The Browning of the Raj

More Curry tales

There was a time when British India had these nice dining cars on trains with set tables and liveried waiters at call, fancy cutlery, and so on, but they were long gone before my time. Then there were the restaurants and clubs in cities which pandered to the Raj. But for the British who ventured beyond their dank and dreary environs, it was a long trip and along the way, some went native, others got curried, while the food served to them got browned and sometimes roasted to darker hues, and the curry became a part of the Brit’s life, so much so that these days, a Brit without his weekly curry fix is a lost soul. Don’t you think we should spend a while chatting about the influence of Indian food on the Raj as well as the reverse impact on Indian eating habits? Don’t you think you would like to know about the ‘Muls’, the ‘ducks’ and the ‘quihys’ as we trace the culinary osmosis brought about by the many invaders and colonizers of India?

The impact of the foreigner on Indian cuisine started eons ago, with the arrival of the Northern and Northwestern invaders, the arrival of meats and fancy cooking, with fats of many kinds. The Mughal and Persian impact show even today in the Northern half of India and has already seeped into the Southern kitchen. Down South, Arab traders influenced cooking in the West and Southern regions, while southeast Asian and Chinese cooking influenced the Eastern and Southern regions. Then came the Portuguese and with them came so many new vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, tapioca, different types of chilies, stew concoctions, and whatnot. The Dutch followed, but I have not heard of any major Flemish influence in Indian kitchens, and following them were the French and the British. The British stayed the longest, so they should naturally influence the eating habits the most and vice versa, I thought, but it turned out to be mostly one-sided. The Chinese in Bengal created the Chindian cuisine which is a mainstay in our kitchens and thanks to Maggi, noodles is more like a national dish. 

When food rationing was introduced during the 60’s and 70’s, wheat dishes entered the South and became a standard, at least once on weekdays. With travel and affluence increasing, South Indian dishes especially the tiffin varieties started to gain popularity in the North. Specialty hotels sprung up, and dotted the metropolises. As families split and spread out, the retinue of servants reduced and homes became smaller. This brought about changes in cooking methods, so the time spent in creating a dish, while the lavish spreads for joint families were quickly replaced by easy dishes for the nuclear family on the move.

The traveling Indian found now that his palate had started to change again, after having tasted different cuisines around the world. Fusion cooking became the ‘in thing’ and new dishes blending flavors and looks ushered in haute cuisine to the upwardly mobile Indian’s kitchen, or well, at least to hotels they liked to visit. Michelin stars, ratings and so on followed, but for the vast majority of Indians, that does not really matter, and they still go by word-of-mouth oral reviews in selecting a place to eat or food to order. Today the culinary adventure in India is something you will be consumed by, with many food channels, a multitude of restaurants, classy, cheap, specialty, exotic, fusion – you name it, they are there to take you on your culinary journey.

But let’s go back a bit in time, to the Arab influence on the west coast, after which we will trace the trail set by the Parangi, or the feringe (which created the word foreign) on the West Coast. The earliest Arab influence on dishes was of course limited to the Moplah and other coastal Muslim communities dotting the west coast. The Yemeni Biryani, the buttered rice, and their sparse sides came through seafaring traders who sailed the monsoon winds. What many don’t know is that they had to stay at the Malabar port till the winds reversed course and the ships sailed back with spices. It was this 3-6 month stay which resulted in the physical intermingling of communities as well as the infusion of Arabic dishes with the local. Grilled and roasted meat, pickles or achars, flavored milk drinks, halwa, dry fruits, figs and date infusions, stuffed breads, cooking and holding the flavor in a pot – the Dum concept, all came with the iterant Arab trader. 

The many Jews on the west coast who arrived with the Arabs thousands of years ago also contributed. While the Baghdadi Jews brought in the Hameen, the Kobe and the Aloo makalla, The Yemenite Bene Israelites South of Bombay adapted to Marathi dishes as can be seen in the padhar, malida and purim, and their cooking methods. The Cochin Jew adapted to Cochin customs, as an example the Bonda took the place of their potato latkes, and they made their own version of Hamin (Chicken rice)

