Taste of Life: A kitâb that opens to the era of Anglo-Indian khána

Anglo-Indians came from different dietary occupational backgrounds, from the Armed forces, administration and commerce, and different classes with different dietary habits. The natives were from different castes and classes, with different dietary practices, and these influenced the food practices of Anglo-Indians
The term “Anglo-Indian” in the title of the cookbook refers to the people of British descent born or residing in India. (Getty Images/iStock photo/Representative Photo)
The term “Anglo-Indian” in the title of the cookbook refers to the people of British descent born or residing in India. (Getty Images/iStock photo/Representative Photo)
Updated on Jun 24, 2021 04:53 PM IST
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ByChinmay Damle

When Constance E Gordon wrote her cookbook “Anglo – Indian Cuisine (Khána Kitâb)”, she lived in Poona, somewhere near the Empress Garden. Her husband worked with the Revenue Department. The first edition of her book was published sometime around 1904 by Thacker, Spink & Co, Calcutta. When the second, revised edition appeared in 1913, she had started living in Bombay. The first edition of her cookbook was received with great enthusiasm, and that encouraged her to publish the second edition with many new recipes, she noted in the preface of the new edition.

“Each recipe has been tried and found successful, either by myself or friends, by whom many have been contributed. So Khána Kitâb goes again on to the market with the desire of being useful and making new friends, while retaining the old one”, she added.

The term “Anglo-Indian” in the title of the cookbook refers to the people of British descent born or residing in India. The cookbook has some wonderful recipes like Greengages in Cream, Fairy Pudding, Jam Omelet, Damson Tart with Cream, Cutlets à la Russe, Chicken à la Pendennis, Banana Charlotte, Partridge à la Raja. It also has recipes like Bhendi Toast, Boiled Surmai with Shrimp Sauce and Hilsa Sandwich. It is noteworthy that she uses native names for some ingredients and dishes. Boiled dahl, for example.

Anglo-Indians came from different dietary occupational backgrounds, from the Armed forces, administration and commerce, and different classes with different dietary habits. The natives were from different castes and classes, with different dietary practices, and these influenced the food practices of Anglo-Indians. Thus, the colonial, or Anglo-Indian, cuisine was a hybrid cuisine with some elements of British foodways and components of foodways from the colonies. The cuisine that was adopted by the majority of the British in India was replete with peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that evolved over the decades and was influenced by various factors, such as the availability of European and local food, cooking facilities, inputs by domestic cooks, and traditions from the home country as well as India.

Gordon’s cookbook reflects the beauty of the hybrid cuisine. She has included more than 250 recipes which have been divided into different sections. There’s Tiffin and recipes for breakfast. There’s a section for chutneys and curries. Then there are recipes for cold meat, soups, fresh and tinned fish, entrées, joints, toasts and savouries, puddings and sweets, dessert, confectionery and jam, eggs, salads, savoury sandwiches, savoury farinaceous, tinned food for camp cooking, sauces, pickles, and forcemeats. There is a separate section for vegetarian recipes and dishes for invalids. There are recipes for “Dinner in Camp”, “Tiffin in the Jungle” and “Breakfast at Home”.

The cookbook has a section about Indian money. Another section educates its readers about the boiling points of fat and oil. There’s a glossary of Indian terms for provisions. There’s a “Bachelor’s store list for a month”, and there is a section about the “Indian Kitchen”. There is a chapter detailing the wages and work of the “principal servants”.

“Owing to the difference in caste among the native servants of India, conditions are not the same on the Bombay and Poona side to those existing in the Bengal Presidency; as a rule more servants are required there”, Gordon notes. She then goes on to elaborate the role of “The Butler”, “The Hamal”, “Cook” and “Coolie”.

“The butler should wait at the table; look after the household linen, silver, wine and servants. He is responsible for breakage, cleanliness of the servants’ quarters, and the proper working of the house. Wages for a servant, for a married couple, from Rs. 12 to 25; for a bachelor, from Rs. 10 to 20”, Gordon tells her readers. According to her, “The Hamal in Bombay and Poona is chambermaid and housemaid in one. He washes up the dishes and sees to lamps.” The cook cooks and “does the marketing”. He should be paid from Rs. 14 to 30. “The Coolie” carries the cook’s bazaar and should be paid Rs. 6 to 10 per month.

Gordon tells us that a Khitmatgar, Masalchi, Bearer, Mehter were employed along with the butler, cook, and the hamal in the Bengal Presidency. “But these are not needed in Bombay and Poona”, she writes.

Gordon’s cookbook is one of the thousands of cookbooks written in the nineteenth and twentieth century by European men and women to assist the colonisers living in the colonies. These publications were meant to be instruments for perpetuating the values and representations of the Empire. Publication of cookbooks and manuals gained momentum between the 1880s and 1920s and was aimed at the second generation of middle-class British women who resided in India after the uprising of 1857. The cookbooks tried to consolidate imperial domesticity and British confidence in imperial rule and its reproduction on a household scale.

Raj-era cookbooks bristled with instructions on how to run a household, manage “servants” and prepare and serve food. These cookbooks prescribed codes of conduct that defined the boundaries between British rulers and natives. They also served as reference manuals on how to deal with native servants.

The authors of these cookbooks took it upon themselves to educate colonial householders on the unsavoury character of the native “servants” and suggest appropriate behaviour to foil their dishonesty and unhygienic habits.

They often carried lists of items with their prices in the local markets “with the hope that it will generally assist to combat the pernicious policy of the native cooks who not only overcharge in the prices of local commodities, but generally will not produce them or attempt to raise non-existent difficulties”, as author WE Kinsey noted in the preface of her cookbook “The Mem’s own cookery book”.

Gordon’s cookbook too carries a list of commodities available in the markets of Bombay, Calcutta, and Poona. It tells us about the meats, vegetables, fruits, and other provisions available in the markets of Poona Camp. But the most fascinating aspect of the cookbook is that it also provides a list of commodities, along with the prices of course, available in the markets of Poona city.

More about this next week.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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