cook. But in reality, he was a lot more. In The Hand-book of British India (1854), journalist Joachim Hayward Stocqueler describes the unique position of the khansama in a typical Anglo-Indian home: “The khansama, or butler, acts the part which, in a moderate English establishment is acted by the mistress and the cook together; that is to say he markets, prepares the pastry and the made dishes, makes preserves, superintends the whole kitchen arrangement and in general leaves nothing to the cook except the actual cooking.”

The khansama was invariably a “Mussulman” or “Parsee”, Stocqueler says, and was expected to be “intelligent, respectful and well-mannered”. His raiment would be of white linen and his demeanour dignified, writes civil servant CT Buckland in the essay Men-Servants in India. He had “a capacious turban on his head and voluminous folds of muslin around his waist,” says Buckland.

Although the liveried khansama became a symbol of the Raj-era opulence in post-colonial imagination, the khansama existed long before the British occupied the country. The word khansama comes from Persian, kan meaning master and saman meaning household goods/materials. In the Mughal court, the Khan Saman or Mir Saman – the chief of stores in the imperial household – was one of the most important officials. François Bernier, who travelled around Mughal India in the 17th century, describes him as the “Grand Chamberlain of the imperial household.” The role was akin to that of the mayor of the palace in medieval European – it was his duty to inspect the discipline of the palace, imperial establishments and factories.

Feudal structures

In the nawab’s court too, the khansamas were key officials, so much so that a few of them were promoted to higher political office. For instance, on becoming the ruler of Awadh in 1814, Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar Shah appointed his father Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s khansama Agha Mir as prime minister.

“Khansamas were integral to the feudal Indian structures, where housekeeping, particularly in royal and aristocratic establishments, was elaborately organised,” said Ananya Jahanara Kabir, professor of English literature at King’s College London. “In India, the British were keen on reimagining these feudal, medieval structures steeped in what I call Oriental gothic grandeur. So, like the durbars, hazrees and other such vestiges of those times, the khansama became a part of the British establishment in India.”

Some scholars see an execrable design in this act of usurpation. Akbar S Ahmed and Joseph L Soeters, for example, believe that the British used Islamic titles to address subordinate positions as a way to humiliate Muslims. “Khalifa – caliph – the highest political authority in Islam, and Khansama – one of the highest officials in Mughal India – were bestowed on the lowest functionaries of the British administrative structure: the barber, bouncer at the dens for drugs and junior field clerks became khalifa and the cook became khansama,” wrote Ahmed in his 2002 book Discovering Islam: Making sense of Muslim history and Society.

But even within the colonial domestic establishment, the khansama wasn’t a strictly culinary title. Colonial writings through the 19th century make a distinction between the khansama and the bawarchi. The bawarchi slaved in the kitchen, preparing the food, but it was the khansama who acted as the conduit between the memsahib and the kitchen staff, including the bawarchi. In this sense, Kabir says, the khansama was an influential cultural broker and creolising agent: he orchestrated crucial negotiations between the ways of his employer and his native land, and from these exchanges emerged a new culinary and domestic culture.

“This [exchange] happened in two directions,” Kabir explained. On one hand, the khansama adapted local habits and foodways to suit British preferences, helping the colonisers navigate the cultural milieu of a foreign land. On the other, he introduced to Indian aristocratic households everything he learned from his employer – how to cook European dishes, how to set the table, how to the use cutlery. “The khansamas were in a unique position to control the flow of cultural traffic both ways,” said Kabir. “They were both cultural and culinary dobash (interpreter).” It is perhaps no coincidence then that in colonial Madras, butlers were called dobash instead of khansama.

A slew of hybrid dishes that married British food with native spices and cooking techniques was born from these interactions – roasts and steaks perked up with native spices, immaculately-shaped minced cutlets spiked with a hint of chilli, and caramel custard cooked on charcoal fire. An iconic dish of this genre is Country Captain or Countree Koptan. A simple curry cooked with minimal spices, it got its name from the skippers of country ships, who presumably liked it a lot.

Dak bungalows

As with any interaction, the exchanges between the khansama and his employer could be turbulent, cynical, acrimonious. Buckland, for instance, accuses the typical Khansama of profiteering from his job, of buying the cheapest ingredients and charging the highest price for them. “Day after day he served us the same vapid dishes and the everlasting curry and rice that bring him a certain profit,” Buckland wrote. Others accuse khansamas of colluding with milkmen to adulterate milk. A quirky story, retold by historian William Francis Patrick Napier, goes that one khansama took his own countrymen for a ride. In this story, Warren Hasting’s khansama earned Rs 3,000 a month from villagers by making them believe that the colonial administrator would have a fat child killed for breakfast unless they bribed him.

Whatever the accuracy of that tale, it is true that khansamas’ proximity to their colonial masters bestowed on them an enhanced status, even celebrity. In old Calcutta, several streets and lanes were named after them. Among the ones that still bear the names are Nemoo Khansama Lane, Chakku Khansama Lane, Karim Bux Khansama Lane or Pachu Khansama Lane.

For many khansamas, the journey that began in colonial homes meandered into dak bungalows, the network of rest houses built by the British under the imperial postal service. In many dak bungalows, khansamas filled the double role of caretaker and cook. “In some cases, the servant in charge, usually called the Khansama, has been in the service of English officers, and will prove to be a good cook,” wrote John Murray in A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon (1911). “In small and out-of-the-way places, it is best to confine his efforts to a curry or pilau, which he is sure to prepare well.”

Indeed, not all dak bungalow khansamas were competent cooks. Colonial writings are strewn with woeful accounts of the insipid food at dak bungalows. Most often, the khansamas would lazily rustle up a curry with freshly slaughtered chicken, which was easily available, and a few basic spices.

But in the hands of an able khansama, the food could be delicious. The khansama would combine his knowledge of European food with the minimal ingredients at his disposal to create delectable dishes and multiple-course meals. One such magician was Peter, the khansama at the Krishaghur Dak Bungalow, who was described by civil servant William Tayler as “the only living celebrity of our time.” Such was Peter’s mastery that Tayler’s friend Pierce Taylor composed an ode to him in Latin, calling him the “dispenser of grilled chickens, curry, pilau and other Oriental dainties to weary travellers, ever-ready, ever on the watch for the coming guest, and with subordinates adept in the art of catching unsuspicious chickens when the traveller’s palankeen was seen in the distance.”

The sway of the khansama survived the departure of the British. Rajika Bhandari, in her book Raj on the Move, recounts an episode about Bernard, the khansama of the Bilaspur Circuit House, who was known as much for his culinary genius as for his foul temper. In the early 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was scheduled to visit Bilaspur and Raja Saheb of Sarangarh was entrusted with his care during his stay at the Circuit House. Naturally, Bernard, who “had been at his post for as long as anybody in the town could recall”, was called upon to cook for Nehru. When asked what he would serve the prime minister, the only answer Bernard gave was fish. “Raja Saheb, Bernard in his kitchen is the king,” he reportedly said. “If you do not appreciate good food, please do not talk to me.” In the end, Bernard gave Nehru an impeccable meal of fish soup, fish cutlets and a sapid fish curry. The food thrilled Nehru so much that he left a glowing compliment in the circuit house register: “Dinner last night was easily the most delicious meal I have ever eaten.”

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