Veeraswamy’s of London

Palmer’s Indian restaurant – And the interesting story behind it

During a trip to Gangarams in Bangalore many a decade ago, I found the cookbook, Indian Cookery by E.P. Veerasawmy. Some of the recipes in it were quickly mastered (the concept, that is) and became a staple in our kitchen. I had always believed, that the author was a Tamilian, named EP Veeraswamy. Later on in life, I passed by the Veerasawmy restaurant on many occasions while living in the UK, and believed that the same Veeraswamy once owned that restaurant. Recently, while studying the stories of Indians in the UK, I learned that Veerasawmy was an Anglo-Indian named Edward Palmer. The EP in the name stood for Edward Palmer and Veerasawmy was apparently, his alter ego. Note the spelling of Veerasawmy, for we will get into that later.

Edward Palmer (EP) alludes to the following about his native Indian parentage in his preamble to the cookery book, also telling us about his lifelong interest in watching, trying out and mastering Indian dishes. Quoting him - But more than all, I can remember with love and gratitude my mother - the greatest exponent of Indian cookery - inculcating in me the science and art of the Indian cuisine and explaining the dietetic value of the many spices, seeds, etc., and the nutritive value of various foods.

After some research, I discovered that Edward Palmer was the son of James Edward Palmer, an Anglo Indian, and initially read that his mother was one Annie Vasooramal, an East Indian. Later on, Palmer’s granddaughter, who I got in touch with, informed me that EP’s mother's name was Annie Ponnuswamy, the daughter of a Mr. P Thomas. James and Annie got married in 1850 and Edward was born in 1861, at Hyderabad, where his parents lived.

EP incidentally, belonged to the eminent ‘House of Palmers’ at Hyderabad, which once owned a banking institution that had collapsed decades before his birth.  Now, one could argue at length, about the Palmer bank mishap, if it was a result of the vindictive actions of the English Resident Metcalfe or it was Palmer’s miscalculations and wrongdoings. I will provide brief highlights of that story, if only to provide some perspective and also to debunk a lot of false information, out in the internet about EP and his origins.

The house of the Palmers was started by William Palmer ‘the king’. William Palmer, was incidentally, the Eurasian son of General William Palmer by his second wife, Faizunnissa Begum from the ruling family of the Nawab of Oudh. If one were to disregard the varnished reporting of the EIC residents at Hyderabad, and concentrate on contemporary studies on the Palmer affair, they would get a better understanding of how Charles Metcalfe, an autocratic EIC resident, manipulated rules to his company’s benefit. As such, then current British rules did not permit money lending by Brits in EIC territory or charging an interest rate greater than 12%. However, William Palmer was a Eurasian or Anglo Indian and together with a Gujarati named Benkati Das (and other English partners) advanced very large sums to the Nizam, much to the alarm of the British EIC. Strictly speaking, the action was taking place in Hyderabad, then not part of EIC territory, and Palmer did charge >12% interest.

After a career fighting and winning battles for the Nizam, Palmer settled to trade and banking but found a tough adversary in Metcalfe, who did not like competition to his outfit, the EIC. Another white Mughal Kirkpatrick was a good friend of his, so also William Hastings. Anyway, as matters progressed, the loan balances to the Nizam became too high, and the bank was taken to task and liquidated, and as a consequence, the Nizam had to trade the rich province of Berar, to the British. Metcalfe had hated his secondary position to Palmer in the Nizam’s eyes and was forever envious of the political power Palmer possessed, undermining British EIC overlordship. Anyway, the bank failed from Metcalfe’s manipulations, though the house of Palmers continued on and was eventually cleared off all their debts, with Metcalfe’s departure.

Edward Palmer (Veeraswamy) was the son of William Palmer’s third son, James Edward Palmer, the blind major of Secunderabad, who had married Annie Ponnuswamy. William ‘the king’ Palmer died in 1867.

Palmer tells us how he got to England - I can remember being sent to England to study medicine and, in the intervals of my study, looking down areas and watching bakers at work, staring into shops where sausages and onions were being cooked, and often wishing that I could fry fish and chips in the fish shops. In order to join up for medicine, he should have completed his schooling in Hyderabad, and he must have been around 18 years old, so I would believe that he landed up in London circa 1870. But he never got to study any medicine and I have not been able to figure out that part. We can however see that he got married in 1884 and had six sons, from his first wife. In total, he was apparently survived by 17 children through three wives Lucy, Adelaide and Merry May.

The book goes on to say that EP launched out in the production of food, both Eastern and Western. Indian cookery fascinated him, and for the next forty years, he devoted himself to it; lecturing and teaching in schools of cookery for Councils of Education in public halls for charity, in classrooms, in hotel and restaurant kitchens, at Exhibitions (including Wembley), and even at Aldershot to the military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. In 1915, the same year his young son Stanley died in battle, he published the cookbook (While other sources mention 1936, I have a copy of a 1915 edition, scanned from the Birchanda library) through Arco Publishers London.

