“Never quarrel with a good cook if his only fault be that of eating from your kitchen; all cooks will do so, and a good one will eat, no more than a bad one.”

Besides the suave Oxford comma, there is much to commend in the advice of the author of the Indian Cookery Book , whose claim to legitimacy was their 35 years of residence in India. Their name is unknown; their book, however, represents much of what defined the Raj’s table at the turn of the century. Most cookery books were preceded by cautious advice on how to treat the household employees. One book intended for young girls in England “who fate may assign the task of being house mothers” takes great pains to include a lexicon of everything kitchen related in terms that would be understood by the domestic help. It was a curious time: The British were determined to keep up with trends back home, including eating as they ate in England. However, as Krishnendu Ray, author and associate professor of food studies at New York University, points out, the English were singularly incapable of culinary imperialism. A lot was lost in translation, and we ended up with Anglo-Indian cuisine, which is a beast of a different breed altogether.

The bulk of the housekeeping and cookery books published towards the close of the 19th century are addressed either to women who expected to find themselves surrounded by an entourage of native employees in a foreign country, or towards nostalgic returnees from the subcontinent who longed for curry and mulligatawny. Worcestershire sauce is purportedly the concoction of this nostalgia. Stories about the origins of the sauce claim that a Lord Sandy, who had served in Bengal, returned to Worcester and found himself longing for a sauce he had discovered in India. He visited the chemists Lee and Perrin’s to recreate his recipe. His lordship left with the sauce the chemists made him, but they could not fathom what one could possibly want with sauce such as that. However, they forgot to dispose of the remaining sauce, and when they returned to it several months later, they found that it had matured into something quite delicious. They then proceeded to live happily ever after as the creators of the closely-guarded recipe of the original Worcestershire sauce.


Just right: Lea and Perrins Worcester Factory’s general manager David Clements inspecting sauce bottles before they are packaged


In India, on the other hand, bawarchis and khansamas had become adept at interpreting the English taste and creating mellowed-down versions of Indian mains with an inordinate amount of milk or cream. This seems to have been an adaptation to recreate the rich, creamy textures of the dishes on the Indian aristocrat’s table, which owed their creaminess to dry fruits that were soaked and ground to a paste. But the English seem to have dispensed with the nuts for the most part, choosing instead to go for milky gravies that would bear the same colour and something of the texture of the nut-based gravies without being as heavy. This, and the ubiquitous curry that continues to describe Indian food in the West, numbered among a host of innovations that the bawarchis developed.

BLinkkedgeree from istock

Melting pot Tasty breakfast dish kedgeree, made with hot smoked salmon, egg, rice, curry powder and onion

Take the kedgeree, transformed from the humble Indian khichdi into a dish of boiled rice with fish served with boiled eggs for the English breakfast. In some households, browned onions and other garnishes are a part of the accompaniments. The khichdi in Indian homes began to see chutneys, bhartas and relishes as accompaniments whereas earlier it would be served plain or, at most, with ghee. The British insisted on having fish wherever they could procure it, and their cookbooks, despite being dismissive of Indian fish, contained sections dedicated to the limbless vertebrates. Some of the fish they featured are quite surprising, for one can hardly imagine that eels and oysters could possibly have been found in abundance outside of the coastal presidencies. Nevertheless, the recipe for an eel kebab by Grace Johnson calls for two whole pounds of eel to be skewered with pieces of onion, garlic, ginger and chillies, sprinkled with flour and fried in butter. A little lemon is recommended as garnish. If eel kebabs don’t take your fancy, you can have your pick of curry, pie or stew. The recipe for an oyster pilau in The Englishwoman in India is somewhat more dubious. It calls for rice to be stewed in an unspecified gravy while the oysters cook in their own juice. When done, a well is to be created in the centre of the mound of rice and the oysters are to be poured in after adding butter to thicken the broth. There is much to be said for the idea of oyster pilau, but one can only bemoan the culinary imagination of the author in assembling rice and oyster with butter and deigning to name it pilau.

