Supping in British India

Viceroy's Lodge, Simla, 1903
Viceroy's Lodge, Simla, 1903

As the wife of the eighth viceroy-to-India, and like many privileged women of her day, Harriet Georgina Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin & Ava, worked hard for the social good. She created the Dufferin Fund (The Countess of Dufferin’s Fund for Supplying Medical Aid to the Women of India), which provided medical care to Indian women, assisted in the building of hospitals, and encouraged Indian women to study medicine.

Lady Harriet Georgina Blackwood of Dufferin and Ava
Lady Harriet Georgina Blackwood of Dufferin and Ava

Traveling in India, whether from place to place as the Viceroy’s wife, or as the  lowly wife of a civil servant, entailed a certain degree of hardship. Harriet Georgina Blackwood wrote a journal about her experiences, covering the period of 1884-1888. Her comments about food, menus, dinners, etc., provide ample evidence that women of her social class and station did not sully the burners of a stove.

Here is the Marchioness of Dufferin’s schedule, in her own words:

Hindustani.—Lessons four times a week. Preparation every day.

Correspondence.—Days devoted to Lady Doctors. Intermittent attacks of private letter writing, with four hours of it uninterruptedly on Fridays.

Entertainments.—” At home ” every Tuesday morning. Dinners and dances or music every Wednesday fortnight.

Outdoor Dissipation.—A Monday Pop, and on Saturdays a “variety entertainment” when wet, which becomes a gymkhana when fine. Occasional charity concerts.

Exercise.—A walk in a deluge, wetting one through in three minutes, and penetrating the best umbrella. Riding mule or pony, and driving in a jinrickshaw, jhampan or carriage.

Evening.—The young ones play ninepins, and D. and I read.

And here’s what the Marchioness herself says about another common experience of the times:

This was our first experience of stopping in dak bungalows; and as we wanted to make the change from home as great as possible, we brought no provisions with us, and resolved to leave everything to the man in charge of the bungalow. I don’t know whether you understand what a dak bungalow is. It is a house kept up by the Government for travellers. The only furniture in it consists of chairs, tables, and bedsteads, and the traveller pays one rupee a day for the use of these. The food provided by the man in charge is paid for separately, but it is not necessary to consider ‘ the good of the house,’ and people often bring their own provisions with them. Every one has a right to spend twenty-four hours in a dak bungalow, but at the end of that time he must turn out if it is wanted for new arrivals. Should the house be quite full, it is ordained in the rules that half of it should be given to ladies ; and travellers who are absolute strangers often have to double up together.

… and as for the food, the most important part?

Tea with Ladfy Dufferin
Tea with Lady Dufferin

Perhaps you would like to know what we have for dinner in a dak bungalow, and as each day’s bill of fare is much the same as the last, it is very easy to tell you. Indeed, I may as well begin with breakfast, which is as substantial as all our other metals. Mutton-chops, chicken-cutlets, omelette, and chupatties are what we begin the day on ; these support us till lunch-time, when the mutton of the day before becomes lamb, and is eaten with mint-sauce; cold chicken also graces the tablecloth round which we sit on the ground, and biscuits and very good butter finish the meal nicely. Dinner is a very solid one. First there is soup, and then follow a joint of mutton, curry, roast chickens or pheasants, and pudding. We have tried hard to see wherein lies the roughing it, and can only discover that we have to do without champagne and without cheese, and that for three days out of the five we have had no coffee after dinner. What destitution !

Gad, all that mutton. But it makes sense, at least in England, where wool became a major trade commodity in medieval and Renaissance times. Someone surely need to invent recipes to use up all the meat.

The thing is, in British India, what about the cooks? Who were they? Or were they just invisible, not even meriting a line or two in all those Victorian diaries?

(All quoted text from Our Viceregal Life in India: Selections from My Journal, 1884-1888, by Harriet Georgina Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin & Ava, 1891.)

For more specifically on food in colonial outposts, see my post with an extensive (and selected) bibliography on the subject.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


7 thoughts on “Supping in British India

  1. Great post, Cynthia. The dak bunglow part takes the cake. Interestingly, a famous chain restaurant in Kolkata (Calcutta) actually has a dish called “Mutton dak bunglow” on its menu. It’s goat meat, and the dish tastes delicious. I speak from first-hand experience.


  2. Brennan’s book is a fascinating one and I find some of her references great for further reading. Isn’t it interesting how attitudes change, that speaking of people like some of those women (and men) did is so unacceptable today? As it should be!


  3. I have “Curries and Bugles” as well and if I remember correctly, Brennan does include descriptions of some of the Indian cooks the memsahibs employed – since they were written by the ladies, they are really not all that charitable (not surprising, I suppose). I do love Brennan’s story about having black-fingerprint-covered hard-boiled eggs for lunch :-)

    I love this series of posts, what a fascinating period in history!

    . . . and I’m with you on the mutton – blech!


  4. I agree about mutton and lamb. My understanding is that this is still the case – ‘mutton’ as a generic term, beginning in the colonial era, but I’m sure Ammini would know more about this!


  5. I loathe mutton, of the sheep variety. On the other hand, goat I can take with enough curry or other spice — we ate a fair amount of goat in West Africa and Haiti. Today the word “mutton” refers to both sheep and goat meat (no separating the two … ?), but was that as true in the past, as these quotes come from 1891?


  6. Nice post, Cynthia. As for mutton, in India the term can mean either lamb or goat and so these kinds of descriptions – and recipes calling for mutton – can be very confusing!

    This is certainly an enormous amount of food for one day! Especially if the women were wearing corsets (which probably would be the case). ;)


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