Cooking under the Raj


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IN the wake of India’s independence, there was inevitably a lot of grumbling about the evils of colonial rule. But with time there has been a more sober assessment of the legacy of the British Raj. The benefits are now seen to have been many – the development of trade and capital flows, representative institutions, the law, and infrastructure such as the railways and telegraph.

But nowhere does this litany of blessings the British left behind include the cooking of the Raj – those Anglo Indian dishes that were found in clubs, officers messes and on private dinner tables across British India and which stretched their tentacles back into the Home Counties of the UK to which many British ultimately returned.

The signature pieces of this cooking that reflect a Victorian interpretation of an Indian dish – Mulligatawny Soup, Captain’s Country Chicken, Kedgeree – are fading from the menus of restaurants seriously committed to good food.

Indicative of the trend is Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy’s in London, both now part of the Masala World group, but which were both in their different ways temples to Indian food as Anglo Indians remembered it. Over the past few years, they have been renovated and switched their focus to the richness and diversity of Indian regional cooking and to using fresh ingredients and freshly ground spices.

In this returning to the roots of cooking and in the search tastes and aromas that come from fresh spices and herbs and fresh meat, fish and vegetables they are in line with the new international orthodoxy that stretches across Italian and French cooking and into the New World cooking of Australia and the US. In Indian food, its propagandists have been both Madhur Jaffery and Camellia Panjabi – herself a founder of Chutney Mary.

They thus distance themselves from the Anglo Indian tradition where heavy brown sauces were often created by thickening a ready made curry powder with flour. They also distinguish themselves from what they call ‘those inexpensive neighbourhood curry restaurants’ which have sprung up in the UK and who ‘developed their own brand of curry totally different from the tastes of real Indian food.’ By this they mean the often Bangladeshi inspired fast food restaurants that have served a British taste for spicy food with new creations such as balti kebabs which have no connection with British India. Balti comes from the Hindi bucket and refers to the wok in which the dish is cooked.


The reason for Raj cooking falling out favour amongst serious lovers of good food is that so much of it was based on the use of the ubiquitous curry powder. It has the unmistakable taste of a convenience, compound flavour – mellow, spicy, and a little sweet. Its smell lingers in whatever kitchen it has been used.

Mrs Beeton writing in 1861 in her magisterial Book of Household Management says that a ready-made curry powder bought from any good store is ‘generally speaking far superior, and, taking all things into consideration, frequently more economical’ than freshly grinding the spices at home. In this most cooks today would certainly judge her wrong. She also seems a bit confused about the ingredients of the curry powder including ‘cinnamon seed’ (she means stick), and ‘allspice’ (meaning probably the slightly sweet garam masala used today and not the spice grown in the Caribbean of that name).

Apart from cinnamon and garam masala, Mrs Beeton’s recipe for a basic curry powder includes coriander seed, turmeric, cayenne (chilli), mustard seed (giving it a flavour of South Indian cooking), ground ginger and fenugreek. There were many different versions – others including pepper, cardamom, cumin or cloves – or varying the quantities used. Cheaper brands – to be avoided – naughtily added flour as well to give more substance. The one I have always used – Bolsts of Bangalore – can still be found in small tins with a choice between mild and hot. The label says the same family has been involved for generations in the ‘selection and blending of fine curry powders.’ The ingredients are as in Mrs Beeton’s recipe, but without the garam masala and the cinnamon.

Curry powder was used indiscriminately for meat, fish, game and poultry dishes. This gave a similarity to cooking under the Raj. It was added to a base commonly prepared by frying onions, garlic and ginger in ghee or animal fat – vegetable oils in bottles being a much later development. Variety could be given by adding additional spices, including some of those already in the curry powder.


