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Imperial ecstasies, or, the cuisine of British India.

1. A parlous enterprise.

The subject of empire is fraught. It is not politically correct to say anything good about the imperial projects that collapsed following the Second World War, and the British Empire has taken a worse beating than its less comprehensive counterparts.

While concluding that the British Empire caused (slightly) more human harm than good, but also claiming that its impact has been exaggerated, Ashley Jackson for one has the insight to reject the reflexive approach. Context is all:

“Though the British Empire, and the phenomenon of large territorial empires, might appear curious now, empires have been the default setting throughout human history, which is one of the reasons why accounts that single out the British Empire for persecution are unbalanced. Man-and womankind of all racial backgrounds have sought to colonize each other in various ways since the dawn of time…. By contrast, today’s international system, comprising over 200 sovereign nation-states, is a novelty.” (Jackson 11)

Much like god is a manifestation of the human imagination, “[t]he British Empire was an expression of the history of humankind.” (Jackson 128) It “was a cultural interface, its colonial structures forming the juncture between expanding Western culture in all its forms and an array of differing indigenous cultures.” (Jackson 32)


2. A transformative power.


Although Jackson does not say so, one of those cultural forms was culinary, and it would be remiss to underestimate the impact on foodways of empire and the wars that made them. Felipe Fernández-Armesto finds the effect of empire more baleful than Jackson but stands in broad agreement with him about its pervasive cultural influence. Unlike Jackson, Fernández-Armesto does address the impact of empire on culinary culture, in unequivocal terms: “No source of influence in cookery--perhaps in the exchange of culture generally--has exceeded imperialism.” (Near 140)

It is a bold assertion, and a sound one. Throughout history, the immediate impulse of people confronted with unfamiliar food has been rejection. “There is,” observes Fernández-Armesto, “no more intriguing problem in the history of food than that of how cultural barriers to the transmission of foods and foodways have been traversed or broken.” (Near 140)

The earliest English settlers in North America tried to ignore abundant but unfamiliar indigenous ingredients (they could not) and eighteenth century New Orleans developed its own lightened variant of French bread for lack of wheat even though the lush soil of Louisiana supported other grains. By the late nineteenth century a considerable proportion of newly-arrived British in India reacted against the cultural assimilation of earlier colonists, and rejected curries to insist upon rich roast meats, heavy sauces and even unpalatable canned goods shipped from Britain. Their cooks were hardly adept at working in so alien an idiom, which anyway was more suited to a colder climate than to the tropics where they lived.

The stubbornness of people to accept alien food could cause awful consequences. As Fernández-Armesto notes, Japanese laborers on Fiji during the early twentieth century suffered malnutrition because they insisted on a diet of white rice rather than consume the nutritious indigenous foodstuffs; American prisoners during the Korean War died for the same reason rather than eat rations they found repulsive. (Near 136)

It required a force of immense power to erode these primal prejudices on the part of people, including colonial invaders, who found themselves surrounded by strange food in a strange land. They, however, have not been the only groups whose eating habits have been revolutionized.

“The tides of empire run in two directions,” to appropriate an image from Fernández-Armesto, “outward from the culture of conquerors and then back as the empire wanes,” via not only colonists returning home “with exotically acclimatized palates” but also the emigration of “sometime subject peoples, who carry their cuisines with them.” (Near 140)

Fernández-Armesto sorts imperial cuisine into three categories that, he says, result from all this human surf,

“the high cuisines of the nodal points of empire, which sweep ingredients, styles and dishes from all over the regions of conquest into the central menu; the colonial cookery which juxtaposes the food of elite colonists from the ‘mother country’ with the ‘subaltern’ styles of their local cooks and concubines; and the countercolonial effect, whereby the imperial people are introduced to the food of their subject races and former victims when the latter start migrating toward the center.” (Near 140)


3. The creation of a cuisine.



His model, while elegant, does not quite reflect the interplay between Britain and the Indian Subcontinent, because there his first two categories collapse to create the great foodways of the Raj, what Fernández-Armesto would consider a ‘frontier cuisine of miscegenation’ had he addressed it.

The British in eighteenth century India and their native “cooks and concubines” created a recognizable cuisine that would evolve for hundreds of years. Its predominant manifestation is curry, but they developed various (and variable) other styles, not least mulligatawny, based on similar sets of adaptations.

