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Dining in Colonial India Photo Credit William Henry Jackson

August 14, 2013

Recipes from the English Kitchen

The British ruled India for almost two centuries – first by the East India Company, followed by direct rule until August 15, 1947. In the mid 1800’s when the British became the colonial rulers of India, there was a huge influx of British nationals into India to administer British affairs. This long period of British colonial influence left a lasting influence on India. During the eighteenth and early part of nineteenth century, an admiration for all things English was quite prevalent in India. Education was a primary avenue through which England cultivated Anglophilia in its former colonies. At the height of imperialism, British imperial policy aimed at the creation of an Indian elite. In his Minute on Education in 1835 Lord McCauley wrote” it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and intellect”

The British were trading partners when they first established trading posts in India in the mid -17th century. Fort St. George (historically, White Town), the first English fortress in India was founded in 1644 at Madras (Chennai). The construction of the Fort provided the impetus for further settlements and trading activity. A new settlement area, George Town, grew around the fort enveloping the neighboring villages and led to the eventual formation of the city of Madras. It also helped to establish English influence over the region, and keep the French forces based at Pondicherry, at bay.

British Food in India
During the early days the employees of the East India Company ate the same food as the local Indian population. By mid-1800’s the British colonials were eating predominantly British-style food prepared with local ingredients and adapting to local conditions. Numerous books were written to help newly arrived young British wives advising them how and what to cook and how to manage a household in India.

Mrs. Beeton in her famous Book of Household Management of 1861 includes recipes for a dozen curries and the sauces. The book introduced the British middle class to the latest manufactured food products, most importantly “curry powder” (The lack of fresh curry ingredients in England fueled the demand for curry powder and a lucrative export industry developed around Madras) and a wide range of foreign recipes.  A cavalry officer Colonel Arthur Kenney-Herbert wrote a best-selling cookery book Culinary Jottings for Madras in 1878 under the pseudonym Wyvern. The theme of the book was how to cook British and European dishes under Indian conditions using Indian ingredients.
Raja Serfoji’s English Kitchen
Raja Serfoji became the king of Thanjavur in late 18th century. The military policy of the royalty was of defense because of the political presence of the powerful East India Company all around them. When Serfoji became king in 1798, the British supported him, but at a hefty price. They assumed practically all powers and he received an annual compensation and share of revenues from the fertile Kaveri delta. Despite all such constraints he was fascinated by the British. He was fluent in English and a veracious reader. He had a very good collection of British publications which are stored at the Saraswathi Mahal library in Thanjavur.

He was equally fascinated by the British cuisine and set up a separate English kitchen at his palace. He sent his cooks to train at the military kitchens at British Fort St. George in Madras. The food that came out his English kitchen was more Indo Anglo (for lack of a better word) than Anglo Indian. Sarabhendra Pakasasthram contains around 30 recipes from this English kitchen.

Recipes from the English Kitchen
As English food got more Indianized, a fusion cuisine evolved. Some of the most famous dishes are probably piccalillis (created by adding vinegar to traditional ingredients for chutneys), kedgeree (a rice porridge featuring smoked fish), and mulligatawny soup (the British incarnation of rasam). “From about 1700 onwards in the country houses of the southern gentry cooks were busy turning out imitations of picked mangoes using marrows, cucumbers, melons, lemons and peaches” writes David Burton in Raj at the Table.  

Picalli Pickle
This recipe is for the Indian version of the piccalilli pickle. While Burton’s recipe for piccalilli calls for onions, cauliflower, cucumber, green tomatoes, French beans, and capsicum the Maratha English version uses cabbage instead of cauliflower, tamarind and lime instead of green tomatoes for tartness, hot green chilies for mild capsicum and immature tamarind seeds instead of celery seeds. Although both turmeric and mustard are used in both recipes, vinegar, ground ginger, flour, and sugar are not used in the Maratha English version. Drying of the vegetables or sunning the pickle is not called for in the British version.

Ingredients: 2 pounds immature tamarind beans, 2 pounds onions, 2 pounds green chilies, 2 pounds red cabbage roots, 2 pounds tender cucumber, 1 ½ pounds salt, ½ pound turmeric, 1 pound mustard seeds, 300 lime fruit and garlic.

Cut onions, tamarind beans, cabbage root, cauliflower, and cucumber to pieces. Mix with salt and set aside for a full day and night. Nest day take out the vegetables and dry in the sun. In the evening put the partially dried vegetables back into the salt water. In this manner soak and dry the vegetables till the entire salt solution is used up. In a tinned pickling vessel combine turmeric, mustard seeds and juice of the lime and mix well. Add the salted vegetables to the vessel, mix well, and close it tightly. Keep it in the sun for one parhar (3 hours) a day for ten days.

Mutton Roast 
This recipe is quite similar to the English style mutton roast of the 17-18th century England. No spices are used, and the goat is roasted.

Ingredients: Sirloin or back-thigh mutton of goat, 1/1/4 tolas salt, ¼ pound wheat flour, 1 pound butter, and 4 sheets of plain white paper (substitute for parchment, I guess)

Mix flour with some of the butter and salt and set aside. Pierce the mutton with an iron spike and wrap it with white paper smeared well with butter. Tie the paper with thread so that it does not slip from the spike. Roast the leg on coal fire, turning the piece very often to roast evenly on all sides. When the paper becomes dark remove it. Then apply the flour mixed with butter and salt to the mutton and roast again on fire for an hour. Cut the roasted mutton into pieces and serve.

Lady Mamamud
Lady Mamamud was a version of mutton curry cooked in the military kitchens of Fort St. George. Apparently, it was a popular dish as the recipe with variations, appear in English cookbooks from the period and later as well. Mrs. Bartley’s Indian Cookery General for young housekeepers published in 1892 includes a recipe for Sandhurst curry which is essentially a similar mutton curry.  David Burton’s The Raj at Table gives another version under the title Navroji Framji’s Maratha-mode meat curry.

Although this recipe does not give details about the spicing, Navroji Framji’s Maratha-mode meat curry lists them as caraway seeds, anise seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and turmeric. Navroji Framji’s Maratha-mode meat curry substitutes fenugreek leaves with coriander leaves and also adds ginger and green chilies.

Ingredients: 40 tolas mutton, 5 tolas butter, one spoonful of spice mix, one coconut, ½ tola fenugreek leaves, 3 big onions chopped, one lime, one spoon salt. Wash and clean goat. Keep it in a pot and add water and allow it to simmer on low flame for 15 minutes. Take it out of the pot and cut into pieces. Finely chop the fenugreek leaves. In a pan melt the butter and add chopped onions. When onion is browned, add the spice mix and fenugreek leaves, and stir. Add the mutton pieces to it and stir with a flat ladle. Add salt and cook for half an hour. Extract milk from the coconut and pour over the mutton pieces. Squeeze lime and stir in. Cook for a little while and remove from the stove.

My sincere gratitude to Rachel Laudan for her valuable advice on researching about English cuisine.

Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994
Burton, David The Raj at the Table A culinary History of British India London; Boston: Faber, 1993.
Rao Sahib, A. Krishnaswami Mahadik. Sarabhendra Pakasasthram, Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur 1988
Schoonover, David E. The Khwan Niamut: or, Nawab’s Domestic Cookery University of Iowa Press 1992

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