Food

Tracing Europe's influence on India's culinary heritage

A story goes: When English memsahibs sent their empire-building husbands off to work, what went with them in their lunch-boxes were slices of roast from Sunday’s lunch, wedges of cold pork pies, leftover stew with a few boiled eggs thrown in. The ambitious brown sahibs who shared offices with these Englishmen were impressed with these packed lunches and began to believe that these bland and often insipid offerings were the secret to the power of their masters. And so, somewhere in Bombay, an exasperated homemaker, egged on by her upwardly-aspirational husband, fashioned a dish that was a cross between a shepherd’s pie and a pasta casserole, using leftover curry. Thus was born the dabba gosht.

Tracing Europe's influence on India's culinary heritage
 

Krishna Shantakumar, general manager, Ebony in Whitefield, Bengaluru, admits that one cannot attest to the veracity of this story he shares, but the fact is, that colonial influences on Indian cuisine and even vice-versa were natural. “A blending of cuisines occurred when the British trained Indians to recreate their stodgy offerings in a bid to counter the spice levels of Indian cooking. Simultaneously, Indians aspired to be more like their British superiors and often asked their wives to recreate English cooking,” says Shantakumar.

The menu at Ebony has the Bohri dabba gosht of course, along with a few Anglo-Indian classics such as the mulligatawny soup, chicken jalfrezi and brown sahib scotch eggs. To show that the experimenting never ceases, Shantakumar speaks of dishes on the menu with a colonial twist a la Ebony. Take the salonee broccoli. Broccoli being a traditional English vegetable, is cooked in the tandoor with a mustard marinade, and topped with a crispy coating.

In search of adventure

“Many people from Britain, Scotland and Ireland were adventure-seekers and came in search of new experiences. When the ships landed, many of them made India their home and took on Indian spouses as well. They craved home food and had to make do with what was available in India. The Scottish egg, similar to the Nargisi kofta, became a speciality. The humble meat cutlet with added spices became the shami kebab. These dishes became standards in most of the clubs and barracks,” explains chef consultant Michael Swamy.

Tracing Europe's influence on India's culinary heritage
 

At Anglow, Khan Market, New Delhi, Chef Swamy showcases dishes from select regions across the country. “Many of the dishes come from various experiences, like the influence and creation of the Railway mutton curry, a dish that was created for long train journeys from Calcutta. The dak bungalow chicken curry evolved when the khansamas cooked in far-off outposts using the simplest of ingredients to create a flavourful dish,” Swamy says.

Such cross-cultural experiments were seen across the country. “Bengal was once the home of French and British colonisers, and also hosted populations of the Portuguese and Dutch. Collective influences of these communities were seen in the food created for them,” explains Subrata Debnath, business head and general manager, East India Room, Kolkata. The result was a unique blend of cuisines, where local ingredients were adapted to French, and western cooking techniques — characterised by creamy sauces, the restrained use of spices, and new techniques such as baking, grilling, frying, poaching, steaming and roasting, he adds.

On the menu at East India Room is the Sovabazar Rajbarir winning pantheras — a British colonisation high tea recipe with mutton. This was first made and served at Sovabazar Rajbari to British Governors and is a testimony to these cross-cultural influences and techniques. As also the beckty meuniere, grilled Calcutta bhetki with parsley brown butter and the Dacres’s Lane stew, a classic chicken stew served with toasted pound bread.

Breaking bread

Speaking of bread, it is common knowledge that we have the Portuguese coming to Goa to thank for that. Pav is the only form of leavened bread that is made in the country today. “It was the Portuguese who taught us to culture yeast and make our breads; today it is an integral part of Mumbai and Goa’s culinary landscape. Portuguese is the only cuisine that introduced wine in cooking in India and is also the only one that uses so many types of vinegars. A lot of ingredients were brought in too — tomatoes, green chillies, corn and cashews. Colonisers came in for trade and brought their techniques of cooking with them. Take the smoking and curing of meats with the chorizo sausage. The idea was for it to last long voyages!” explains Hussain Shahzad, executive chef, O Pedro, Mumbai.

Tracing Europe's influence on India's culinary heritage
 

Going beyond the popular vindaloo (which features on the menu) at O Pedro, Shahzad pays tribute to the Portuguese concept of petiscos or small plates that often make up dinner in Portugal, while showcasing Goan cuisine.

While this is a doff of the hat to the classics in a way, the food at Punkah House in Bengaluru is a modern interpretation of many dishes influenced by our colonial history — Portuguese, French, British, Dutch and colonies in Burma and Ceylon. “At Punkah, the flavours of harissa spiced chicken pate are very Indian, but the technique of making pate is French-inspired. Similarly, the galouti mousse in our lamb sticky rice dish, uses a classic European method. The same goes for our jamun ceviche and even the rasam ramen,” explains Shikha Nath, brand director, Punkah House. “We have tried to incorporate the colonial influence very subtly into mainstream Indian cookery; without losing the essence of any of the individual cuisines,” she adds.

Tradition retold

Tracing Europe's influence on India's culinary heritage
 

Punam Singh, co-founder, Mustard, Mumbai too has a similar approach where she is committed to telling traditional stories from the rich cuisines of Bengal and France. “The two meet, not in fusion, but in flavours that one savours. Paupiettes are a favourite in Normandy, the part of France that our Chef Gregory hails from. Usually made with meat, he’s chosen to make these traditional parcels with rice, serving them with a red wine sauce that’s been thickened with a carrot purée. We also have the bandhakopir dolma, stuffed leaves and vegetables that are a legacy of the Armenians in Bengal. Here we stuff fresh cabbage leaves with rice and minced meat, and for vegetarians with mushroom. There is the chingri machher chiney kebab, a stuffed lobster served on a bed of salad,” elaborates Singh.

Over the centuries, cuisines in India have assimilated a lot of colonial influences. These have gone both ways. From the chamosa of Portugal that is inspired by the Indian samosa, to the kedgeree that pays tribute to our khichdi. While tracing the lineages of these dishes may prove difficult, the fact remains that a delicious legacy continues to prevail.

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Printable version | Nov 17, 2020 12:32:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/with-a-colonial-hangover/article29654639.ece

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