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063: Of Cookbooks and Colonial Cooks

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

Have you ever tried a recipe for a dish that you had never tasted before? A dish that you had no personal experience with? How would you judge its taste and your end result?

Or have you tried to recreate a dish that only lived in your memory from childhood? One that you had never seen made? How much would the taste of food guide you in the method you chose?

Or have you ever cooked in someone else’s kitchen where your beloved spatula and favourite kadai were not at hand? Where you had to make do with foreign or missing ingredients? Have you altered a recipe and heaped in your favourite flavouring to make the dish your own?

Collingham writes about the challenges that both the muslim domestic cooks and their often inexperienced British memsahibs (house wives) faced as they tried to recreate Victorian English dinners in the late 1800s in India. Both sides were grappling with a translation across race, class, linguistic (English-Tamil cookery manuals such as “What to Tell the Cook/ Native Cook’s Assistant” p. 163), and cultural (stewed chicken versus roasted chicken) barriers. She notes how an uninitiated domestic cook employed by a British army officer added vanilla to every dish including grilled fish (p.160), and how the French “green pea souffle” was translated into “Girring Piece Souply” on the dinner menu for British East India Company civil servants.

In the late 1800s, Anglo Indian dinners had become a way for the colonial rulers to ‘demonstrate their Britishness’ (p. 159). Thus everything from the evening dresses and black coats that the women and men wore, to the Wedgewood china the food was served on, to the dishes on the menu - baked lemon custard and fillets of fish with parsley - held social, cultural and political capital.

The dilemma for a historian with relying solely on written sources (in this case in English by the colonists), as she is forced to do by the disciplinary methodology of history, is how does one allow for the voice of the subaltern? What must have been the tales the servants told amongst each other? What would have been their perspective? What would they have made of toad in the hole, and thick kidney soup served at these grand Anglo Indian dinners of the late 1800s?

Toad in the Hole

ImageCredit : Nelea Reazanteva

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