The British were fond of adding raisins, almonds, plums and other fruits to a curry. When the taste for French food crept into Britain in the 19th century – and then more slowly and with more difficulty into British India – cream and alcohol were added as well. The ‘Coronation Curry’ recommended by Constance Spry in her 1950s cookery book as good for chicken but also an ‘admirable sauce to serve with iced lobster’ has these ingredients:

1 tablespoon oil, a slice or two of lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice, 2 oz onion finely chopped, possibly more, 1 dessert spoon curry powder, 1-2 tablespoons apricot puree, 1 good teaspoon tomato puree, ¾ pint mayonnaise, 1 wineglass red wine, 2-3 tablespoons lightly whipped cream, 1 wineglass water, a little extra whipped cream, a bay leaf, salt, sugar, a touch of pepper.


Constance Spry, writing a little after the loss of Empire in India, shared the views of earlier writers under the Raj that one of the beauties of a curry was that it could be reheated or could be made from leftovers of joints of meat or poultry. This was important to the British as a roast joint would not necessarily be eaten at one sitting. David Burton, author of The Raj at Table, the best book about cooking under the Raj, quotes a Mr Arnot of Greenwich as saying: ‘You may curry anything: old shoes should even be delicious, some old oil cloth or stair-carpet not to be found fault with (gloves if much worn are too rich).’

David Burton is a serious food writer who researched cooking under the Raj with the evident hope of uncovering some great dishes. But the book reflects some disappointment. The British were as much obsessed with the protocol of where to sit at table as they were with what to eat. They also put as much effort into table decoration and into decorating the food – often with bizarre results – as they did into how it tasted.

The British had arrived in India with no great tradition of food in their own country. Meals in 18th and 19th century Britain centred on large cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and on game and fish that were often put on the table at the same time. These traditions were carried to India notwithstanding the enormous differences in climate and the meat available. They brought as well other English customs then unknown in India – such as soups to start a meal, savoury dishes to finish it and the puddings (caramel custard, bread and butter pudding, steamed sponge and custard) that have had the longest life on Indian club and restaurant tables.

In contrast, both the French and the Portuguese left real culinary footprints in their former colonies. Much of Goan cooking reflects a mixture of two cultures – as do recipes in Laos or Vietnam which came strongly under French influence.

For those who have a fondness for the cooking of the Raj – and I count myself amongst them notwithstanding the comments above – memory and nostalgia play a large part. I had an elder brother who was a Major in the British army in the last days of the Raj. Much older than me, I still remember his insistence on our cooking at home various ‘Indian’ dishes. These were always accompanied by numerous side plates of chutneys, dried banana, Bombay duck, chopped onions and hard boiled eggs.


Of these dishes, Mulligatawny soup is the most classic – and seemed the most exotic. I only realized later – as David Burton points out – that it is basically little more than meat (mutton or chicken), onions, curry powder and stock. Here is a much more complex recipe for it from Jennifer Brennan’s Curries and Bugles – another essay in culinary nostalgia. She first tasted it in Bangalore reflecting the strong influence of South India on Raj recipes:

2 cloves of garlic finely chopped, 6 fl oz coconut milk, 1 inch ginger finely chopped, 1 quart chicken stock, 1 tsp red chilli powder, 6 tbsp lentils, 1 tsp turmeric ground, 1 tbsp tamarind pulp dissolved in water, 1 tsp coriander ground and strained, 1 tsp cumin ground, 3 tbsp rice, 1 bay leaf, ½ tsp garam masala, 1 tbsp veg oil coriander leaves for garnish, 2 tbsp ghee, 1 large onion finely chopped, 4 chicken thighs – meat removed and diced, bones reserved.

Place the first eight ingredients in a food processor and ground to a paste. Heat the ghee adding first the onion until light brown and then spice paste. Cook for three minutes. Add the chicken and bones and stir for 1 minute. Add coconut milk and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, add the dal, stir and cover. Bring barely to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. 15 minutes before the end, add the rice.