Perhaps the largest influence in India was from the Mughals and the Persians - a study which can easily stand on its own. To this I should add Turkish as well, since the Mughals were Turkic in origin and had a shared cuisine with the Turks from Central Asia. Their Kebabs, Koftas, flavored rice – biryanis remained close to their origins. Thick and rich milk, yoghurt and cheese based creamy curries, which were mildly spiced, flavored with butter or ghee, garnished with dried fruits and aromatic spices, have left a deep mark in our culture. They also introduced a variety of flavorful wheat breads such as the naans, phulkas, parathas to mention a few. The tandoor which they brought, Persian or Mughal, can’t be sure about that, is another important aspect. Not to forget, they brought in diverse meats into the kitchen - Goat, fowl, venison, rabbit and birds like quail and partridge, all fire grilled to grace dinner spreads. With patrons in the many kingdoms that sprung up in the Northern half of India, the richness of the dish was directly proportional to their master’s affluence. Curious, right – when Baber first arrived in India, he said that the people of Hindustan ate lousy food. Perhaps it was their life’s mission to set it right!!

A Parsi’s kitchen was markedly different and even now one can find Parsi arrivals to our cuisine such as dhansaks, the banana leaf steamed patra fish, the many eeda (egg) dishes, Sali boti, Saas machi, khurchans and semolina sweets, when in Bombay. Looking at their origins, one could assume they are North Persian, but the influence of Western culture went on to create a mouthwatering blend of khaatu-meethu-teekho tastes as vinegar and jaggery were added to the mix!

Chinese and South-Eastern influence can be seen mostly in the South and Bengal, due to the centuries-old trade relations with China. Steamed dishes such as the rice noodles (sevai), puttu, idli, kanji, the many utensils used to make them, and a few vegetables do trace their origins to China and the far east, but it was the Chinese in Calcutta who fused the traditional Chinese food with the spices of India to create the lovey Hakka Chindian or Sino Indian food which we can’t live without these days. Nestle’s Maggi took care of the rest.

Most people underestimate the influence the Portuguese had on Malabar and later, Indian cooking. So much of what we eat today came through the Portuguese friars and traders, and you can attribute tomatoes, potatoes, red Chilies (Kappal mulaku – chilies from ships - apparently introduced to wean locals away from pepper consumption, so that they could obtain more for export, while increasing imports!), newer varieties of mangoes (Alfonso), cashew nuts, couscous, apples, cabbage, cauliflowers, pomegranates, pumpkin, papaya, the Chinese potato (Kurka), yucca or tapioca, pineapple, guava, custard apples, lychee, cocoa and of course, addition of vinegar in cooking, all to the Portuguese. The list goes on and on, and shows the influence over the many hundred years they dominated the South western coast. The appams and Bole’s, the stews which grace Kerala and Goan cuisine can be traced to them. Adding coconut milk to spice it down, they originated the stews, but also retained the fiery vindaloo (a derivation from Carne de Vinha d’Alhos), and brought in wines to the Christian kitchen. Pao’s and biscuits were introduced to us from their borma (bakery) and they taught us the use of yeast in baking. While Bengalis can’t be without their Bandel Cheese, Mangaloreans will swear by the kulkul they eat every Christmas. It is said that Vada Pav and Pav Bhaji can be traced to them too, but I am not too sure of that except for the Pav connection. And many of these recipes traveled back to Portugal, Holland and Brazil, with the spices and the returning traders.

The French had only a marginal influence, much like their presence and you can see a bit of it in Pondicherry – where curries are more like sauces, with fish cooked in the French style, less of tomato and a lot of bread, hardly any rice. The dosa was made in a crepe fashion and the Bouillabaisse morphed into Meen Puyabaise with turmeric and creole fusions graced their tables. Fine baking, croissants and crème brulee left a great impression, as you can imagine.

And with that, we come to the British, who well – in my mind brought in a little but took away a lot. But along the way, they changed our food and eating habits, cooking methods, utensils, dining styles be it at home or on the run and that upheaval affected not just food, but the enjoyment of all the six classes of pleasures which Al-Baghdadi had once listed in the 13th century – Drink, Clothes, Sex, Scent, Sound and Food, of which food stood in the first place, being the noblest and most consequential!

