Cooking for the British Raj: The Englishwoman’s Dilemma


The British Raj, not just restricted to India but also to parts of East Africa, embodied the male-dominant culture of the times. Just watch the snippet of the film “Out of Africa,” when Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen walks into the men-only club bar in Nairobi …

That film told a story that repeated itself all through the British Empire — wives were needed and women really were the pillars of the Empire.

Some young women went out to India without having a sure marriage at the other end — the “fishing fleet” as they were called; they stayed with relatives and during the “Season” presented themselves for inspection by the myriad young Englishmen eager to marry.

Once married, what books might these young middle-class (mostly) Englishwomen have turned to in their often isolated circumstances, settled into remote stations thanks to their husbands’ jobs and positions?

British Raj Emma RobertsAlthough revered cookbook author Hannah Glasse included a recipe for curry in her The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), it took Emma Roberts to really incorporate a number of recipes for curries and other Indian dishes into the British diet.  Roberts — an old India hand who died in 1840 before The Mutiny (of 1857 – 1858) — edited the 64th edition of Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery (by a Lady), published in 1841 after Robert’s death. An author in her own right (Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan with Sketches of Anglo-Indian Society, 1835), Roberts spiffed up Rundell’s book with a chapter devoted to “Oriental Cookery,” but —  caving into the blander English palate — she says:

The author has in her possession a book of receipts translated from the original Persian, written out expressly for her use by the khansamah of the late King of Oude, but not being suited to an English table, they do not appear. [!]

The dilemma? Knowing how to cook, at least a little, but not cooking because of the need for servants in a strange land, servants who did everything, leaving the memsahibs with naught to do but apparent frivolity.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


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