Cooks of the British Raj: In the Shadows of the Cantonments

D'Angelis Tea Garden, Madras, 1906
D’Angelis Tea Garden, Madras, 1906

Moonlight, shadows, and frangipani fluttering  in air rich with the smell of curry — many people today might harbor such images of India trending toward those seen David Lean’s film, “A Passage to India,” based on E. M. Forster’s novel of the same name.

And yet, to anyone who’s spent time on the ground in certain countries around the globe, an untold backstory surges against the gorgeous scenery, the nights filled with starry skies, the nattering of songbirds in the morning, and the kaleidoscope of colors in the flower gardens.

And the English women who acted as pillars of the British Raj found themselves in a backstory like no other in history.

Women at a Party in Mumbai, 1910
Women at a Party in Mumbai, 1910

To survive the transition between the known world and the unknown, these women who sailed out to India after marrying men stationed there with British Raj soon found that they yearned for books like Chota Mem’s [Mrs. C. Lang] The English Bride in India (1909, second edition). And they needed them. Badly. Desperately.

The cantonments, military outposts, filled up with young, inexperienced, wives, without knowledgeable mothers nearby, desperate for some guidance in the affairs of the household. Especially households teetering on the edge of what they considered civilization. Which the cantonments often were.

And there everything changed for these women.

For one thing, India’s caste system decreed that each British household required many servants, that one or two not just would do, because of the restrictions of caste. In the words of Margaret MacMillian in Women of the Raj, “Brahmins generally did not act as cooks because so much European food would have been polluting to them.”

Old Bungalow of the British Raj (Photo credit: Sugas Dutta)
Old Bungalow of the British Raj (Photo credit: Sugas Dutta)

Here’s what Mrs. Lang, speaking in the authoritative voice of Chota Mem (Junior Memsahib), has to say about cooks:

As a rule, Indian cooks are excellent, and you will be surprised what nice dishes they make out of a little, and my first cook, although expensive, cooked beautifully, and it was extraordinary the few kitchen utensils he managed with. He used a bottle for a rolling pin and two pieces of wire for an egg wisk, etc.

It is best when you engage your cook to let him go to the bazaar, and get what utensils he wants, and you will laugh when you see his purchases of spoons made out of cocoanut shells, a very rough looking chopper, and one or two knives, etc.

Believe me it is no use providing them with the good things you would give an English cook, so it is best to let them cook in their own way, provided they are clean.

As to cooking pots, aluminum are best, and for many years I used a large-size camping set (13 pieces) and three other large degchies [pots]. The camp set is very useful for moves, as every piece fits into each other, and takes up so little room. The cook will want in the cook-house, one, and if room, two nice tables, and a meatsafe with lock and key, these you hire with your furniture.

In the tradition of the nineteenth century — which included teaching immigrant and poor women the newest scientific ways of cooking both in the U.S. and in Britain, the ensuing scores of household-advice books even aided women in the far-flung corners of an imperial empire, in the cantonments of the Raj.

And such is the power  of the written word.

Many experts believe that cookbooks do not necessarily reflect what people actually eat and how they behave in the kitchen, but, let me assure you, in the case of these English women and others of us who’ve raised children and cooked in lands far from home, such advice books took the place of absent mothers who would have been just as clueless in the desert or the jungle.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you, Merril, always good to hear from you.

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  2. merrildsmith says:

    Interesting post, Cindy.

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  3. Yo creo que la cuenta de su vida seria muy interesante, tambien. Si, me gustaria mucho leer el comienzo de la historia de su bisabuelo. Gracias por ofrecerla!

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  4. Cynthia, he leido su impresionante Resumee, que linda e interesante vida la suya, ademas domina el español y otros idiomas, realmente la admiro, como siempre he admirado a otras personas que son brillantes y con experiencia en la vida.. yo tambien he vivido lo mio, pero nunca tan interesante y a tan alto nivel como sus experiencias y trabajos publicados!!!
    en cuanto a su pegunta … si he pensado en escribir un libro sobre mi bisabuelo. tengo un comienzo , guardado en google documents, pero no es gran cosa…. si ud lo quiere ver , necesitaria su e mail para enviarselo.
    Sinceramente le agradesco se haya tomado la molestia de escribirme una palabras, a este Modesto Vendedor, Retirado….
    La saludo Cordialmente y atentamente.
    Jefferis Evans D’Angelis

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  5. Jefferis,

    Gracias por escribirme. Piensa usted de escribir un libro o, por lo menos, un ensayo con cuentos históricos de su familia en la India?

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  6. Thank’s for the photo, the parisian garden, Hotel D’Angelis, Madras, you have a good blog, thank’s for mention hotel d’angelis, I am the Great Grand Son, of mr Giacomo D’Angelis, the owner of the hotel D’Angelis in Madras, and the hotel Silk’s in Ootacamund, in early’s 1900…
    forgivme my bad english…
    my regards , and GOD BLES YOU.-

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  7. dianabuja says:

    Yes, it is less recorded in East Africa. East Afarica – it’s just not the Raj!

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  8. Yes, I mentioned some of those things in my previous posts on British colonialism in East Africa. The amount of writing and recording information about the experience seems to be less in the case of the African colonialists, doesn’t it?

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  9. dianabuja says:

    British settlers in kenya brought many of the accouterments of the Raj, including ‘memsahb’ for any white woman, ‘syce’ for an african looking after horses, etc… also some of the cooking methods.

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