Taste of Life: A la Poonah cooking style created local dish with foreign ingredient - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

Taste of Life: A la Poonah cooking style created local dish with foreign ingredient

ByChinmay Damle
Jun 06, 2024 07:56 AM IST

Using anchovies and naming the style and dishes after Poona is quite interesting since the fish was imported to the city from Bombay in the nineteenth century and, later, from the Italian shores

Pune: Cooking is part skill, part discovery. Creating a recipe needs a fine balance of creativity, innovation, intuition, and precision. Using various ingredients and recipes as blueprints, symphonies of flavours, textures, and aromas are created.

Using anchovies and naming the style and dishes after Poona is quite interesting since the fish was imported to the city from Bombay in the nineteenth century and, later, from the Italian shores. ((Bloomberg(PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))
Using anchovies and naming the style and dishes after Poona is quite interesting since the fish was imported to the city from Bombay in the nineteenth century and, later, from the Italian shores. ((Bloomberg(PIC FOR REPRESENTATION))

A careful selection of ingredients is vital to creating any recipe because each ingredient contributes uniquely to the overall experience of the dish. Recipes include ingredients available locally or through trade.

Now catch your favourite game on Crickit. Anytime Anywhere. Find out how

When Lt John Blakiston, the architect of the Bangalore Cantonment, came to live in the Poona Cantonment for a few months in the early nineteenth century, his breakfast occasionally consisted of anchovy toast and devilled biscuits. To make anchovy toast, thin slices of bread were cut and fried in clarified butter. Anchovies were washed, split, pounded in a mortar with some fresh butter, and rubbed through a hair sieve. The mixture was then spread on the toast when cold. Some anchovies were washed and laid on it. The toast was garnished with parsley or pickles.

The anchovy, called “Mandeli” in Marathi, is about the size of the middle finger, bluish brown on the back, and silvery white on the belly. First-quality anchovies were used as a condiment, and among epicures were esteemed a luxury.

In the cookbook “Menus Made Easy or How to Order Dinner and Give the Dishes their French Names” by Nancy Lake in 1903, a dish called “Œufs a la Poonah” was mentioned. These were hard-boiled eggs with anchovy and shrimp stuffing, served with rice, and curry sauce.

“Curried Eggs in Surprise a la Poonah” (Œufs Surprise en Kari a la Poonah in French) was a dish mentioned by Mrs Agnes B Marshall in “Larger Cookbook of Extra Recipes” (1902). The dish consisted of boiled eggs stuffed with a paste of anchovies and shrimp. These eggs were then served with gravy made of mushrooms, apples, tomatoes, onions, butter, milk, and herbs. “À la Poonah” simply meant a style of cooking eggs with anchovies and shrimp.

Naming of dishes and cooking styles after certain cities or towns has always been popular. It sometimes creates an aura of grandeur around the dish. Most often these dishes include ingredients or styles specific to the places they are named after. Using anchovies and naming the style and dishes after Poona is quite interesting since the fish was imported to the city from Bombay in the nineteenth century and, later, from the Italian shores. The anchovy was a coastal and estuarine species, occurring in fully saline water, but also able to tolerate lowered salinities, perhaps almost fresh water. It was abundant in the sea along the western coast of India and was not known to be found in the rivers and lakes in and around Poona.

Anchovies also featured in the Swedish tradition of the “sandwich table” that seemed to have been practiced in Poona. “Harper’s Bazaar”, in May 1894, published an article written by one Mrs Winslow from Poona that advised housewives how to make Swedish fish salads for the “sandwich table”. This was always served before dinner, on a separate table. In the midst was placed the butter, and around it small plates with cut meats – fresh, salted, and smoked, pickles, caviar, old cheese, herring and anchovies in many forms, smoked salmon etc. Different kinds of bread in baskets were offered, as well as plates and forks to the guests, who, standing around the table, chose from the different relishes, some partaking of a thimbleful of refined liquor as an appetiser. There were often as many as 15 to 20 different kinds of such relishes.

According to Mrs Winslow, this part of the dinner was especially enjoyed by the gentlemen, who seldom left it until there was nothing more to be had. Everybody then sat down to the regular dinner of soup, fish, meat, vegetables, and dessert.

Mrs Winslow, possibly of Swedish descent, asserted in the article that the Swedes were excellent cooks and that the skill of Swedish cooks in arranging tempting salads of all kinds was unsurpassed. According to her, herring salad was a favourite dish, especially “with gentlemen”. She proceeded to give the recipe for the same followed by recipes for “white fish salad” and “escaloped anchovy”. She mentioned that the latter was a “nice relish” for the sandwich table.

Anchovy was a very delicate fish and of great utility in cooking. It was an important agent employed to flavour soups and sauces. Many fish soups were flavoured with different kinds of ketchup and anchovy. Essence of anchovy was used to flavour brown soups. To make anchovy sauce, anchovies were pounded in a mortar with a little butter and stirred into espagnole or melted butter. A little lemon juice or vinegar might be added or the essence of anchovy was stirred in melted butter. This made a very good extemporaneous fish sauce and saved a great deal of trouble on the part of the cook.

Anchovy butter was made for hot devilling biscuits. Adding cayenne, flour of mustard and spices to it made good anchovy toast. Anchovy powder, mixed with cayenne pepper, was sprinkled on bread and butter for a sandwich.

French toast was a breakfast dish made of thick sliced bread dipped in beaten eggs and milk, before being fried in a pan. It was also called “eggy bread”, “gypsy toast”, “poor knight”, and more popularly, “Bombay toast”. The striking combination of eggs and milk carried the savoury to the topmost rung in the ladder of gastronomy. Its union with inexhaustible anchovy and Bombay duck created several versions of the famous dish.

Sara van Buren in “A Practical Cookery Book for Town and Country” (1890) gave the recipe for the “Bombay toast” – “Put a large spoonful of butter in a saucepan over boiling water; as it melts, stir in 2 eggs, cayenne, essence of anchovy, and a few chopped capers. Stir until the eggs begin to set. Spread on small rounds of buttered toast. Serve on a hot-water plate.”

Several European and Anglo-Indian cookbooks published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included the recipe for “Bombay Toast”. It was only later that “Bombay” was replaced by “French”. Spike Milligan, the Irish comedian, writer, and actor, mentioned in his memoir “It ends with magic” that his father enjoyed “Bombay Toast” during his sojourn in Poona.

Ingredients imported from distant places are usually more valued than those sourced locally. The anchovy might have been an ingredient of luxury in Poona, not affordable to many. But it certainly made the city of Poona known to chefs and cooks all over the world.

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

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, June 20, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On