Taste of life: Eggscellent page turner, from back in the day, has Poona rice cooking
At the National Library in Kolkata, I have a small heap of vintage cookbooks on my desk. Many of them have yellowed pages. Pages so brittle I am afraid to touch them. The books belong to the Raj era and have recipes written by memsahibs, travellers and army officers.
One of the books has only a number to identify it with. The original jacket and the first 42 pages of the book are missing. The catalogue says that it was titled “Receipts from our Camp” and was written by one Mrs E in 1902. There is no other information to identify the book and the author with.
The missing pages would have contained menus, “Bazaar lists” and “lists of dishes”, as was the tradition those days. I flip through the book. There are recipes for chutneys and jams and curries and “cold meat cookery”. There are soups and salads and entrees. There are recipes for Madras sauce and Bombay sauce. Most of the dishes are European, few Anglo-Indian. The recipes are succinct. The author does not elaborate on certain cooking techniques and ingredients. Perhaps Mrs E did not intend this cookbook for unaccomplished cooks.
Where did Mrs E live, I wonder. Deolali? Ambala? Madras? I try looking for hints. Certain ingredients, Bazaar lists often tell the readers about the geography of the recipe. Cookbooks in the Raj era made sure their readers knew when and where to buy the ingredients. But Mrs E does not let me have the pleasure of finding out where she lived and which Camp the recipes came from. The ingredients are all generic. She does not mention which variety of rice to use for cooking a pilaf, where to buy the tamarind she has used in cooking the Madras curry. Perhaps she did write this in the Bazaar lists, but those pages are now missing.
On page 86 are recipes for eggs. “Substitutes for meat are specially required at present and none are better than well-prepared eggs. There are at least 150 ways of serving eggs. Every cook has their own ideas of boiling, but an expert recommends a bain-marie or water bath. Thermometer”, the author says, “should be used and the water surrounding the egg must be kept at or near 180 deg Fahrenheit, the time of immersion being ten or twelve minutes.”
What does the author mean by “at present”? Was there a war going on? Or, perhaps a famine?
“Eggs cooked in this way”, the author declares, “are tender and delicate, even so through-out; no part being hard while another is semi-raw and slimy. An egg immersed in boiling water from two to three and a half minutes is very soft-boiled, three to four minutes soft, five minutes medium, and eight to ten minutes hard. Though professional cooks consider this the best way of doing them the result of cooking the eggs is some times disappointing. The fault is due to the freshness of the egg, of which the white is rather watery in substance.”
While reading the introduction of the section, I realise that the font, spacing and writing style has now changed. In fact, the earlier sections of the cookbook did not have any introduction at all. There is an easily noticeable difference between the previous recipes and the recipes which follow page number 86. The pages are thinner too. These are two books bound together.
This is intriguing. Why were two different cookbooks bound together? Is this an honest mistake on the part of the library? The sizes of both the books are identical after all. Or, there’s a possibility that these books were owned by somebody else; they bound the remains of two books together and donated them as a single book to the library.
I take my query to the librarian and she is intrigued as well. I go back to my desk and to the two–in–one cookbook. There are recipes for Fried eggs with savoury chestnut puree, Eggs a la Santos, Fricassee of eggs with mushrooms, Eggs a la Nesselrode, Eggs with tomatoes and Fried eggs with savoury rice. This last recipe tells me that the author of the second cookbook might have lived in Poona.
The author of the second cookbook asks the readers to use “Poona rice” while cooking Fried eggs with savoury rice - Cook 4 oz. of Poona rice in about a pint of rich stock, add enough reduced tomato sauce to colour it, then add two tablespoonfuls of grated cheese, and two slices of fried bacon cut into small strips. Season to taste with salt, and reduce a little until sufficiently firm to shape. Melt about an ounce of butter in an omelet pan, and fry in it five or six fresh eggs; trim each neatly, or else stamp out with a plain round pastry cutter. Put the rice in a buttered flat mould, press it in well, and turn out quickly on to a hot dish. Place the fried eggs in the form of a circle on the rice shape, then put a tiny pinch of red or black pepper in the centre of each yolk of egg, and serve hot.
Raj cookbooks often use Patna rice or Madras rice (the Seeraga samba variety) to cook several dishes. This mention of Poona rice is very rare. Both Ambemohor and Indrayani are referred to as Poona rice in the Southern and Northern parts of India. Which of these varieties did the author use to cook the dish?
Poona rice is mentioned again in the last section of this second book in another recipe named “Savoury rice with vegetables”. This recipe is very close to that of Masalebhat, a popular rice preparation in Maharashtra. The author uses potatoes and cauliflower in the dish along with pepper, cinnamon and cloves. The vegetables, spices and rice are fried in butter.
The inclusion of this recipe (and that of Poona rice) means that the author of the second cookbook most probably spent at least some time in Poona. There are no other mentions of geographic locations from India in the book.
I have not been able to trace Mrs E or the author of the second cookbook. Perhaps she wrote the second cookbook too, and that’s why the two books ended together. In that case, Mrs E lived in Poona Camp and the recipes from the first cookbook belonged there.
These are speculations. Or possibilities. I wish someday I am able to find copies of those books with all the pages intact. That would lead us to Mrs E. And to the author of the second cookbook.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at email@example.com