Lizzie Collingham refers to “the British invention of curry” and adds with disapproval that it “is, in fact, a concept that Europeans imposed on India’s food culture.” (Collingham 107, 115)

“Curry as we understand it today,” explains the less judgmental Darlene Waldrop in her Master’s thesis called “A Curried Gaze: The British Ownership of Curry,”

“is the result of over four hundred years of interaction between the British and the people living on the Indian subcontinent. At its core, curry is a British construction. That is not to diminish its Indian origin. Instead, by indicating that curry is British we understand that it is the British expression of Indian cuisine, masala especially, as articulated by legions of Anglo-Indians since the seventeenth century.” (Waldrop 1-2)

Coleen Taylor Sen is equally unequivocal: “Purists would insist that the only dish that deserves to be called curry is the one developed in the kitchens of British India in the late eighteenth century.” (Sen 10)


4. Confusion and controversy over curry.

Notwithstanding the confident pronouncements of Collingham, Waldrop and Taylor Sen, curry has an evolving history as a controversial and confusing term. In 1974, Madhur Jaffrey was quoted as complaining that “the word ‘curry’ is as degrading to India’s great cuisine as ‘chop suey’ was to China’s.” (Burton 73) Then, in an apparent about face, she later wrote a book entitled The Ultimate Curry Bible to trace its proliferation and transformation across the globe. Her Bible even includes a defense of that preternaturally British creation, curry powder.

Whether or not Jaffrey liked it forty years ago, the term ‘curry’ already had acquired currency as a synonym for the entire constellation of India’s great cuisine. Her own Bible covers a lot of things, like pickles and soups, including mulligatawny, outside the bounds of curry per se.


British people today tend to call anything from India, Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh a curry. ‘Authentic’ regional dishes from Kerala, Mumbai or elsewhere, Anglo-Indian recipes, the Portuguese inflected foods of Goa, or any other preparation remotely connected to the Subcontinent all have been called curry regardless of provenance.

At least one Indian author appears to concur. Camellia Panjabi, a successful hotelier if ragged writer, appears to broaden the term even further. In her well-received cookbook called 50 Great Curries of India, Panjabi argues in boldface that “[t]he origin of the word curry seems to be a meat or vegetable dish to be eaten with rice, which is considered to be the main dish of the meal.” (Panjabi 27)

Nobody, it seems, can agree on the definition of so superficially a simple term. Culinary historians have used it to mean Indian food in general, the cuisine of British India, a particular subset of it and the distinctive cuisine that people of mixed British and Indian ancestry evolved. K. T. Achaya, who compiled Indian Food: A Historical Companion for the Oxford University Press, says in his politically correct way that

“the Indo-Anglian curry… has come to symbolize Indian food for the westerner. The term originally denoted any spiced dish that accompanied south Indian food…. Later the word curry was greatly widened in usage to include a liquid broth, a thicker stewed preparation, or even a spiced dry dish, all of which appear in turn in a south Indian meal, each with its own name.” (Achaya 58)

This revision of ‘Anglo-Indian’ for ideological purposes is both anachronistic and unwittingly misleading; anachronistic because the term appears neither in the historical literature of the Raj nor in common usage anywhere since Indian independence; misleading because ‘Anglian’ ordinarily appears preceded by ‘East’ and refers to an English region, East Anglia, rather than to England itself.


5. A necessary digression upon the term ‘Anglo-Indian.’

If the stylesheet for britishfoodinamerica did not ban footnotes, this would be a good place to drop one, because ‘Anglo-Indian,’ as Achaya’s fabrication of ‘Indo-Anglian’ indicates, can be a term as fraught as the topic of empire itself. Much like the charged term ‘creole,’ or ‘Creole,’ it has meant various things to various people at various times. It may refer to a person of ethnically mixed English and Indian descent, but that usage did not appear in print until 1911. (Collingham 110) The term also may describe the dialect of English as it is written and spoken in India. For the purpose of this essay, however, Anglo-Indian refers to a person of English ancestry who has lived in India, whether born in Britain, on the Subcontinent or elsewhere.


