“Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: The British Raj Encore

From LIFE files
British Bungalow (From LIFE files)

In 1859, George Francklin Atkinson, a captain of the Bengal Engineers and a writer of some imagination as well as artistic skill, published “Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: or the Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station” in India. Illustrated with forty drawings, or the “plates” in question, Atkinson’s fictitious account of life in a British colonial enclave proves highly entertaining as well as instructive on a number of levels.

Atkinson drew forty pictures, each “plate” representing various aspects of life in nineteenth-century British India, with brief commentaries surrounding each drawing.

Since our chief interest here lies with the food and the cooking thereof, Atkinson’s arrangement of his forty plates — possibly in order of importance to him — rendered “Our Cook Room”  as number thirty-four (34) out of forty, with other food-related chapters ( 36. “Our Pig-Sticking,” 37. “Our Garden”, and 38. “Our Farm Yard.” Interestingly enough, number 39 is “Our Wedding” …).

As for the Cook Room, Atkinson’s description reveals a lot about the physical set-up, as well as the English mind-set:

Do we, in our exile, have all these things? [Typical orderly English kitchen from back home.] Are our cooks plump, and red-faced, and brawny? Are our kitchens the scenes of spotless purity, and our grates radiant with the gleam of the blazing coal? Are our dishes and our cups ranged with symmetrical exactitude? and is uniformity and precision the characteristic of our culinary arrangements? I trow not — I rather think not.

Look into that Oriental kitchen, if your eyes are not instantly blinded with the smoke, and if your sight can penetrate into the darkness, enter that hovel, and witness the preparation of your dinner. The table and the dresser, you observe, are Mother Earth; …

Observe the kitchen range, I beseech you ;  a mud contraption, with apertures for the reception of charcoal, upon which repose pans of native mould, in which the delicacies are cooked. …

4 thoughts on ““Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: The British Raj Encore

  1. Great post as always, I’ve been reading a lot about curry myself lately, and just read the book “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors”: by Lizzie Collingham which reiterated what you just mentioned.

  2. Good morning! I just recently discovered your site and I wanted to tell you what a joy it is! I’m a food lover and history buff so this is right up my alley. Thank you for sharing your passion with the world! I look forward to perusing all your past articles and wait in anticipation for the new!


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