What happens when one of the world’s worst cuisines collides with one of the best? According to David Burton, author of The Raj at Table, “jars of chutneys, pickles, and curry powder are seen on every British supermarket shelf, a plethora of Indian cookbooks is available in English, and the specialist Indian food shops throughout the land sell every conceivable ingredient needed to cook Indian food…” . But when it comes to the influence of British food in India, David can enumerate the examples on the fingers of one hand. The cookbooks of this post are about the food of British India, in which stodgy British tastes succumb to the spices of “Injia’s sunny clime“.
David Burton’s The Raj at Table is subtitled A Culinary History of the British in India. David presents an unsentimental portrait of the Raj: at best, the British in India appear foolish, and at worst we have the likes of Elihu Yale, governor of Madras: when his butler left Yale’s employment without giving proper notice, Yale had him charged with piracy and hanged; apparently, leaving without giving proper notice was not a hanging offense. The report of this incident is in one of the earlier chapters, which set the scene; the later chapters are organized as a cookbook according to the type of food. The book is studded with recipes taken from old cookbooks. As such, these recipes require a certain amount of interpretation: amounts of ingredients and directions are somewhat vague. David also includes some recipes in a more contemporary format. I did not find lots of irresistible recipes in this book, but the book did make fascinating reading.
“Dholl Curry” (page 151) is from a 1906 book, Indian Cookery and Domestic Recipes by C. C. Kohlhoff. Red lentils are combined with onion, garlic, ginger, saffron, green chiles, and coconut milk, for which I substituted large coconut flakes. The end result was a simple and not very exciting dal, the type that, we learn, might be fed to children or animals in a British Indian household, but not to guests unless one is a hopeless eccentric. Fortunately Ann Arbor values its eccentrics.
Alan picked “Colonel Hare’s Brinjal Bhurta” as a recipe to try. Roasted eggplant flesh is mixed with onions, mint, spices, and a lot of yogurt and lemon juice. I liked this, although I think it was not so good by itself, but worked better as a sauce to rice. Shay thought that the cardamom and cloves were too assertive; my taste buds are not very discerning, so I thought that the taste was fine.
“Mango Curry” (page 175) also needed to be eaten with something else, but when regarded as a condiment was quite satisfactory. In this dish, mangoes are cooked up with Indian flavorings: chiles, ginger, garlic, tumeric, fenugreek, and cumin. I do not see this sort of preparation with fruit that often in more modern Indian cookbooks, so this was a slightly unusual dish.
During my carnivorous days, I would sometimes cook the “Country Captain” from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book, chicken in a tomato sauce. “Country Captain of Vegetables” (page 163) bears little resemblance to the Craig Claiborne dish: not only is it vegetarian, but there are no tomatoes. This is a mixture of potatoes, carrots, peas, and beans in a tamarind sauce, and is an excellent mixed vegetable type dish. I used the thin French green beans, which I think are tastier and easier to eat. [Go to the recipe.]
Jennifer Brennan, the author of Curries and Bugles: A Memoir & Cookbook of the British Raj is herself a child of the Raj. “This is an intensely personal book,” says Jennifer in her very first sentence, then recalls the final days of British India through the golden haze of a happy childhood. She regales us with fond memories of Nanny and of all her family’s loyal Indian servants. There are quite a few squirm-worthy passages in this book, but if ones buys into colonialism, the book can be charming. The recipes do not seem, for the most part, to be the actual recipes that the happy servants prepared for the family, but Jennifer’s recreations of remembered dishes, or modern versions of Indian dishes that seem to fit into a chapter’s theme. As a consequence, the recipes are reliable, easy to follow, and (usually) very tasty.
“Marinated Paneer and Wilted Spinach Salad” (page 88) is a salad version of palak paneer, my all time favorite Indian dish, at least when made well. In this salad, the cheese is not fried, but marinated and then mixed with cooked spinach. Since the cheese in not cooked, any sort of white cheese should work; halloumi or feta might make interesting variations. This worked well as a cold salad, although I think the hot version is superior. [Go to the recipe.]
I have a perfectly good recipe for Indian tomato soup, but am always willing to try a new recipe, since any recipe for tomato soup, especially cream of tomato soup, is almost guaranteed to be good or better than good. This soup was exactly what I expected: a cream of tomato soup with gentle Indian spices. Jennifer fondly recalls the croutons that she ate with this soup as a child. I omitted the croutons, never having been a fan of soggy bread in hot soup.
“Spiced Fried Potatoes” (page 280) were, like the tomato soup, good but unremarkable. Cooked potatoes are browned in ghee with onions and spices; mint, lemon peel, and parsley (which I omitted) are added at the end. I used some French potatoes from Plum Market that were supposed to be the best potatoes in the world; I think this is an exaggeration, as I have had better potatoes. The most recent amazing potatoes I had were from the Atwater Market in Montreal several years ago.
The least successful dish from this cooking session was “Aloo Parathas” (page 130), as executed by Alan. These are whole wheat pastries stuffed with potatoes and fried in ghee. Actually, the only fault I can find in Alan’s execution was not using enough filling for each little pastry. The recipe itself was pretty bland, which is not surprising because what we have is not Indian food, but the food eaten by the British in India.
“Dhal and Rice with Poached Eggs” (page 237), although not a dish I made in this particular cooking frenzy, was one that I made several years ago. This is a very simple recipe: rice and dal topped with egg. Instead of poaching, I fried the egg, and the combination of dal, ghee, and egg was perfect. Thanks to this recipe, one of my favorite quick meals is a fried egg on top of a store-bought envelope of dal.
Mixed Vegetables in Tamarind Sauce
Adapted from David Burton, The Raj at Table
2 tablespoons ghee
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 potato (8 ounces), cooked, peeled, and diced
4 carots, sliced and cooked
8 ounces thin green beans, cooked
8 ounces frozen peas
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
2 teaspoons curry powder
¼ cup grated coconut
Melt the ghee in a large skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens. Add the potato, carrots, and green beans, and cook for a few minutes. Stir in the peas and cook a few more minutes. Now add the rest of the ingredients with salt to taste. Stir and cook until everything is heated through.
Spinach and Cheese Salad
Adapted from Jennifer Brennan, Curries and Bugles
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
½ teaspoon curry powder
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
8 ounces white cheese, cubed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon coriander
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 pound spinach
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted (optional)
For the cheese, mix together the oil, lime juice, curry powder, and mint, and toss with the cheese. Add salt to taste. Let the cheese marinate for several hours.
For the spinach, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the cumin seeds, cayenne, coriander, and ginger. Cook, stirring, until the seeds start to brown. Start adding hanfuls of spinach, adding another handful whenever the spinach in the pan had cooked down. When the spinach is wilted, remove from the heat, and tilt the pan so that the liquid will drain away from the spinach. When the spinach had cooled enough not to melt the cheese, remove the somewhat drained spinach to a bwl and toss in the cheese. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.