Waldrop restricts the term further, to “a person of British origin who lived and worked in India from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.” Her use of ‘origin’ instead of ‘ancestry’ may create a false limitation on birthplace--it need not have been Britain--but her temporal limitation makes a certain sense. (Waldrop 2)

The validity of the term’s other meanings is undeniable but, as Waldrop notes, ‘Anglo-Indian’ was shorthand for the British in or from India (they retained the identity if they returned home) “especially popular in the nineteenth century [and] fills the reference material” on matters culinary. It is the better means to avoid historical confusion. (Waldrop 2)


6. To return to curry….

Achaya’s definition of ‘curry’ is broad. Its inclusion of ‘a liquid broth’ would net a dish like mulligatawny. Lizzie Collingham discusses the soup in Curry: A Biography but then also includes a chapter on tea and one called “Cold Meat Cutlets” that charts the development of “an array of slightly orientalised British dishes” during the second half of the nineteenth century. She does not consider them curry; that is fair enough. Despite her chosen title, however, Collingham never dares define the term itself. (Collingham 157, 160)

Jo Monroe considers curry a “troublesome” word and calls it “a disputed and inadequate catch-all for a vast and varied cuisine;” apparently, but perhaps not, all the foods of the Subcontinent. Her solution to the problem is not quite satisfactory; she defines ‘curry’ in broader terms than Achaya and uses it variously “to describe either an individual meal, an entire cuisine or a cultural phenomenon.” (Monroe ix)

Nineteenth century Anglo-Indians suffered no such qualms. In 1841, Dr. Robert Riddell offered a brisk description of curry, which he distinguishes from ‘brianees,’ ‘khubabs’ and ‘pillau,’ in his Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book:

“Curries consist in the meat, fish or vegetables being first dressed [cooked] until tender, to which are added ground spices, chillies, and salt, both to the meat and gravy in certain proportions; which are served up dry, or in the gravy; in fact a curry may be made of almost any thing, its principal quality depending on the spices being duly proportioned as to flavour, and the degree of warmth to be given by the chillies and ginger. The meat may be fried in butter, ghee, oil, or fat, to which is added gravy, tyre [yogurt], milk, the juice of the cocoanut, or vegetables, &c. All of these, when prepared in an artistical manner, and mixed in due proportions, form a savoury and nourishing repast…. ” (Riddell 375)


Cultural concerns may have changed, but in The Road to Vindaloo, published in 2008, David Burnett and Helen Saberi also eschew political posturing to sound notes as authoritative and descriptive as Dr. Riddell:

“Curry denotes a stew of meat, fish, vegetables, etc., cooked in a sauce of ‘hot’ spices and usually served with rice. The ‘hot’ spices are ground together to make a spice mixture called curry powder. The word curry may derive from the Tamil kari which means a sauce served with rice.

There are many spicy dishes in Indian cuisine called a variety of names such as korma, do piazza, vindaloo, rogan josh, jal frezi, pasanda, and so forth.” (Road 10)

These notes are fine as far as they go, except that a curry need not be hot and they do not quite go far enough. Burnett and Saberi overlook any number of Anglo-Indian styles, including ‘Ceylon’ and ‘Malay’ curries, country captain, perhaps kedgeree and mulligatawny.

As late as 1957, politics had yet to intrude on the meanings of curry. Colonel R. A. P. Hare took the reductivist tack, nearly but not limiting his definition to spice. “A curry is a combination of spices, ground to a powder, and cooked slowly for at least 30 minutes in ghee, a good vegetable oil, or with curd. When this is done, meat, fish, vegetables or anything else can be simmered in it and curried.” (quoted at Road 108-09)


7. The refined template.

The best definition may be the one that is not. Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert published Culinary Jottings for Madras as ‘Wyvern’ in 1878. It is, as Burnett and Saberi assert, “by far the most influential contribution to curry literature by an English writer.” (Road 87) It also may still be the best. The redoubtable Wyvern escapes the snare of defining curry in an overbroad, underinclusive, politically charged or anachronistic way by declining to define it at all.