EP proudly informs readers of his book, that should they fail to get any major ingredient, they only needed to contact him at 15, Clarendon Rd for his ‘Nizam’ branded pulses, spices and condiments. In the book, he states that it was being published during the evening of his days (we can see that in 1915, he was 55 years old).

From this point onwards, Palmer’s story of kept changing, sometimes the handiwork of an enthusiastic reporter, sometimes through inputs from future owners of the Veerasawmy’s restaurant. Some books mentioned that he was a retired ex-serviceman from the British Indian army, others mentioned that he was a doctor and some others even went on to highlight his royal connections, e.g., that he was a direct descendant of the Nizam, etc.

Nevertheless, we can observe that Edward Palmer did move around in the guise of EP Veerasawmy from Madras while instructing or educating the public on Indian cooking. The name Edward Palmer would not have suited the image of an Indian chef, and Palmer did have South Asian looks. When you peruse his book, one would find a clear Tamil tilt to the recipes and names in there, with support from Madras linguists and the book is stated to be the effort of Palmer's alter ego - EP Veerasawmy, and there is no mention of any Edward Palmer. In a later edition, EP Veerasawmy is qualified as ‘the world’s foremost Indian Chef, who owns the famous Indian restaurant in London’. By way of qualifications, the following can be seen below his name – Gold Medalist: Indian Catering advisor to the Indian government, British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924-25. Founder of Veerasawmy and Co, Indian food specialists 1896, and of Veerasawmy’s India restaurant, 1926-30. There is a mention in the Palmer’s history that Edward served at the Ministry of munitions, but it must have been quite brief, and details are hard to come by.

Let’s get back to EP’s forays into the cooking scene. We see that he was conducting cooking classes for ladies, at Debenhams and Freebody on Wigmore St, in 1898, i.e., after establishing a unit purveying spices and condiments under the Nizam name. He also offered to provide private classes advertising his services as a Ladies’ newspaper put it – Considering India is part of Her Majesty’s dominions, we ought to be keenly interested in, and as ready to adapt Indian as continental!

A report states - Ladies shopping in the West End, who have lunched at Messrs. Debenham & Freebody's in Wigmore Street (where there is a first-class restaurant for the convenience of ladies shopping there), have much commented among themselves on the excellence of the curry supplied. The truth is that these curries are cooked by a first-class Indian chef, Mr.Veerasawmy, of Madras. At the end of January Mr. Veerasawmy gave a demonstration of Indian cookery to which many ladies had sent their cooks, many attending in person. Mr. Veerasawmy cooked a complete menu of Indian dishes, and the audience had the opportunity of tasting the result. The recipes were printed, to assist the audience in following the chef, who, clad in a superb oriental coat of crimson brocade and snowy turban, proceeded deftly with his task. His directions were clear and concise, expressed in excellent English. A more delicious chicken curry I never tasted. Mr. Veerasawmy deprecated the practice of cooking up cold meat and calling it a 'curry'. He insisted that raw, good meat only could produce a genuine curry. Alack! Few English cooks know what a curry is. ('Spinnings in Town', Myra's Journal, 1 March 1898: 11)

In 1906, he is mentioned again (Edwardian England – E Holland, 2014) as conducting a demonstration at the 17th Universal food and cookery exhibition, patronized by Queen Alexandra – where EP Veerasawmy MCA did a demo lecture entitled ‘Fish, flesh, poultry & vegetables! Now the MCA threw me off initially, but I believe it was the ‘Marine cookery assessment certificate’. The Epicure V6 (1888-89) mentions his lectures and daily demonstrations, adding - Mr. Veerasawmy, who is nowadays the most popular exponent of Indian cookery in this country, will, as the program shows, take a prominent part in the Cookery Demonstrations from day to day, while his firm, Veerasawmy and Co., of Madras and London, will make a display of their Nizam Curries and other Indian Culinary Specialties, opportunities for tasting which at their stand will, we believe, be frequently afforded to visitors….

The 1901 Kind Edward’s cookery book provides testimony to his ready mixes - Boiled rice is always served with a curry, either handed separately on a folded napkin or forming a border round the dish on which the curry is served. It is essential to use good curry-powder. Veerasawmy's curry-powder, paste and chutney will be found excellent.

