A Chronology of Cooks, in the British Raj

Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks.
~~Sara Suleri, Meatless Days

British Raj Merchant's HomeIn The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks & Curry Books, authors David Burnett and Helen Saberi discuss a number of cookery book authors (mostly English and mostly nineteenth century) writing on the subject of curry and Indian cooking. One of the authors, Dr. R. Flower Riddell, served as an adviser to the Nizam of Hyderabad and wrote Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book.  He also produced an excellent text titled Manual of Gardening for Western India.

Like many of the other rather paternalistic recorders of the times, Dr. Riddell took a somewhat prejudiced approach to Indian servants, saying the following about the cooks:

The Cook is usually a Native Christian of the lowest caste of Hindoos from Madras or the Coast; sometimes they are Mussulmen, but seldom in any proportion to the former. The bearers are a hard-working and very trusty class of people: you may leave articles of any value with them with perfect safety, only making it over to their charge, whether Hindoos or Mussulmen; indeed, this may be said to be the case with most classes of native servants who are well treated; and if a fair estimate and allowance is made, it will generally be found that there is more reason to praise than complain of them. Entrust money, jewels, clothes, &c., in fact, any thing to their charge, and you will find them usually faithful. They will for years treasure up the smallest rags for you, though now and then you will see them appropriating articles, they have thought forgotten by their masters (from their never having been asked for), and if they can profit in any way from their intermedium in purchasing for you, you will find they will generally cheat you in over demands in some slight way or other.  […]

Their principal vice, besides what I have already given, is an intolerable habit of lying. In the way of tea, sugar, bread, milk, paper and such like articles, they will frequently, like European servants, appropriate a little for themselves.

The Cook may attend the market early of a morning and purchase the supplies for the day ; but here it is essentially necessary, to prevent disappointment as well as to insure comfort, that the necessary orders for all that is required be given over night, as after seven or eight o’clock, nothing .but the refuse of meat, &c., is procurable: this duty, though coming mote immediately under the province of the head servant, may, where economy is the object, be, as has been stated, intrusted [sic] to the Cook or a Khansumar.

One interesting aspect of hiring cooks lay in whether or not they were Christians, for in general British memsahibs preferred to hire non-Christians. Why? As David Burton says in The Raj at Table,  “It was claimed that Christian converts, having been disowned by their relatives and thus cut off from traditional caste restraints and social ties, turned to dishonesty and alcohol. … but on a purely pragmatic level, there may well have been truth in the assertion that a Christian khansamah (cook) might well be boycotted in the bazaar and that the family food supply would suffer as a result.”

Confronting the words of people living long ago ought to cause us to examine our own words and attitudes, should they not? For the intricacies of eating, feeding, and cooking daily reveal angles and aspects touching on the deepest of human emotions, don’t they?

British Raj Beef CurryOne of Dr. Riddell’s recipes:


Meat, – – – . 1/2 Seer
Ghee, – – – – 6 Tolahs
Dhye, [curdled milk]- – – -6     “
Onions, – – . 5   “
Green ginger 5   “
Garlic           5   “
Salt              5  “
Turmeric 5   “
Dhunnia [coriander]   ½    “
Dried chillies ½    “
Green do.     ½    “

Some leaves of kotemear and the 1uice of one lime. 1Mathee bajee and fennel, a bundle of each, picked and cleaned.

Brown half of the onions in ghee ; having pounded the turmeric, mix it with the onions ; grind the green ginger, garlic, dhunnia, and dried chillies; mix them with the turmeric and onions, and then put in the meat and dhye with a little water ; let it simmer for a quarter of an hour, and keep stirring the mixture with the meat till it becomes brown ; then cut the remaining onions into thin slices, and mix it with the greens, and put them in the saucepan with the curry and simmer till done ; then take it off the fire, and squeeze in the juice of a lime.

[Quoted text from Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, 1849, by Dr. R. Flower Riddell. We will examine the recipe terminology at a little later date.]

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “A Chronology of Cooks, in the British Raj

  1. It is interesting to note that the British rule in India made such significant culinary contributions and changes to the food and eating habits of both the countries.

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