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059: Collingham and the Colonial Table

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

In the chapter titled “Madras Curry: the British invention of curry”, historian Collingham demonstrates how the dinner table in the 1800s, became a means to display the wealth and status of the East India Company civil servants on the Indian subcontinent. There were distinctions made between “high status” (Mughlai pilau, rabbits) and “low status” foods (hare, small local “whitebait-like fish”) (p. 114), a trend which continues to this day.

The tables were not only loaded with turkeys, roast pigs, curry, rice, “beef steaks, pigeon pies, chicken drumsticks…fruits and nuts” during the “burra khana (big dinner), but each officer also employed between 8 to 15 (!) servants to attend to the kitchen and serve food (pp. 112-113).

These specific roles around the kitchen and dining table included:

- Cook

- Assistant Cook

- Masalchi: spice grinder and dishwasher

- Khansaman - Butler

- Second Butler

- Aub-dar: water cooler who ensured that water, champagne and pale ale were all chilled

- Khidmutgar: waiter

- Hookah Burdar: to change the tobacco

- Table fan operator who beat away flies with a “chowrie” - small peacock feather fan (p. 107) due to the profusion of flies and cockroaches,

- Large fan operator who controlled the 30 foot long cloth ceiling fan with a rope and pulley (p. 108).

These kitchen and table employees were in addition to coachman, groomsmen for horses, palaquin bearers, maids, masseuse, washermen, and gardners.

Collingham often draws from manuscripts by civil servants of the East India Company, as well as those written by their wives, sisters, aunts, and cousins in her book “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” (2006). These memoirs, letters, diaries and travelogues such as the one by Fanny Parks - “Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, during Four-and-Twenty Years in the East; with Revelations of Life in the Zenana” (1850) bring out details about the food, diners and attendants which would be impossible to find in conventional books on Indian history. These accounts reveal precise particulars such as the “smell of coconut oil which the servants rubbed on their skin” (p. 108), or the fact that the servants approved the fine porcelain “Wedgwood” dinner set of an English judge’s wife (p. 114).

Image Credit: An Indian servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph, probably between 1910 to 1930. Source:

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