Keep calm and curry on: Culinary culture in Colonial India

A common comedic trope in movies and TV shows is a white person fuming and wheezing after eating something remotely flavourful. This, along with the common belief that British food is bland, soggy and overcooked, makes one wonder how they survived for almost three centuries in India- the land of spice and flavour! Many believe that the British consumed an entirely different diet to the locals. But this is not necessarily true. What existed was a hybrid culinary culture that was unique to colonial India – one that heavily borrowed elements from the food of the land. But how did this cuisine come to be?

This hybrid cuisine was a result of the interaction between European masters and their native servants. The dishes were neither only British or European, nor comprised of only local dishes but had elements borrowed from both cultures. Cooks were particularly important in the creation of this new cuisine. Their knowledge of local ingredients, their resourcefulness in finding these ingredients, their cooking skills, and the cheapness of their labour together contributed to the emergence of new culinary practices in the subcontinent.

servants in Colonial India lithograph art
Lithograph as printed in the book “Curry & rice,” on forty plates, or, The ingredients of social life at “our station” in India

Memsahib and the Kitchen

The relationship between the Memsahib and the servants was a tenuous one. While the memsahibs in Kipling’s books seem frivolous and irresponsible, colonial household guides spell out in detail the various duties they had to perform, from managing servants to ensuring cleanliness in kitchens. There also developed a cookbook culture, as cookbooks became not only a guide for providing specific instructions on how to run a household, manage servants and prepare and serve food, but also way to promote the values and representations of the Raj.

Although it was the memsahibs’ duty of keeping the household clean, the kitchen was the focal point for food preparation and as native servants were in charge, the role of the memsahibs was undermined. Most memsahibs chose to ignore the working conditions of the kitchen and so the task of preparation of food fell completely to the Indian servants.

lithograph art memsahib and servant in Colonial India
Lithograph as printed in the book “Curry & rice,” on forty plates, or, The ingredients of social life at “our station” in India

Dishes in Colonial India

Curry is perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the British Empire. There is a whole week in October, known as National Curry Week that is dedicated to celebrating the dish!

The domestication of curry by the British was not a conscious move, it was originally appropriated to transform the taste of poor quality chicken, fish and meat. Different types of curries originated in different parts of India. Its history was influenced by the availability of local ingredients, the culinary skills of the colonial cook and the tastes of the British in a particular location. In England, Curry was popularised by returning East India Company merchants and officials. Many of them took their Indian cooks back to England, and those who couldn’t, enjoyed the dish at British coffee-houses. Try out this chicken curry recipe from 1880 and let us know how it tasted!

Another uniquely colonial culinary enterprise was the Tiffin. The term is derived from a British slang ‘tiffing’ which means to take a swig of diluted liquor, hinting at the day-drinking tendencies of the officials! Tiffin emerged as a light lunch adapted to the sweltering heat of India that made it difficult to consume heavy lunches. While these tiffins contained mainly curry and rice, the Sunday Curry Tiffin was an overindulgence of food with mulligatawny soup, curry and rice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding washed down with a bottle of iced beer, and tapioca pudding.

Mulligatawny is another interesting dish from the colonial table. Owing to its derivation from millagu-tannir (pepper water in Tamil), the dish is a peppery soup or broth. The British adapted it by adding pieces of meat or chicken, stock, fried onions and spices. According to writer Chitrita Banerji, the transformation of pepper water to mulligatawny soup was due to the colonial need of separate courses in meals, a largely western tradition.

A staple of colonial diet was the kedgeree. The word is a corruption of the Hindi word khichdi which is a dish made of rice and lentils (mostly mung dal). Originally a vegetarian dish, it was adapted to European taste by adding smoked fish and boiled eggs.

Colonial Culinary Legacy in India

The creation of a new culinary culture in colonial india was not a one way street. If the British took kedgeree and curry from India, India too inherited a rich legacy of Anglo-Indian cuisine. Ever heard of Dabba Gosht? The story goes that an ambitious man from Bombay, believing that the soruce of his British masters superiority was their bland flood, asked his wife to prepare something just as flavourless. And thus using leftover curry, the cross between shepherd’s pie and a pasta casserole was created.

The Europeans also left behind a number of coffee shops and eateries. Flurys in Kolkata was started in 1927 by a Swiss couple, Joseph and Frieda Flury and became the hotspot for all European confections. Even today they serve a number of cakes and pastries. Do try out their English Breakfast and Pineapple Pastry!

Further Reading : Food Culture in Colonial Asia – a taste of Empire

You might also want to look at Captain George F. Atkinson’s “Curry & rice on forty plates – the ingredients of social life at our station in India”.

cover lithograph curry and rice on forty plates
Lithograph as printed in the book “Curry & rice,” on forty plates, or, The ingredients of social life at “our station” in India

This 20th century satirical book critiques the lives and behaviour of British colonialists in India. Reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse, the writing style is light and comical. The characters are all named after famous Anglo-Indian dishes and local ingredients! Read about a Magistrate named Chutney, always eager (maybe too eager!) to host great dignitaries who are required to pass judgements on everything from buildings to building blocks! Or you can read about the complete opposite of Magistrate Chutney: a Doctor named McGhee, whose domestic life is shrouded in mystery.

With a hilarious culinary twist, the book offers an amusing glimpse into the interactions of Europeans with the exoticness of a new land. It includes 40 beautiful lithographs illustrating the day-to-day activities of the colonial officers. If you’re a fan of Forster’s A Passage to India or of Scott’s Raj Quartet, you should definitely give Curry on Rice a try.

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Chitralekha is a museum professional based in London. She holds an MA in History of Art from SOAS. Her areas of interests include Indian miniature paintings, decoloniality in museums, and open access in the cultural space.

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