Food and culture

Curry from the colonies: The incredible advice for young brides from Raj-era cookbooks

Interestingly named, and written for those who were still living in India, or were missing it, these books help understand daily life in colonial times.

By the 1880s, curry symbolised how different parts of the Empire were intertwined, as tastes and palates adapted to new lands and new requirements. Colonial culinary innovations, especially the curried dishes, ensured meals were the long drawn and leisurely events that they had become in the 19th century, thanks to the wide use of gaslight and the ubiquitous presence of servants ready to serve every course, especially in the colonial outposts. Also, these recipes and the spices that were integral to them helped make certain foods, such as the coarser and “inferior” meats of the east, more palatable, and ensured their preservation.

Besides curry, other colonial culinary adaptations included the mulligatawny soup (originally pepper water to which other ingredients were added to make it a complete dish), kedgeree, pish pash (a rice gruel popular in colonial Southeast Asia), and the notion of “tiffin” and chota hazri, or a small breakfast. Such dishes were part of a cumulative culinary enterprise, the earliest examples of “fusion foods” – in the words of food historian Cecilia Leong-Salobir – born out of adaptation and adjustment, as memsahibs learned to work with native (local) cooks, as the latter learned to figure out their employers’ tastes, and the manner of how local ingredients and long-sustained dietary habits arrived at mutual accommodation.

A new wave of experts

In 1889, Daniel Santiagoe’s Curry Cook’s Assistant or Curries and How to Make Them in England in their Original Style was published in London. A cook who had served the British in Madras and in Ceylon, and whose father had been a butler and fiddler in Ceylon, Santiagoe had impressive credentials. His master, John Loudoun Shand, a plantation owner in Ceylon, wrote the book’s introduction, explaining helpfully to the reader that curries were perhaps one reason why Easterners had longer lifespans and that Santiagoe’s use of English was quaint, but his knowledge of curries excellent.

Santiagoe begins his book of 60 recipes by providing a list of ingredients for making curry powder. He considerately provides two separate lists, since ingredients readily accessible to the Ceylon cook would not be as easily available to the London resident and vice versa. By this time – the late 19th century – curry powder was sold commercially but good cooks insisted on making the authentic stuff from scratch.

Chicken tikka masala. Photo credit: nwflightdesign/via Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Chicken tikka masala. Photo credit: nwflightdesign/via Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Colonel Kenny-Herbert’s books, Fifty Breakfasts, Sweet Dishes and Culinary Jottings for Madras, based on his newspaper writings in Madras, had also been published in the 1880s. The army colonel had established the Common-Sense Cookery Association in London to teach “high class cooking” to Westerners. In several newspaper pieces, Kenny-Herbert appeared anguished over the fact that young ladies keen to write columns approached him seeking tips on the making of curries, brazenly confident that a few classes would give them the necessary expertise, and were totally oblivious to the reality that it took several months, or even years, to master this art.

In Henry Yule and AC Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson, a dictionary of colloquial Asian terms published in 1886, curry was defined as a “savoury dish made up of ‘meat, fish, fruit or vegetables cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric’ served to flavour the two staple foods of the east – bread and rice, both of which are bland dishes”.

Travelling west

George Francklin Atkinson’s Curry and Rice (1858), with its eye-catching lithographs, shows how the lives of the sahibs and the locals were intertwined in small colonial towns and hill stations. Besides ayahs and lascars, cooks were the first undocumented international travellers from colonial India.

Some two decades before Santiagoe wrote his book, Hadjee Allee had already established a reputation for himself for his kebabs. In 1851 the writer William Moy Thomas, in a story called The Elixir of Life, mentioned Hadjee Allee as the famous cook who had newly arrived from India to work in the Bengal Hotel. Allee, Thomas’s narrator says, was known for his “Indian dupeajja, Keorma, Jerdu and Koorma Plow, Indian Coaptu, Kitcheree, Mancooly and Indian cababs”. The story by a man about town narrator appeared in Household Words, then edited by Charles Dickens.

The real Hadjee Allee did move to London. He married a British woman in 1846. A decade earlier, he had also published a book, Receipts for cooking the most favourite dishes in general use in India, partial reproductions of which are available in later books.

There were some translations before this too. In 1831, a Sandford Arnot, a linguist and one of the Orientalists that had once been based in Calcutta, translated for the London Oriental Institute, a Persian book of recipes into English: Indian cookery, as Practised and Described by the Natives of the East, perhaps the first cookery book from India available in English.

