Now I know everybody’s egalitarian hives erupt when we speak of India’s old British clubs. Especially for their sniffy, off-hand Victorian pomposity and morals, which are imperative in order to impose civilisation on the natives. But I am an old-fashioned lover of the clubs and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I love it all — the bearers, bars and the ballrooms of our elite clubs.
My love, however, is because I spent a large part of my growing up years at these clubs. While my other friends sweated it out at the squash or baddy courts, I lounged and sunned at the pool and lived on a diet of ice-cream floats and melba toasts. And there began my love affair with the cuisine of the clubs. These served a distinct kind of food, which was once considered the epitome of hoity-toity, snobby-wobby, white sauce-y, au gratin-y-béchamel-y, demi-glazed cuisine. But today, it has one foot in the grave and the other desperately trying to retain its footing. Club food has been trounced and pommelled by Indian-made Chinese food, South Indian-made Punjabi food, and Gujarati-made Mediterranean food.
I really have no definition or nomenclature for this food. It’s not really British food, or authentic Anglo-Indian food; it’s just a medley of popular dishes from that era. So, for want of a better definition, I’m just going to call it ‘nostalgic club food’.
When you think of a meal at the club, you think of — crisp, white tablecloths on old wooden tables. A table d’hôte menu, neatly typed out with the offerings for the day. There’s also a terribly inappropriate little bell to call the 75-year-old server who is still referred to as a ‘boy’, to pour green pea and ham soup from a jug on to a plate.
You could, in those days, sit on the pillared verandah of the Willingdon Club and order a plate of Willingdon Whiskers, which, if my memory serves me right, was sardines on toast with tomato ketchup. Step into the dining room and order the Chicken Bomb. That’s a hand grenade sized oval of crumb-fried, hollow chicken (Chicken a la Kiev) served with buttered beans, carrots and mashed potato. You cut the bomb, and a cupful of melted butter oozed out of it. It could make your mouth explode with taste and make your heart explode with a cardiac arrest.
At the occasional buffet, they still make Eggs Florentine and, not so long ago, Beef Wellington was served. And still a big favourite among old Parsi ladies, the Fish Meunière (fillet of fish in a sauce of brown butter, chopped parsley, and lemon). On the lawns of the Brabourne Stadium at the CCI, kidney and liver on toast was a must for breakfast. This was before the dosa and idli knocked the savoury masala kheema on toast, off the menu.
The Royal Bombay Yacht Club, till today, on order, will prepare a luncheon, which will include Pigs in a Blanket (cocktail sausages wrapped in puff pastry) crumb fried fish with tartar sauce (herb-and onion-flavoured mayo) and a really buttery, bread pudding. At the 150-year-old Bombay Gymkhana, where the king of steaks, the Steak Chateaubriand (the classic steak for two made from a centre-cut fillet) has been replaced by the Steak Manekji (steak served with veggies) named after a half-Parsi, half-French member I had the pleasure of knowing.
Between Calcutta, Ooty, Simla, Munnar, Bombay, Bangalore and Madras (forgive the old names), the clubs have a legacy of dishes, of which some survive, and some are gone forever. Like the simple-yet-luxurious Lobster Thermidor (au gratin lobster served in the shell) that was once a staple at the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta. Or the now impossible to find asparagus mousse, or Chicken and Ham Timbale (minced chicken and ham steam-baked in cups and served with mushroom sauce) or Welsh Rarebit (a sauce of melted cheese with red chillies, poured over slices of toasted bread), ramekins of eggs (eggs baked in cheese sauce) or a Shepherd’s Pie.
If you want to experience the simple joys of a Trifle Pudding (jelly, cake, cream and fruits) — a fast disappearing dish — after finishing a Lobster Thermidor, Chicken a la Kiev, Prawns Parmesan, chicken liver pâté on melba toast, Shepherd’s Pie, the only restaurants that may still have this nostalgic food on their menus are Gaylords at Churchgate, and Gallops at the Mahalaxmi Race Course. If not that, then just wangle an invitation to the club, before American Chopsuey takes over anything British that’s left there.
(Author and TV show host Kunal Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar)
(Photos credit: Istock, Sarit Ray)