So, it was into that India, that the British arrived. The brilliant colors, flavors, scents, aromas and tastes left behind by the Arabs, Mughals, Persians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Jews and the Parsees –assaulted their senses which had been dulled by the cold and dank weather at that island out west, and by the hardy lifestyle they had been used to. Many of them adapted to become culinary explorers, some resisted changes and brought in their homegrown tastes across the seas, many adapted and fused their lifestyles to ours, most survived and fell in love with the sub-continent which became their new home.

After a relatively obscure entry through Surat in 1608 (Keeling came to Calicut in 1615-1616) to enhance their spice trading, the EIC started to establish control over Indian lands in some way or the other after securing a foothold and building Ft St George in Madras, 30-35 years later. From then onwards, the destiny of India was directed by the British for the next 300 plus years. As we all know, the vestiges of the Raj still remain in many facets of our life, and quite a bit can be found in our food and food habits. Most of these changes occurred at the zenith of the rule of the Raj, 1858-1920 after the EIC relinquished powers to the crown.

It all started with the formalization of the bureaucracy, and the arrival of a bunch of lads with Victorian morals in the ‘heaven-born’ ICS tradition and an intent to instill those values on what they perceived now as a decadent, backward society. The burra sahib took wider control of the world well beyond the cantonment, for he was no longer the colonial Kohai, but the Edwardian master of the realm. To serve the sahibs and the mem sahibs (burra mem) were the malis (gardeners), the khansamer (cook), the masalchi (scullery boy), the bhisti (water carrier), syces (grooms for the horse), punkah wallahs (fan boys), dhobis (washermen), the list can go on.

The tropical weather was rough on the English constitution through their lifestyle was no longer as tough as it was for the pioneers. Plenty of help was available, but the Englishman had yet to adapt. Even though it was all so alien, they had to adapt, for it was ingrained into them that they were in for a long stay and acclimatization was vital for success. EIC surgeons meanwhile cautioned against too much of meat ingestion, to forsake luxuries of the effeminates and embrace the food of the natives - which according to Surgeon Curtis, comprised - boiled rice, and fruits, highly seasoned with hot aromatics, along with meat stews and sauces, but with a small proportion of animal matter. It was not so easy to implement that principle though, for the glutton blamed the devil which was actually in the climate, to justify five meals a day for the affluent.

The day started with the Chota Hazri or small breakfast (early tea in Madras), soon after dawn around 6AM, with regular tea and some fruits after which the colonial officer looked at some mail or a quick horse ride. Some sources mention that toast and boiled or poached eggs were eaten at this time, maybe even a bit of porridge, mirroring the Malabar breakfast of Konji (rice porridge).

The Burra Huzri or large breakfast of the Raj consisted of Bread probably toasted, butter, omelets, sometimes a bit of rice and fish, muffins, chutney, some cold meats and lots of tea. This in some areas was substituted by the popular Kedgeree (Kichdi), a mish-mash of rice, fish and hard-boiled eggs (sometimes chicken) served with butter or cream, topped with Parsley and lemon juice. On the side were a spread of jams and chutneys from mint, coriander and coconut. There are mentions of lavish spreads at larger mansions such as - a selection of crumbled chops, brain cutlets, beef rissoles, devilled kidneys, whole spatchcocks, duck stews, Irish stews, mutton hashes, brawns of sheep heads and trotters, not to mention Hindustani varieties such as Jhalfrazie, prawn dopiaza, chicken malai and beef hussaini. Phew!! In fact, these hefty breakfasts were originally recommended by British doctors to fuel heavy workloads in the hot sun, but that was not really for the latter-day bureaucrats who gleefully adopted it as their own.

It is interesting to note an absence of lunch in the earlier days after such a heavy breakfast, which was followed by a 3-4PM tiffin and a dinner at 8-9PM. The tiffin was eaten after breakfast and interestingly the usage comes from the word tiffing (tiff – imbibe small portions), meaning snacking between meals and was delivered in a tiffin box (like our dabba) to officers on duty typically containing some rice, lentils, curry, vegetables, chapatis and "spicy meats” usually redone leftover meat from the previous night’s dinner. The tiffin perhaps stretched both ways to become an elaborate lunch during weekends. Snacks for the road comprised of sandwiches of various sorts, meat, vegetable and what not.

