The Nabob's Table
In keeping with the culinary theme on History Hoydens this past month, it only seemed fitting to tackle yet another historical kitchen, and the kitchen in which I’ve been spending the most time recently (certainly far more than in my own), is that of the Englishman abroad in India at the turn of the eighteenth century.
In his book White Moghuls, William Dalrymple reports that the food served at the English Residency in Hyderabad was essentially a replica of what one might find back home in England, listing “plum cakes, a goose, a turkey, and ducks innumerable besides fowl and mutton”. And that was just for one meal! Likewise, when a British lady named Maria Graham traveled across India in 1809, her review of the foodstuffs to be found in Bombay reflects her diet at home: butter (excellent), beef (tolerably good), mutton (lean and hard), poultry (good and abundant). Graham was impressed by the bread to be found in India—“the best I ever tasted, both for whiteness and lightness; the last quality it owes to being fermented with coconut toddy”—but found the cheese “hard and ill-flavored”.
Maria Graham’s market list does, however, reflect some items one wouldn’t find at home. After going through the basics of bread, beef and butter, she mentions “bumbelo… like a large sand eel; it is dried in the sun and is usually eaten at breakfast with kedgeree, a dish of rice boiled with dol (split country peas), and colored with tumeric”. On a visit to the zenana of a local dignitary, Graham sampled “sweetmeants made of ghee, poppy seeds, and sugar; some of them were tolerably good, but it required all my good manners to swallow others”. Other Europeans abroad were also experimenting with the local dishes. One Frenchman in India sent home rave reviews of biryani, “rice boiled with quantities of butter and fowl and kids, with all sorts of spicery… which refreshed us greatly”. James Kirkpatrick, the Resident of Hyderabad, preferred Indian cuisine for his own table, expressing a particular fondness for a Hyderabadi dish made of aubergines. Maria Graham also commented on the aubergines or brinjaal, writing in her diary from the outskirts of Bombay, “I saw last night at least two acres covered with brinjaal… the fruit is as large as a baking pear and is excellent either stewed or broiled; the natives eat it plain boiled or made into a curry.” Even among the more resolutely insular residents of the British residency at Hyderabad, one finds mention of fowls being boiled down for mulligatawny soup and references to “tiffin”, a South India term referring to a light lunch. The word has since percolated into general English usage as a synonym for snack, a development that my dictionary places circa 1800, exactly this period.
Nearly as telling as what they ate was what they didn’t eat. Graham comments that “cabbage, carrots, and turnips, from European seed, are still scarce”. In Hyderabad, the Resident, who seems to have been dining largely on aubergines, sent to Calcutta for seeds to plant peas, French beans (clearly a favorite at home, as Graham also mentions their absence), lettuce, endive, celery, and cauliflower. Most surprising of all was the absence of the potato from local cookery until this period. James Kirkpatrick wrote to a friend, mourning, “I have not tasted [potato] for these two years or more.” That, however, was changing. Maria Graham wrote from Bombay a few years later that “twenty years ago, the potato was scarcely known in India, but it is now produced in such abundance that the natives in some places make considerable use of it.”
It makes an interesting cross-cultural exchange, doesn’t it? Mulligatawny and kedgeree, now British staples, in exchange for the potato. I’m still looking around for a period aubergine recipe, equivalent to the one my characters in Hyderabad my have eaten, so if I find one (and can make it work as well as Kalen’s culinary experiments), I’ll let you all know….
I can't resist adding one additional random fun fact--although my post is more about the British diet in India, Indian cooking had also made its way to Britain. In 1807, the first ever Indian restaurant opened in London. Called the Hindostanee Coffee House, it became the watering hole of choice for old India hands.