A Raj-era feast

A Raj-era feast

On a warm autumn afternoon, as I walked down Esplanade, Kolkata, I noticed a line of customers outside a heritage food joint displaying a menu that read: "Mutton stew with bread". In my curiosity to know more, I asked an office-goer who was waiting in line about what the dish was exactly. Breaking into a smile, he said, "With the chill setting in, a steaming bowl of mutton stew cooked with vegetables is a satisfying lunch choice."

Use of spices

My mind instantly travelled back to the time when a bowl of some thick, flavourful and mildly-spiced mutton stew was savoured with bread by British officers stationed in India. This immunity-boosting mutton stew had all the traditional ingredients that were used by the chefs in the kitchens of British sahibs - mutton cubes, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower florets and beans, onion with a hit of green chillies and whole spices like cardamoms, cinnamon, peppercorns and bay leaf. Even today, traditional European cooking styles like slow-cooking and braising are followed, as these help blending the flavours of the fresh vegetables and spices with the meat stock.
The British influence in Indian cooking isn't limited to the mutton stew. Across Indian cuisine, dishes and cooking techniques that were once popular with the British, continue to be a part of our mainstream menu. In fact, for each Raj-influenced dish - served grilled, baked, roasted, steamed, fried or curried - there is a fine amalgamation of traditional English spices like cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, pepper, mustard, caraway, anise seeds, mace, nutmeg, herbs of parsley, mint or cilantro with local Indian whole or freshly ground spices and condiments.
Take, for instance, a plate of some mildly-spiced fish and boiled eggs kedgeree, garnished with chopped parsley, which was a popular protein-rich breakfast dish for the British troops posted at the Coromandel Coast, (stretching from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh), way back in 1843. Today, in the coastal belt of Andhra Pradesh, for this classic dish, traditionally used haddock has been replaced by salt-water fish like tuna or cod. The thick fillets of these fish are smoked or steamed and later added along with quartered boiled eggs to a creamy-textured, porridge-like kedgeree . The kedgeree is cooked with sliced onions, cumin and curry powders and flavoured with aromatic whole spices like cinnamon, green cardamoms and cloves, tempered in butter or ghee.

Curry controversy

The talk of Raj-inspired dishes is incomplete without the mention of curries. The origin of curries is a controversial and debatable subject in itself. Several historians believe that the curry is a manifestation of the dishes developed by the British in 18th century India in collusion with their cooks and concubines. Irrespective of how it was invented, nothing beats a sumptuous plate of Malabar fish curry with a generous helping of rice. Once relished by the Britishers living in the Malabar region, this dish continues to define Kerala cuisine. Even today, in Thiruvanthanapuram, fish curry is recreated by simmering sweet water fish fillets in a broth of coconut milk and flavoured with mustard seeds, curry leaves and dried red chillies, tempered in coconut oil.
Just like the curries, rice dishes also figured among the favourites. According to historical records, the Parsi staple of dhansak is said to have featured on the dinner table in British merchants' homes in erstwhile Bombay Presidency. The wholesome dish was made of mutton cubes, lentils like moong dal, toor dal and masoor dal, potatoes, spinach, pumpkin and eggplants, simmered in a smooth gravy of tomatoes, chillies and ginger-garlic. Dhansak is flavoured with a freshly ground aromatic spice mix.
On a visit to a heritage Parsi eatery in Mumbai recently, I discovered what goes into making this spice mix. A chef at the eatery explained, "Traditionally, we enhance the flavour of the gravy with a freshly ground spice mix of turmeric, cloves, roasted coriander, cumin, fenugreek, brown mustard seeds, black peppercorns and cinnamon. Also, after adding all the vegetables, the gravy is seasoned with ground nutmeg."
Apart from meat, the Britishers were big on vegetables too. On a look out for the vegetarian gastronomic delights of British Raj days, at one of the heritage food joints at Jalandhar, Punjab, I came across gobi alu adrakhi, an offering which was popular with the British soldiers deputed to  the Punjab Province. Today, this dish of farm fresh cauliflower florets and potatoes cooked with tomatoes and ginger, is a local staple.
Then, there was dal makhani, a dish that was preferred by artists Thomas and William Daniell during their journey to British India to capture the Oriental culture in their paintings. This dish is prepared by slow-cooking black lentils in spices overnight and then topping it with whipped cream.
As for desserts, trifles, tarts and puddings continue to be served at private clubs that were once instituted by the British, for the officers and merchants who missed their home country. Native cooks in British households were taught to make puddings and cakes by the memsahibs who loved hosting high teas and dinner parties. Steamed ginger pudding is one such delicacy that is still made in Kerala. To make this delightful pudding dish, a batter of ground ginger, dry ginger powder, beaten eggs, flour, baking soda, milk, sugar, honey and a spoonful of any fruit jam, is placed in a heatproof bowl; covered with a parchment paper and then, steamed.
Indian cuisine is an amalgamation of Mughal, Chinese and European tastes and techniques. Whether, it is cutlets, curries or tea cakes, British influence is an undeniable part of our culinary heritage.

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