The concept of the evening tea is quite misunderstood, in the beginning, it was actually the high tea or evening meal for working men at 6PM. High society introduced the lavish version of tea with cakes, biscuits and other items such as scones and dainty cucumber sandwiches. Supper or dinner time moved towards an 8-9PM slot and was not necessarily heavy or extended. Meats and breads, various soups and meat curries, usually freshly made took their place at the table with a drink or two to wash it down. During and between the many meals, alcohol such as wine, brandies and gin show their constant presence in various accounts plus the customary drink before tucking in or the one for the road, so also a variety of lighter options such as jeera, tamarind and nimbu panis interspersing the meals. Though diarists mention huge meals in their writings, most homes were on a budget and many mem sahibs did find it a chore to manage the many servants, food and home management, with their limited allowances provided by the man of the house. 

Some of what we inherited from the Brit could list the egg roll, the Bombay duck, the British Sandwich loaf, the many types of sandwiches, curry puffs, cutlets and chops, omelets and scrambled eggs, patties and pasties, fritters and croquettes, cakes, macaroons, potato chips, cocktails and rum. All of you will know that tonic water was prescribed for those in India to survive Malaria, a sugar and quinine laced additive to make the famous Gin and Tonic with a dash of lime. Not to forget the fried dishes like the pepper-fry’s. Many of these dishes were later adapted for the Indian officers in the army and the many British-Indian clubs. “Military hotels”— restaurants where meat and poultry were served primarily to troops were often run by Parsis or Muslims, so also Nairs in Madras. Spencer’s and their role in making sure that some or many English ingredients from across the seas were available for the wealthy English folks has been covered in detail in the past, I am linking to the article, here.

But not everybody will know that there were three types of ‘curry eaters’ in the Raj. They were the Muls, (Kohai’s) Quihy’s and the Ducks with at least two types connected intimately to the food they ate. The Muls were those Brits from Madras, after the Mulligatawny soup, while the Ducks were the Britishers from Bombay after the various feathered varieties favored by them in their food. Those from Calcutta and the North were called qui hy’s’ or Ko hai’s after their customary shouts of Koi ho (anybody there) - for their servants. 

Dak bungalow cooking depended very much on the native cook, his mood and what he could rile up at short notice, but fowl, dals & breads were usually available and so it was more spartan due to the lower amount of foot traffic. I wrote about the Railway catering service and its development some months ago, but one should note that before refreshment rooms at stations, you ambled up to the dining car at a stop and ate in it (because there were no vestibules). Soup, pudding, roast and an entrée were served in style. Hands were washed with pinki-pani (water with potassium permanganate). Hawkers were omnipresent, selling chai and snacks, but what surprised me the most was that there were hawkers selling Hindu-pani and Muslim-pani. The railways adopted with lighter railway curries, and the railway mutton curry is something many will remember. 

Days passed, food habits across the world as well as eating traditions changed. Trends came and went, as chefs dreamt out new dishes or dug out ancient ones from ancient cookbooks, recreating the marvels. It will be surprising if you do not come across an Indian restaurant in any major town across the world, and if you think, one word defines that travel – spice! Fast food trends in New York and England testify to the popularity of the taste of Indian spices, you can order a tandoori chicken pizza from dominoes and a McSpicy burger at McDonalds. 

The story of the curry’s trip back to Britain, Europe, Australia and America, the many curry cookbooks and the introduction of the Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM) in Birmingham is a hefty topic, but well, I should do a one liner on the CTM. As the story goes that the dry tandoori or tikka on a bed of flavored rice did not quite go well with some of the patrons, who wanted a dollop of gravy over the meat - and voila! the CTM was created. My younger son swears by that dish and thrives on it, I doubt if anybody can beat him when it comes to CTM orders. Living in Manhattan, he has been eating it every week, for years!! 

So many legends accompany us in any trip to meet with the many spices of India and the most repeated one is related to the lure of pepper and the Portuguese desire to monopolize the trade – of how the Zamorin dryly mentioned that the Portuguese could always take away his pepper, but “They can't seize our monsoons, can they?”

Man… I am hungry, let me go down the steps to see what my wife is upto! I think it is going to be appam and ‘ishtu’ a stew of potatoes, onions, ginger, pepper and coconut milk. 

The story has taken a complete turnaround, all the way back to the adventurous Portuguese…


Curries and Bugles – Jennifer Brennan

Taste of Conquest – Michale Krondl

Curry - Elizabeth M. Collingham

The Raj at Table - David Burton