Wyvern took a most modern tack; he depicted the concept of curry through process. After acknowledging that it had fallen from favor in British India or “lost ‘caste’” (“We are often told by men of old time… that in inverse proportion, as it were, to the steady advance of civilization in India, the sublime art of curry-making has gradually passed away…. ”), he set about correcting the condition by describing how to cook the dish. (Wyvern 301, 299)

Precise prose provides a systematic means of creating a kind of curry that should surprise most readers. If not quite idiosyncratic, Wyvern’s approach appears unique. And, as David Burton observes: “In his advocacy of simple ingredients, cooking and dishing up, he strikes a remarkably modern note.” (Raj 8)

In common with the cooks of curry’s classical eighteenth century age, Wyvern regards good stock thickened with flour as indispensable but breaks with earlier recipes in requiring coconut milk as well. Onions or shallots and garlic are essential. The medium for frying them “most assuredly should be butter.” ‘Authentic’ alternatives like ghee or mustard oil would not do but a cook could choose suet in a pinch.


Wyvern is fastidious in blending and grinding his own spices for “a really good stock powder,” although a good commercial blend can suffice “for those who wish to avoid trouble and yet have good curries.” His own powder combines a whopping nine ingredients in various proportion; ‘dried chillies,’ coriander, ‘cummin-seed,’ fenugreek, ‘dry-ginger’ (fresh ginger is among the “accessories” that create his flavor palette), mustard, black peppercorns, poppyseed and turmeric.


8. You said what?

The spice itself is not the dominant element of an exemplary dish. He also emphasizes the “indispensably necessary” “suspicion of sweet-acid which… forms a salient feature of a superior curry.” (Wyvern 307, 303; emphasis in original)

Wyvern’s most incongruous ingredient provides the sweet-acid tang. Tamarind may be traditional to Subcontinental food, “and a careful preparation of tamarind is decidedly valuable.” He finds no fault with a mixture of chutney and vinegar either, but tosses the book by asking “[w]hy, however, should we not improve upon this with red current jelly, and if further sharpness be needed, a little lime or lemon juice?” (Wyvern 303)

On reflection that should not surprise the student of British foodways. Cooks working in the traditional British idiom, from Eliza Acton to Jane Grigson, did, and do, choose currant jelly to boost the flavor of savory foods. Wyvern himself was expert in the cuisines of both Britain and France; the sections on explicitly Anglo-Indian foods like curry amount to only about a tenth of his Culinary Jottings.

More tart than most preserves, redcurrant jelly is a component not only of Cumberland sauce, but also for glazes and gravies, and Miss Acton along with many others served it unaltered alongside her roast meats. Anyone who adds Wyvern’s flavoring of choice will agree that it produces a “very slight sharpness… of the most delicate nature.” Just take his advice not to use too much. (Wyvern 303)

Shall we have currants in our curry?

In contrast to most of his forebears and contemporaries, Wyvern appreciates the contribution to curry of “certain greenleaves which are undoubtedly not to be despised as flavouring agents. By their means flavours can be effectively changed.” (Wyvern 304) They include not only the ones we would intuitively anticipate--bay, cilantro, lemon grass--but fennel, an old British favorite, as well.

The instructional narrative follows a sort of sliding scale. Wyvern gives his reader options for customizing her curry at various stages of the intricate composition (the proper sequence is, he warns, crucial to the success of the dish; it cannot be altered or rushed) and recommends very different procedures from those for poultry and meat to those for hard boiled eggs, fish, shellfish, minced meat or vegetables. Wyvern also distinguishes his detailed paradigm from “Malay or ‘Ceylon’ curry” (it “is, of course, a spécialite”) and “there are kubâbs, quoormas, &c., &c., that need separate consideration.” (Wyvern 311)

In Wyvern’s hands, any of these curries stray from what conventional wisdom considers authentic Indian food. Not that his formulas are not sound; they are superb. And it is not just that he combines so many species of spice and uses currant jelly, or gooseberries for that matter, and other thoroughly ‘western’ things like flour, stock and suet. The sequence of steps within his recipe itself stands apart; Wyvern’s curries are by no means Indian and by no means inauthentic.

In other words he takes us back to Taylor Sen and the notion that a true curry is the kind that emerged from the eighteenth century kitchens of the Raj.


9. Back to the creation.

This ‘British culinary construction’ emerged through a maelstrom of fascination, misunderstanding and stubbornness. Following a defeat of Portuguese warships, the English obtained their first commercial concession and constructed their first Indian ‘factory,’ or trading station, in 1612. The initial wave of adventurers was primarily male and preponderantly mercantile. Their outlook was both secular and commercial in the English Enlightenment style; no desire to rule, no particular notion of racial superiority nor interest in missionary work for them.