Mulligatawny soup is for a cold winter’s evening – which is probably why it has been so popular in England. In sharp contrast, another favourite of mine is Cold Duck Curry – a dish no Indian cook would think of doing on his own because there is no concept of cold curries in Indian cooking. But it is redolent of picnics under the Raj – conducted with military organization and a mountain of servants. Its effect depends on reducing the stock to give a thick aspic jelly and then on serving it ice cold. I have always made it with Bolsts hot curry powder and had imagined that the raisins and almonds came from a Persian tradition of using dried fruit in cooking. This latter could be wishful thinking. It can be served in lettuce leaves in the way the Chinese serve Peking duck or with sliced cucumber sprinkled lightly with white wine vinegar, salt, pepper and a touch of chilli powder. It is best tipped from a round bowl just before serving to preserve its shape:

1 duck, 2 tsp raisins, 1 onion finely chopped, 2 tsp crushed almonds, 1 green capsicum finely chopped, 2-3 teaspoons Bolsts hot curry powder, 3 tbsps crushed ginger salt, pepper, 2 rind of lemon chopped.

Remove the flesh from the bone of the duck. Use the bones and giblets to make stock ( add onions, carrot and celery to the water). Reduce the stock to 1-2 cups so that when the dish is cold, the stock will solidify as aspic. Cut the duck into small pieces. Fry onion in a very little oil (the duck itself has lots of fat). Add other ingredients (curry powder last of all). Simmer until cooked. Allow to cool and skim off the fat. Pour into a round bowl and place in freezer. When solid, place in fridge and tip from bowl before serving.

Though the English introduced several varieties of vegetables into India, the cooking of vegetables was never a strong point of the British. Raj recipes for vegetables are relatively small in number – particularly considering the wealth of vegetable dishes in India that could have provided inspiration. On the other hand, Raj and Anglo Indian cookbooks have lots of recipes for dishes that Hindus or Moslems would hesitate to touch – pork, ham, beef, quail, snipe and other curries using game.


From childhood, a strong memory of mine is kedgeree – a dish that is both simple and very good. It has no relation to the kedgeree of Indian cooking, though was clearly derived from it. The Raj recipe depends on smoked fish – haddock in particular. It is thus one of those dishes that would have been eaten back in Britain where in the 19th century, with the development of the railways, fresh smoked Scottish haddock was rapidly available in the London fish market.

This recipe comes from David Burton who says ‘a true daughter of the Empire might also sieve the hard-boiled eggs over the top in the pattern of the cross of St Andrew’:

350 g smoked fish fillets, 2 eggs, oil, 1 tbsp butter, 1 large onion chopped, salt and pepper, 175 g long grained rice, 2 tbsp chopped parsley.

Gently simmer the fish in boiled water for 10 minutes. Drain but reserve the water; Fry the onion in oil and add rice. Cook until glazed. Add the fish stock stirring in slowly until the stock is absorbed. Hard boil the eggs and flake the fish. Add to the rice with butter, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with parsley.

It remains still something of a mystery how the British largely ignored the richness and variety of Indian regional cooking during their long stay in India. In the 18th century, many of the East India Company staff seemed to have enjoyed it enormously. A considerable number lived, dressed and ate Indian. They were entertained regally in the princely courts. Undoubtedly the arrival of British women in growing numbers in the 19th century changed many of these habits. Many of the women complained that their stomachs could not take the spices. They do not seem to have worked hands-on in their kitchens, nor done their own shopping in the markets. They were thus unable to appreciate the details of Indian cuisine. At the same time, the evangelical movement was growing in strength and with it a disrespect for things Indian.

In the 19th century, convenience foods were increasingly available – beginning with curry powder but soon including tins that could be imported from the mother country. The English returning to the UK took back the curry powder which was easier to stock and to handle. They bought in England as well other sauces and pickles that seemed to remind them of India, like Worcestershire sauce and that disgusting looking yellow mixed vegetable pickle called Piccadilli, which is often available in English pubs.