From Madras pancakes to kidney toast à la Madras, the region’s contribution to international cuisine is legendary

What did Madras contribute to international cuisine? There is of course the ubiquitous mulligatawny, the Anglo-Indian answer to soup. Legend has it that Tamil cooks had no idea what soup was but knew their rasam and so, pepper (milagu) added to water (tanni) became mulligatawny. To this was added some rice, a few vegetables and some slivers of meat, and the dish as we know it today was ready. The English in Madras had this in such large quantities that old East India Company hands from this city were known as Madras Mulls.

But there are other lesser-known dishes. Have you heard of a Madras pancake? Try this recipe: “To six eggs, well beaten, add six tablespoonfuls of boiled rice, sugar to taste, a little pounded cinnamon, and a little orange flower water; mix all well together and fry in butter to a good colour. When served, divide it into quarters and strew over with pounded lump sugar.” This is from the Domestic Dictionary and Housekeepers Manual, published in London in 1842. The question is, what is Madras about this dish?

Yet another mystery is kidney toast à la Madras. As per one account, this involved three large sheep’s kidneys cut lengthwise, skewered, seasoned with pepper, salt and a pinch of “Nepaul or cayenne pepper”; immersed in well-beaten egg… and so on. The recipe is a fairly longish one and Arthur Herbert Cleveland Kenney-Herbert (pen name Wyvern) in his best-selling Culinary Jottings for Madras, in1885, primly labelled the process as “not dainty.” Once again, what was Madras about the dish is a mystery.

Over a period, more dishes made their appearance — Turkey Madras, Herring Madras, Duck Madras and even Olive Madras. They all claimed to be spicy and hot and that perhaps was the connection. In which case, the Madras pancake is the odd one out. They were all addictive and Nabobs returning from Madras with enormous fortunes, sometimes took back their native cooks too.

Like mulligatawny, another strong survivor, which appears to reinvent itself each century is the Madras curry powder. According to Wyvern’s 1885 treatise, Barrie’s Madras curry powder and paste was the best. Rather ironically, this was sold not in Madras but at Leicester Square, London. True to nature, Wyvern also felt that the best mulligatawny was to be had in England. Wyvern’s recipe for Madras curry powder included turmeric, coriander, cumin and poppy seeds, fenugreek, dry ginger, dried chillies and peppercorn. And any dish that had this curry powder added to it became something ‘Madras’ or the other.

A few years later, Venkatachellum’s curry powder became the rage. At least it was made in Madras. And it supplied curry powder to Buckingham Palace. Now every British-Indian eatery boasts of its own version of the curry powder. But they all agree the basic ingredients are as listed by Wyvern. To think that he wrote it here and it was published by our own Higginbothams.


A Beatle from Madras, almostAugust 21, 2012

More In: Chennai