Many obtained fabulous wealth from the commercial dominance that emerged after the British defeated an alliance of French troops and the Mogul Nawab of Bengal at Plassey in 1757. The beneficiaries of this military triumph “were the nabobs, envied yet despised at home as being rather coarse and ostentatious, and in outward ways quite indianized by the mistresses many of them had adopted.” (Burton 3)


The fledgling nabobs liked the cultures they encountered on the Subcontinent, even if they misunderstood much about them, and happily ‘went native,’ not only taking Indian wives as well as lovers, but also dressing in hybrid Anglo-Indian style, smoking cannabis and not least delighting in the dishes they were served.

The foodways they found fascinated these early English settlers because they were at once familiar and exotic. “It should by no means be assumed,” explains Burton,

“that the first British settlers had considered the highly spiced cuisine of India so very outlandish or strange. In 1612, English cooking itself had barely emerged from the Middle Ages, and was still heavy with cumin, caraway, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Indeed, spices had for the first time become affordable to all but the poor in England, due to the breaking of the Arab monopoly of the spice trade by the Portuguese a century earlier.” (Burton 3; see Sen 2)

As a result of this coincidence, “when the gentlemen of the Surat factory were fêted by their Muslim friends, they were probably not being polite when they pronounced the pilaus and biriyanis delicious.” (Burton 4)

Coincidence it was. Despite the labored effort of Waldrop and others to describe dishes that evolved in England prior to contact with India as ‘proto-curries,’ they in fact were no such thing. The ‘dumpoked’ chicken stew served at Surat in 1612 may have shared the cinnamon, currants, mace, raisins and sugar that went into Gervaise Markham’s pie from 1615, but assembly and preparation created distinctly different dishes. It was simply the case that the difference was not so startling that it resulted in rejection.

People like the first generations of the British in India, who traveled to an uncharted land in the age of sail, are by definition adventurous. In practical terms they needed to be amenable to adaptation. They had no choice. Too few of them had arrived by the end of the eighteenth century to segregate themselves from the vastly more numerous inhabitants of India or their cultures had they even cared to try.

Other cultural coincidences accelerated the English acceptance of Indian foodways. During the early seventeenth century, the English still considered forks suspiciously foreign and effeminate (they originated in Italy; the horror!), and like Indian people at the time scooped their food using fragments of bread.Fork_antique.jpgBanquets might be elaborate in either country, and frequently lasted for hours. Following a long lunch or dinner, both cultures circulated an array of spices on fancy trays or in special boxes. These offerings were considered digestives by the English and Indians alike. Cultural divergence does, however, appear in this picture through language. The somewhat lyrical Indian term for the practice was pan; the rather inelegant but typically descriptive English one, the voidee. (see Burton 4)

These cultural affinities coupled with the adventurous personalities of the early settlers created the conditions in which the cuisine of the Raj would develop. Burton argues that the early eighteenth century nabob “had not had a sophisticated palate and had been more or less content to eat anything his Indian cook set before him. In time, he actually got to enjoy the highly spiced food.” (Burton 7-8)

The notion that thousands of imaginative adventurers suffered a kind of collective culinary stupidity sounds like a dubious proposition and Burton provides no support for it.

It runs afoul of both Fernández-Armesto’s observation about the reluctance of people to accept unfamiliar food, and Burton’s own assertion about the similarity of seventeenth century English and Mogul foodways. Elsewhere Burton himself comments on the anomaly of Raj attitudes: “Considering the ethnocentric attitude of the British towards food generally, one can only marvel at the adventurousness the Anglo-Indians displayed.” (Burton 125)


10. An excursion to Ascendancy Ireland.

These merchant adventurers could not have failed to notice what they ate. Like the Irish Ascendancy, the Anglo-Indians found themselves an elite minority surrounded by a large population of uncertain sympathies. They also suffered levels of disease and death much higher than they remembered from ‘home.’

Like the inhabitants of cities under constant threat of catastrophe--for instance, a New Orleans or San Francisco--these people developed a subculture of hedonism to some extent heedless of an uncertain future.

