Gourmet secrets: Reliving the days of the Raj
What made the peppery Mulligatawny soup a favourite of the British soldiers in IndiaUpdated: Mar 31, 2019 00:19 IST
I was in Kolkata recently and stayed in the new and very different hotel, Raajkutir. It is in a complex known as Swabhumi near Salt Lake so, a suburb of sorts and nowhere near the grand colonial buildings of Chowringhee and Dalhousie Square.
It has been built from scratch to look like a mini-palace straight out of 18th century Calcutta, oozing old-world charm and reflecting an era of grand living, parties and guests. To go with the exquisitely “restored” look and feel, which reflects the opulence and style of the Zamindars or wealthy feudal lords of Bengal is the East India Room, their restaurant, which is a stylised interpretation of the colonial period known as “Colonial Companion”.
Since Calcutta was the seat first of the British East India Company and then of the British government in India, it naturally followed that there were more Anglo-Indians there than anywhere else in the country. Madhur Jaffrey writes: “Their mixed race origins were reflected in their food. A look at an Anglo Indian, turn of the century cookbook, printed by one of the many small presses that still abound in this bookish city, reveals a fish pie prepared with fish, mashed potatoes green chillies, ginger, mint and cinnamon, a fillet of mutton rolled with ghee, steaks cooked with ginger, garlic and turmeric and a duck that looks fairly English until you notice the mustard oil! While there are recipes for Shrewsbury biscuits and plum pudding, there is also a mango fool and a jaggery toffee”.
Bengal was once the home to the French, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Mughals. These collective influences are seen in the dishes created to satisfy the taste of the Western rulers. The result is a unique blend of cuisine, local ingredients adapted to European cooking techniques – characterised by creamy sauces, the restrained use of spices and new techniques such as baking, grilling, frying, poaching, steaming, roasting etc.
The recipes at East India Room are inspired from the kitchens of local zamindars before Independence and these foreign influences, with a focus on home style, comfort dishes and tradition.
The menu at East India room is so well researched and brilliantly executed that you would need at least three visits to do it justice! The first dish I had was the soup Mulligatawny and that’s what I am going to write about. This was followed by fabulous unusual Bengali bhaja or fried vegetables, French style meuniere with Calcutta bekti, dak bungalow mutton stew and a host of dishes, which take you back and forth from Park Street to Sovabazar to Dhaka to the Calcutta club. It’s quite a stunning journey.
Mulligatawny means ‘pepper water’ and curry powder is the main ingredient that gives this incredible soup such a delicious flavour. It was the favourite of British soldiers. The recipe involves curry powder, red lentils, carrots, apples and coconut milk to which you add white rice, chopped boiled eggs and shredded cooked chicken.
This is for me the quintessential Anglo Indian dish served all over the country, each region claiming it as their own. “Underdone and watery, it resembles dirty dish water,” says Meenakshi Dasgupta. At its best, it is velvety deliciousness and it was, in fact, served at one of the banquets of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The soup is said to have been invented in the Madras Club and the name derives from two Tamil words; milagu, meaning pepper and thanni, meaning water. In the south, it is served with a spoonful of rice, a slice of lemon and sweet mango chutney to balance the spice in the soup.
Some history: By the time the British Raj has been firmly established, the English woman had accepted living in the East and had set a standard of living that not only became the accepted way of life during the Raj, but lingered long after and to this day have left their influence in India.
Once the Suez Canal was opened and made it possible to get to India by sea within a month, not only the wives of men employed in India, but also bevies of young girls who were sisters, cousins, nieces, friends or daughters of friends etc. came pouring into India sometimes only for winter, often in search of husbands and easy living. They brought an air of excitement and gave reasons for elaborate entertaining, made easy by the abundance of servants.
The English woman fought against eating Indian food for more than one reason. Highly-spiced food often upset her poor digestion and through ignorance she regarded Indian food as hot and unpalatable. It also gave her a sense of superiority to despise food of the natives. French cuisine was considered fashionable and food cooked in wine was the last word in good taste.
But the Englishman who had come alone long before the women had joined him had acquired a taste for Indian food and was no longer content to eat his roast beef, potatoes and boiled vegetables.
So gradually, very subtly, Indian spices were introduced into English food and Mulligatawny being the first course of a meal, lead the repertoire of Anglo Indian dishes to follow.
I urge you to visit Raajkutir. It is really one of most exciting new restaurants to open in the country this year.
¼ cup butter
1 red onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 fresh red chilli, seeded and diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons peeled and minced ginger root
2 small firm apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 small bowl diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup red lentils (uncooked)
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2/3 cup un-sweetened coconut milk
Salt and black pepper to taste
Chopped coriander for garnish
Shredded chicken and chopped boiled egg for garnish
Melt butter in a large pot oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, and chilli. Saute for four to five minutes or until the onions have softened.
Add the garlic, ginger, apples, and diced tomatoes to the pot. Saute for another three minutes, then add all of the spices and toss to coat. Add in the lentils and broth and let the contents come to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
Puree about 75 per cent of the soup. Leave some of the chunks whole, as it adds a nice texture and consistency to the soup. Return the soup to the pot and stir in the coconut milk. Taste, and adjust salt and black pepper as needed.
Serve topped with shredded chicken, boiled egg, rice dumplings and coriander.
Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.
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From HT Brunch, March 31, 2019
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First Published: Mar 30, 2019 21:54 IST