Wembley Indian exhibition, the turning point

This was evidently a turning point in EP’s life. We can establish it from the following extract, taken out of the commissioner’s report of 1924. In the agreement signed on behalf of India, the Government of India reserved the right of having Indian curries and other dishes cooked by Indian cooks and Indian tea served possibly by Indian khitmatgars. Under the agreement, India, like the dominions, was to bear the cost of erecting and equipping the restaurant and in return to get 10 per cent, of the gross takings…Under the power reserved in our agreement, Messrs. Lyons were called upon to employ a certain number of Indian cooks ; and to supervise the cooking and the quality of the dishes, and generally to maintain the Indian character of the restaurant, to which the Government of India attached much importance, we appointed Mr. E. Palmer of Messrs. Veeraswami & Co., 11, St. Mary’s Road, Canonbury, London as Indian Adviser at the restaurant. Mr. Palmer comes from Madras, and has established a business in London in Indian curry powder, condiments, chutneys and pickles. His selection was happy, and the success of the Indian cafe was largely due to him. The Indian Cafe was not only appreciated by Indian visitors to Wembley who were able to get their vegetarian food, but was very popular with the British public. Since the close of the Exhibition, Mr. Palmer has had numerous inquiries, and I have myself passed on many to him. The demand for Indian food properly cooked and served is so great that at any future exhibition I should recommend the cafe to be built, at least, twice as large, and to be run as India’s own concern. Mr. Palmer estimates that on the average 500 portions of curry were ordered daily. The total takings at the Cafe were £26,657-11-2 and our share under the agreement came to £1,900.

Readers will take note that the writer of the official report one Mr Vijayaraghava Acharya, who spells the company name as Veeraswami and not Veeraswamy!! I must add here that most Veeraswamy’s in England and France at that time spelled their name as Veerasawmy! That was the way Sawmy was written, just as it is phonetically uttered in Tamil - Sami, not as Swamy!! All the stuff later doled out in various sources as a printing error, a twist to his mother’s name Veera etc were, I believe publicity connotations. Veera was neither his grandmother nor was Sawmy misspelt. Perhaps his mother Annie Ponnusawmy, fondly called him Veerasawmy, or as I feel, his full name may have been Edward Palmer Veerasawmy!! I also felt that it is simply not possible to call oneself Veerasawmy in public and in the press, for 30-40 years without reason or basis. So, the name was perhaps not an alter ego, but what he grew up with.

We read previously that EP taught Indian cooking at hotel and restaurant kitchens, and to military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. Regarding the lessons at the military messes, we have to resort to conjecture. Lizzy Collingham, in her “Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors’ mentions - In 1936 Edward Palmer, caterer to the Wembley exhibition of 1924–1925 and founder of Veerasawmy’s Indian restaurant, was invited to lecture to the army cooks at Aldershot on curry making. During the Second World War trainee cooks in the army catering corps were taught how to make curries by adding curry powder to a roux of flour and army stock books show that cooks were allotted supplies of curry powder each month. Slightly sweet yellow curries, dotted with raisins and made with fantastical fruits, were still served in British army messes in the 1970s and 80s…

Veerasawmy’s was finally opened in 1926 and Edward Palmer managed it for 4 to 6 years. It was not the first Indian restaurant, but was indeed the first high-end restaurant, catering to the upper class of Britain. Palmer mentions his disassociation from it around 1930, and we can also see that an MP William Steward acquired it in 1932/34. In 1928, Veerasawmy had extended his restaurant, and in 1933, yet another expansion and facelift were carried out. The reviews were glowing. It was considered to be the place to dine for the higher echelons of London society, as well as ex ICS and army blokes who had once lived in India. Soon it became a place to visit and many Indian events were hosted there.

Steward owned and ran it until 1967. Glowing reports stated - Veerasawmy's, “India in London, "as it is known all over the world, is the Mecca of all Epicures, while the owners exhorted - Don't stop here, carry forward the good will of fellowship and unity by entertaining your friends at Veerasawmy's, perfectly cooked Indian and English foods and irreproachable service in luxurious surroundings. A newspaper announced grandly -Veeraswamy's in Regent Street (London) conjured up a fantasmatic vision of imperial opulence, where there were tiger skins on the wall, where punkahwallahs worked the fans and where Indian doormen held umbrellas as customers returned. Most people agreed that EP retained a colonial atmosphere, with fawning uniformed waiters serving food suiting the palate of the fussy Englishman (The menu also had a few British items, for those queasy about Oriental food).

It had an interesting décor, which got copied later in many other Indian restaurants in the UK, with bright wallpaper, plates of Indian scenery on the walls, real Indian punkahs (manual fans) and punkah wallahs. The Indian waiters were attractively clothed in white with turbans and red sashes, serving up an Oriental dream, to the diners who came in.