Like the Moguls, Anglo-Indians adopted a culture of reciprocal hospitality and display. “It was,” explains Collingham, “on their tables that the British in India most extravagantly displayed their wealth and status.” (Collingham 112)


Excess would quickly become the norm; as in Ireland, fighting, fucking and feasting filled the leisure hours. ‘Quiz’ looked on as “one of the prettiest girls in Calcutta” consumed two pounds of mutton chops for dinner and wrote that the army followed suit:

“March to barracks where with joy
Their masticators they employ
On curry, rice, and beef and goat
Voraciously they cram each throat.”
(Quoted at Burton 13)

The chaos of a Calcutta dinner party could apply equally to an Anglo-Irish Big House of the same era. In India,

“ ….guests threw chickens across the table, a habit the women joined in with when sufficiently drunk on cherry brandy, although they threw only bread and pastry and thought this ‘the refinement of wit and breeding.’” (Burton 14)

During one dinner in Calcutta a captain in the British army became so incensed by a ‘pellet’ to the face that, “without the least hesitation,” he

“took up a dish that stood before him and contained a leg of mutton, which he discharged at the offender, and with such well-directed aim that it took place upon the head, knocking him off his chair and giving him a severe cut upon the temple.” (Quoted at Burton 14)

The duel that inevitably resulted from the melee maimed the civilian participant for life.

In Ireland, Lord Orrery wrote of an eighteenth century dinner at Cork:

“I have been at a Feast. Paper mills, Thunder and a king’s kitchen are soft Music to the Noises I have heard. Nonsense and wine have flowed in plenty, gigantic Saddles of Mutton and Brobdinghagian [sic] Rumps of Beef weighted down the Table. Bumpers of Claret and Bowls of White Wine were perpetually under my nose…. ” (Somerville-Large 130)

Later in the century, Jonah Barrington experienced something much the same at a hunt party: “ ….[N]ever did any feast commence with more auspicious appearances of hilarity and dissipation.” The host had gotten things started with rounds of ‘cherry bounce’ punch before dinner. (Barrington 42) He described “crowds” of simmering chickens, an ocean of potatoes, cabbage and bacon, deviled poultry, broiled marrowbones and an entire cow on a griddle; diners were encouraged to cut the “fat collops of their choice.” (Barrington 42, 43)


Participants included a fiddler, pipers and ‘the old huntsman,’ who habitually sounded his horn above the din. His blasts were met with shouts and songs from the revelers “in twelve different keys” and the baying of “[t]wo couple of favourite hounds [that] had been introduced to share in the joyous pastime of their friends and master.” (Barrington 43-44; “Ascendancy foodways”)


11. We return to the Raj.

Collingham does not quite dismiss the palates of the early East India Company merchants the way Burton does, but she is unkind and inconsistent about their understanding of Indian foods and the cuisine they created. She contends that although “the British were aware of regional differences in the cooking of the subcontinent,” their

“understanding of regional differences was… rather blunt. They tended to hone in on distinctive, but not necessarily ubiquitous, features of a region’s cookery and then steadfastly apply these characteristics to every curry which came under that heading.

These broad categorisations missed out much [sic] of the subtle variety of dishes within each region and the strong sense among Indians of local, often minute, differences in food.” (Collingham 116, 117)

These sweeping generalizations rely on a very few dubious sources. One of them, Curries and How to Prepare Them by Joseph Edmunds does not appear until 1903. While he does identify only five classes of curry, by then the Anglo-Indians had developed what Collingham also describes as “a coherent repertoire:”

“Curry became not just a term which the British used to describe an unfamiliar set of Indian stews and ragouts, but a dish in its own right, created for the British in India.” (Collingham 118)

This last ‘dish in its own right,’ however, was the precise subject that Edmunds addressed. By the time he wrote Curries and How to Prepare Them the ‘coherent Anglo-Indian repertoire’ was long established; that, rather than indigenous Indian foodways, was what he described. He may not have chosen to address the indigenous foodways but that hardly demonstrates his ignorance of their existence.

Collingham herself demonstrates, if in a pejorative way, that the British in fact comprehended the culinary differences she describes as well as the differences between indigenous and Anglo-Indian foods. She points out that an Anglo-Indian cookbook, The Indian Cookery Book by a Thirty-Five Years’ Resident from 1869 (34 years before Edmunds), includes two versions of a dish variously spelled quarama, quorema, quoorma, kurma and korma.

