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064: Wars and Tin Cans in Collingham

When I studied history in school, I used to hate blindly memorising world events. At that age, I did not grasp how military policy and wars fought on other continents could ever influence what we eat on a daily basis. The world of politics, commerce, and international trade were a far cry from pav bhaji, hot chips, and aloo bondas. I could not fathom that the tomatoes in my mother’s butter soaked pav bhaji were once called “bilti begun” - English/foreign aubergines by the Bengalis (p. 166). I would not have believed my school teacher if she said that masala dosas or hot chips would not have been possible in India in the 1700s, since our country did not cultivate any potatoes at that time.

Only after reading historian Lizzie Collingham’s chapter titled “Cold Meat Cutlets: British Food in India” in her seminal work Curry, have the connections between military powers and food come to the fore. For instance she illustrates how the invention of tin cans for food (in 1810), the abolition of the East India Company (in 1858) and the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt (in 1869) entirely changed what food was served at Anglo-Indian tables in the 19th century, and eventually what we continue to cook in our kitchens today.

First tinned foods imported from England made available “bottled peas, tough roasts and slightly metallic pate de foie gras” to British civil servants and their families (pg. 168). They could use these foods to demonstrate their Britishness, and most importantly their “distance” from all things “native”.

When I look at the Del Monte bottled olives in my fridge today, I wonder if I too am partaking in a kind of gastronomic cultural capital? When I was a student in Manipal, I did not have access to artisanal cheeses and Borges pasta packets. I had to become inventive and either use generic brands such as Amul and Maggi, or learn how to cook dishes with “local” ingredients such as Malabar spinach. Did the British in India hold onto tinned foods for comfort, familiarity, or as a way to show their superiority? To what lengths do we cling onto “food fashions”?

The Suez Canal made it possible for British women to travel to India to seek husbands - see Anne De Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj (2013). With the entrance of the “memsahib”, the dynamics within the Anglo-Indian kitchen changed drastically. Just think of how a kitchen changes from “hostel living” to “family meals” - how instant maggi noodles make way for idli and chutney.

Furthermore with the abolition of the East India company, the type of men coming to India morphed from commercial adventurists - “the Nabobs” to “black coated bureaucrats” (pg. 159). British men had less say in how they dressed, who they married, and what kind of food was served at their dinners. An imperial project backed by “racial theories” chose clothing, education, architecture, food, language, and dinnerware as its instruments of warfare and colonisation.

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