Cookery and advice

Apart from these early cookbooks by officials and travelling cooks, another genre comprised mainly of books that offered advice. Written first by men and, from the 1870s onward, by British and Anglo-Indian women (several of whom wrote anonymously), these were intended to help women who travelled to India as wives and homemakers. The authors shared copious notes on setting up a house, appropriate clothing for every occasion, habits for everyday living, recipes for entertainment and how to run a household and, especially, manage domestic staff.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

According to the books, servants were childlike but could be cunning and evasive. They were an indispensable part of colonial life, but they had to be carefully monitored and disciplined, going by these books. Moreover, as kitchens were not very healthy places, cooks had to be rigidly supervised. Among the first books of this kind was written by R Flower Riddell, a colonial official who served as Surgeon General to the Nizam of Hyderabad in the 1840s. Riddell’s Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book appeared in 1849, and servants feature in the very first chapter.

Riddell was unequivocal in his warnings about their dishonest ways and suggested that servants be registered at the “thana” or local police station before employment. He also listed the kinds of domestic workers and the salaries they usually received. For instance, in Bengal, there was the sircar or accountant, the khansamah or butler, khidmatgar or table servant, bawarchee or cook, dhobee or washerman, bhisti or water carrier, halalkur or sweeper, hurkara or messenger, durzee or tailor, durwan or porter, ghareewan or coachman, syce or horsekeeper and others including tent pitcher, hookah attendant and female servants such as the ayah or nanny and amah or the wet nurse.

The book details the necessary care for maintaining poultry and horses, then goes on to providing “receipts” (archaic for recipes) for the making of various dishes, including soups (two different kinds of mulligatawny), sauces, chutneys, fish, puddings, and of course, curries which appear toward the book’s latter half in the chapter, “Oriental Cookery”. Riddell lists the detailed ingredients for making curry powder (four kinds) on pages 402-3.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Women take the stage

Later writers often mentioned their years of residence in India in the book’s very title, so as to establish the validity of authorship. Books such as The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook to the Kitchen in India (1869) was declared to have been written by “a thirty-five years’ resident”, and JH’s Household Cookery: Tested Recipes Collected During 23 Years’ Residence in India, was published in 1902.

There were other writers who wrote for the India-returned or those who had already acquired a taste for the new foods. Henrietta Harvey wrote her Anglo Indian Cookery at Home by gathering recipes from various parts of the subcontinent and suitably “Anglicising” them. She had returned with her dekchis or metal cooking utensils, curry powders and curry stone (akin to the mortar and pestle but used to grind spices for curries). Her book remained a classic for some years.

Mrs Grace Johnson’s Anglo-Indian and Oriental cookery (1893), introduced her book as “Oriental cookery modified by English, French and Italian methods”. A decade later, in 1903, Joseph Edmunds wrote Curries: and how to prepare them. He sold his own version of curry powder and had his carefully picked recipes vetted by cookery teachers and eminent chefs.

Making vs manufacturing

Though curries featured on the menus of a couple of coffee houses established in the 1770s and the Hindustanee Coffee House set up by Sake Dean Mohammad opened in 1810 (and closed a year later), curry powders and other packaged foods such as chutneys, sauces and pickles were already commercially available by the end of the 18th century. Experienced cooks, however, insisted on concocting their own powders. In a book written by the head chef of the British royal household from the 1880s to the 1910s, Gabriel Tschumi describes how cooks at the palace (evidently there were many) were disdainful of curry powders that were bought and insisted on pounding and mixing their own.

Mulligatawny Soup. Photo credit: Miansari66/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0 1.0 ]
Mulligatawny Soup. Photo credit: Miansari66/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY CC0 1.0 ]

While every cook and cookbook writer worth her while stood by her version, there was also widespread belief that curries were a way of building good health. Harvey Day, in his Curries of India, was particularly eloquent on the benefits spices conferred on the human body. As Day wrote: “[Almost every spice had some] antiseptic value and many are carminatives: that is, they tend to reduce flatulence, as do dill and caraway. The paprika and chilli families are extremely rich in vitamin C, an anti-scorbutic vitamin, which is good for the skin. This may be one reason why so many Indian women have such remarkably clear skins.”

Ginger’s medicinal value had been recognised by the ancient Indians and the Chinese but King Henry VIII (1491-1547) was especially appreciative of ginger’s value as aphrodisiac. A mention that is revealing not because Henry VIII remains best known for his many marriages but for the fact that ginger was already known to the West as a trading commodity, long before spices such as pepper entered the picture.

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This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.