She states, correctly, that the Anglo-Indian variation on the indigenous dish is “different in substance as well as name” before distorting the distinction between them to denigrate the Raj recipe. (Collingham 116)

According to Collingham, the Anglo-Indian ‘korma’ is “simplified,” “diluted” and spiced with a “generic curry sauce” in place of the more sophisticated indigenous seasonings.


Comparison of the two recipes demonstrates no such things. Each recipe starts with an equal amount of mutton and the British version uses half the amount of yogurt, omits the cream and uses only one fifth the lemon juice of the original, which bathes the dish in a whopping pound of ghee.

The British, reasonably enough, reduced the amount of fat to five ounces, but the difference in the amount of each spice common to the two recipes is negligible. Both of them include cardamom, clove and black pepper but while the indigenous instructions also specify almonds, garlic and saffron, the Raj version omits them in favor of bay, chilies, cinnamon, coriander, ginger and lemongrass.

So the Anglo-Indian korma is lighter, brighter and hotter, but hardly ‘simplified’ or ‘dilute.’ Unlike the original, it is recognizably a curry but that does not render it despicable. Furthermore, a comparison of its selection of spice with other Anglo-Indian formulas for curry powder demonstrates that the curry itself is hardly ‘generic.’

Colonel Kenney-Herbert’s ‘stuff’ for one of his several curries shares the chilies, coriander and ginger but not the other spices for the Collingham kormas while adding cumin, fenugreek, mustard, poppyseed and turmeric. His base curry and the korma by ‘The Thirty-Five Years’ Resident’ therefore would taste pretty far apart.

Kenney-Herbert’s own mutton “quoorma” uses a different mix of seasoning than his base curry and the other kormas; cardamom, clove, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, garlic, lime and a hint of sugar. As the colonel notes, “[t]he total absence of chilli… constitutes, in the opinion of many, its chief attraction.” (Wyvern 318) P-O_Bill_of_Fare001.jpg

The justly famous lamb korma that the Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Line served on the passage to India tastes different still. Its mix of spice consists of bay, cardamom, cayenne, clove, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger and a big dose of garam masala at the finish line. The P&O korma also includes lamb stock and tomato absent from the others. So whereas Collingham infers that the British knew but a single inferior korma, the spicing of these four examples differs along with much else in their preparation.

It also is odd of her to argue that the British were unsophisticated culinary dimwits because they “missed out much of the subtle variety of dishes within each region and the strong sense of Indians of local, often minute differences in food” given her sources for the proposition. (emphasis supplied)

The basis for the critique is the work of two scholars. One of them discusses how Punjabi immigrants to one part of the Punjab believe that the dialect and vegetables there are different from those in another part of the province. The other observes that in 1986 villagers in another region distinguished themselves from those elsewhere by explaining that they eat rice cooked to a different degree of firmness.

It is doubtful that anyone at all anywhere noted these kinds of subtleties and perceptions of minute difference during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some people in some strata of some cultures recognize such miniscule distinctions today but they inhabit a distinct minority concentrated in Brooklyn, Portlandia and similar hipster zones.

Then there is Collingham’s treatment, or excision, of Kenney-Herbert, this most influential of historical writers on Anglo-Indian foodways. It would be difficult for anyone to chronicle the creation of curry without reference to him but Collingham has turned the trick. He gets one mention in the text of Curry, but that involves only his European recipes, even though his books on curry do appear in her bibliography.

Is the omission an oversight or her recognition that the sophisticated curries and other Anglo-Indian dishes from this “Escoffier of the Raj” (Road 87) kill her case that the cuisine of British India is unworthy? Either way it undermines her argument that Raj food was unsophisticated; Kenney-Herbert alone was anything but. His concise, precise description of the process for cooking “most ordinary meat curries” covers some nine pages. “Those made of fresh fish, prawns, and shellfish,” however,

“require a somewhat different process while those of minced cooked meat, tinned or cooked fish, dressed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs merely require to be heated up in a carefully made curry gravy.” (Wyvern 311)

As we have seen, Kenney-Herbert discusses methods for making any number of other Anglo-Indian dishes too.


