Victorians Enjoying Indian Food

One of the most entertaining Victorian cookbooks I’ve read so far is called “Culinary Jottings: A Treatise in Thirty Chapters on Reformed Cookery for Anglo-Indian Exiles, Based Upon Modern English, and Continental Principles, with Thirty Menus for Little Dinners Worked Out in Detail, and an Essay on Our Kitchens in India.

This fun book was first published in 1878 and written by Col. Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert under the pen-name Wyvern. You can find the book online here:

The Colonel arrived in India in 1859, when the ‘old ways’ of the British East India Company still held sway. In the days of the Company, the Anglo-Indians, or British-born people who had made India their home, adopted many Indian customs including eating mostly Indian food. He fondly remembered a “kind-hearted old veteran” who would “give ‘tiffin’ parties at which he prided himself on sending round eight or nine varieties of curries, with divers platters of freshly-made chutneys, grilled ham, preserved roes of fishes, &c.”

He goes on to add, “[t]he discussion of the “course”—a little banquet in itself—used to occupy at least half an hour, for it was the correct thing to taste each curry, and to call for those that specially gratified you a second time.”

But it seems that this mingling of customs ended when India became part of the British Empire. By 1878 when the Colonel wrote his book, Britons and Indians existed in strictly separate spheres, with the British people striving to live in every way as if they were still in England. Britons in India might well enjoy curries for breakfast or luncheon at home, but formal dinners had to feature English- or French-style dishes.

As a result, the Colonel lamented, cooks had lost their understanding of how to make a good curry using fresh spices and pastes and ended up relying upon packaged spice mixes that made the finished dish a lackluster affair. He strongly advocates the use of fresh and local ingredients for all dishes, instead of imported foods out of tins. His explanations are fun to read, despite some cringe-worthy comments about the typical Indian cook, whom he calls Ramasamy.

However, leaving that part aside, the Colonel does give some excellent recipes for curry and for Mulligatunny, which he says comes from the words molegoo (pepper) and tunnee (water).

Unlike other recipes that I’ve seen for Mulligatawny, his recipe involves a paste of chilis, garlic, mustard seed, peppercorns and fenugreek, together with leaves of karay-pauk (curry-leaves), added to water and brought to a boil. Onions are sauteed onions and added to the broth, which is then served over rice.

If you enjoy cookbooks from history, then (with the proviso mentioned above) this is definitely a book for you!


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