Speaking of culinary imagination, the English evidently didn’t imagine that garlic and asafoetida could have anything to add to their food. The eel kebab recipe is an occasional exception. Most recipes ignore garlic altogether as a legitimate cooking ingredient used in kitchens. In fact, both garlic and asafoetida seem to have inspired disgust and fear in the English, for when their helps ate it, their masters could not bear the smell. One instruction manual to housekeeping in India declares: “No servant should ever be permitted to chew betel or paan except in their godowns, or to eat garlic or put it in their food, as this makes them positively unapproachable. If servants or ayahs are spitefully disposed, they will sometimes chew asafoetida or garlic in order to annoy their master or mistress, or to be sent away from their work till they are bearable again.”

This little instance of rebellion bolsters the author’s case of India being a “very bad specimen — of man and brother”. She numbers among the more charitable of her lot. Most authors have little but contempt for the Indian “servant”, who mauled English and strained coffee with the master’s old sock. It was a truth universally acknowledged that the Indian with access to the house would pilfer what he could of the food and, occasionally, the knick-knacks about the house. The lengthy lists of things to keep in the kitchen, therefore rarely involved expensive silver (although no doubt many English households kept these) nor delicate glasses, for the Indian “servant” was bound to break them. Besides the usual advice for keeping the “servants” strictly supervised, one housekeeping companion gives what is considered a rather scandalous piece of advice: “Secure for your servants a set of unmitigated heathens. Converts are usually arrant humbugs; Catholics little better…”

These “heathens” were employed by the score in the English household. The Anglo-Indian kitchen could have anything from a single cook to an elaborate hierarchy consisting of the khansama, bawarchi or under cook, and tanikhurchee or a scullery maid of sorts, besides a range of young boys employed to run errands or wait on tables and clean the china.

Many English households got so dependent on Indian staff that they took them along when they returned to England. We do not know if these Indians went reluctantly. But we do know that many of them found themselves stranded once their employers died. Some ran away from their masters’ houses, looking desperately for a way to return home.

In the course of their interactions with the English kitchen, these Indians invented a new repertoire of food that first made its way to the tables of rich Indian aristocrats and Anglophilic bureaucrats. Cutlets, macaroni and caramel custard became the cynosure of upper-class Indian tables in Calcutta and Delhi. Until the electric oven became a kitchen staple, caramel custards were often made in water baths in wood-fired ovens covered with hot embers, and later in pressure cookers on stoves. It is striking how similar this method is to the one described by the author of The Englishwoman in India , who describes the method of cooking plum pudding whilst on the move as such: “Light a small fire and, when the ground is hot, sweep it off. Put the dish on it with a couple of sticks underneath to raise it slightly. Then have the brass bassinet — which no traveller was ever without — scoured well, turn it over the pudding and cover it with hot embers.” The entourage of “servants” allowed the English to live lavishly even as they moved. Their dexterous cooks would keep their tables supplied with much of the same home food, and, as Lizzie Collingham quotes Emma Roberts, they could produce every kind of fish, meat, jam, jelly or pickle, even while cooking in the makeshift kitchens of English camps.

After the English returned home, the nostalgia for India lasted a few years before petering out. Although Indian restaurants popped up everywhere and continue to dot the streets of London, the English enthusiasm for Anglo-Indian food seemed to have largely evaporated. Instead of the curries, kebabs, chutneys and pickles that they had grown to be fond of in India, this land they loved to hate, they went on to embrace the homegrown chicken tikka masala. And while Bangladeshis across England now serve up Indian grub and select Indian restaurants specialise in regional cuisines, the Anglo-Indian cuisine of India went out with the last of its admirers. It makes the occasional appearance on the Indian table in the form of a fish moulee or Bombay duck, but, alas, nobody now is attempting to make oyster pilaus and eel curries in the manner that the ideal English housekeeper’s pilfering bawarchi was supposed to.

Farah Yameen is an oral historian