12. To return to the mechanics of transmission.

If the British in India did develop a recognizable, multifaceted cuisine, where did it come from?

Their willingness to eat indigenous foods does not mean the earlier English in India did not miss their own traditional dishes. They lacked cooking skills, however, and understandably enough their Indian servants had no conception of British foodways. Soup for example was something unknown to India, and in any event Indian kitchens were not designed to prepare them or, for that matter, any number of other traditional English preparations.

The interplay between native cooks and their employers created the distinctive foodways of the Raj. The process went both ways. As Leong-Salobir explains,

“the food practices of the British in Asia constitute a recognizable and legitimate cuisine with distinctive features. Furthermore, this colonial cuisine evolved over time and was not a deliberate act of imposing imperialistic designs but involved a process of combining local and European ingredients and dishes through the efforts of the indigenous servants, under the broad direction of their memsahibs.” (Leong-Salobir 12)


Employers would attempt with only occasional success to describe how something might taste, and cajole their cooks to try unfamiliar techniques. Many of the nabobs, sahibs and even memsahibs, however, did not themselves cook, so these efforts produced novel results. Their acceptance of this unintended innovation therefore stemmed from both necessity and the seasonings coincidentally shared by the earlier British and Indian kitchens.


13. Good things come to an end.

It was too good to last. Things changed after the long eighteenth century, in India as in Britain itself. Trading no longer was enough; the empire put down administrative and territorial roots. More memsahibs arrived as transport improved, first by steamship around the Cape and then in greater numbers via the Suez Canal.

A cult of domesticity, gentility and politeness overtook the British everywhere, spearheaded by women at home and abroad. The cult sat uneasily with the delicious and disreputable days of the old East India Company, which dissolved in 1858 following the Mutiny of 1857 or, depending on your perspective, the first shots in a war for Indian independence. Imperial administrators and their wives consciously distanced their ways from those of the freebooting but tolerant nabobs.

The rebellion itself, coupled with emergent theories of ethnic hierarchy, cast doubt on the wisdom of interaction with indigenous India. It became ever more important to identify as distinctly British and to ‘civilize’ inferior cultures. Racism became a fearsome force.

A religious revival also swept Britain and its possessions. The arrival of clergy in India had baleful effects other than the spread of Christianity. Burton describes Church of England priests as eminently more class conscious than their Dissenting competitors, so Anglican clerics sought to reinforce their superior status over less prosperous Anglo-Indians and the Indians themselves by disdaining ‘native’ food in favor of frequently bad renditions of traditional British fare.

As for the Dissenting clergy, they “were,” according to Burton, “too preoccupied with their work to be unduly bothered by what they ate.” A meal might include moldering bread and last “’not five minutes.’” (Burton 15)

It was a sad culinary coda to an age of experiment, acceptance and innovation. As Colonel Kenney-Herbert wrote toward the end of the nineteenth century, the masters of the Raj had disowned something created by the Raj itself and taken “to copying the culinary triumphs of the lively Gauls,” with, unfortunately, dire effect. (Wyvern 300)

Our Design Editor’s grandfather in India


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Anon., The Indian Cookery Book by a Thirty-Five Years’ Resident (Calcutta 1869)

Sir Jonah Barrington, The Ireland of Sir Jonah Barrington (Hugh Staples, ed.) (Seattle 1967)

David Burnett & Helen Saberi, The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks & Curry Books (Totnes, Devon 2008)

David Burton, The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India (London 1993)

Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A biography (London 2005)

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York 2003)

Ashley Jackson, The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2013)

Cecilia Leong-Salobir, Food Culture in Colonial Asia: A taste of empire (London 2011)

Jo Monroe: Star of India: The Spicy Adventure of Curry (Chichester, West Sussex 2005)

Camellia Panjabi, 50 Great Curries of India (New York 2007)

Blake Perkins, “A note on Ascendancy foodways with a digression on Irish stew and a short detour to Boston,” No. 36 (Spring 2013)

Dr. Robert Riddell, Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book (Madras 1860)

Peter Somerville-Ross, The Irish Country House: A Social History (London 1995)

Darlene Waldrop, A Curried Gaze: The British Ownership of Curry, unpublished M.A. thesis (Athens, GA 2007)

‘Wyvern,’ Culinary Jottings for Madras (Calcutta 1891)