In 1930 - 34, after it was sold to William Steward, Edward got down to academic pursuits, researching about his ancestry, writing about the Sanad given to his great grandmother Faiz Baksh, studying the collapse of his grandfather’s banking empire and what not. The Palmer family after William Palmer’s death were still apparently owed £250,000 plus interest by the Nizam and Edward Palmer, his grandson, our protagonist, tried to recover all or some of it with his sister Emma, but it was to no avail.

So, that was the story of the dining haven which EP created, and we are not going to go on with the subsequent owners of the restaurant, suffice to state that it continues to this day as a pricey, high-end destination in Central London, replete with a Michelin star - for those desiring to munch on something Indian and relive some of India’s colonial past.

Now for some interesting trivia - I don’t think many of you will know that an ex-president of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza apparently worked as an accountant at Veeraswamy, after fleeing Pakistan following a failed coup.  Crime beat readers on the other hand may recall the Veeraswamy knife case, where the murderer Backary Manneh who once worked at the hotel was caught by Scotland yard, after he used a distinctive knife stolen from Veeraswamy, to stab Joseph Aku in 1951. After the murder, Backary Manneh ran off and was not found until after he went to the hospital with a wound caused during the struggle. Clinching evidence was the ‘Veeraswamy knife’! Many a dignitary graced the dining room at Veeraswamy’s and owners reel off names such as Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon, The prince of Wales, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, and the list can be replete with many of today’s stars.

These days, the restaurant scene in the UK is mediocre, and most eating houses serve quickly conjured up concoctions based on standard curry pastes supplied by third parties, boiled with a protein of your choice, dressed up, garnished, and paired with rice or bread. Dals, Vindaloos, Kormas and Balti curries rule the roost, while Chicken tikka masala reigns supreme. Thanks to a tale about a Danish prince, beer got matched to Indian curries and so instead of wines, you have choice Indian lagers to accompany curry!

That my friend was the story of an Anglo Indian with Tamil origins, who left Indian shores to make his name in England, of his efforts at establishing Indian cooking in London, of his pioneering cookery book and of the establishment of Veerasawmy’s, a hotel which is one London’s premium culinary establishments, to this day.

On a personal note, I must add that Veeraswamy’s egg curry (Undah ka Salun) featured on page 80 of that 1915 book, has graced our dining table for over three decades, though slightly modified by yours faithfully. My wife, children and many guests would testify to its fine quality!!  

Thank you, Edward Palmer, or Veerasawmy, as you called yourself, so also your grandma Annie Ponnuswamy, for that. Rest in peace…

Indian Cookery – EP Veerasawmy
The Palmers of Hyderabad – Edward Palmer
Palmer and Company: An Indian Banking Firm in Hyderabad State - Karen Leonard (ModernAsianStudies 47, 4 (2013) pp. 1157–1184.© CambridgeUniversity Press 2013, doi:10.1017/S0026749X12000236 First published online 16 January 2013)
London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis - Jonathan Schneer
Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-armour - Arthur Charles Fox-Davies
Globalising Housework: Domestic Labour in Middle-class London Homes,1850-1914 - Laura Humphreys
Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors – Lizzy Collingham
Report by the Commissioner for India for the British empire Exhibition – 1924
Star of India: The Spicy Adventures of Curry - Jo Monroe
Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008 - James H. Mills
Eating for Britain - Simon Majumdar

My thanks to Max Knudsen and Cilla (EP’s granddaughter) for their valuable inputs, also to Dr Karen Isaksen Leonard, historian and anthropologist, at the University of California, Irvine - the author of the referenced paper on the Palmer bank, for putting me in touch with the Palmer family.

And I learned two new words – Alack and fantasmatic!! The former means ‘an expression of regret or dismay’ whereas the latter means ‘an illusory likeness of something’.



Tondalaya Gillespie said...

This is such a fascinating read!
My husband I were Peace Corps Volunteers in India (but met after our service, I in Maharashtra, he in West Bengal) got married in Delhi and have returned many times. We find Maddy's Ramblings utter fascinating, eagerly looking forward to what his next topic will be, always some hidden gem of history.

Maddy said...

Thanks a lot Tondalaya..
I am glad you enjoyed it. Between Maddys Ramblings and Historic alleys, you will find many an article that will interest you. Just check out the archives and you can see the titles.

Haddock said...

Wow, that clinching evidence of the knife found by Scotland Yard is good enough to make an interesting movie.

Maddy said...

thanks haddock,
that case is an interesting one, but I did not want to narrate it all here, as it has no other connections..

Maddy said...
see page 108 for details

Ali said...

Thank you Maddy, this is a fascinating read. My husband is one of Edmund Palmer's great grandchildren so I have delved into the family history quite a lot. We have the cookery book too, and love Indian food. We've visited India a couple of times. Would love to return one day.

Maddy said...

Thank you Ali,
Glad you enjoyed this!