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Wine & Dine

Why Coronation Curry quit India

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Roast chicken with sausage stuffing

The end of colonial rule in India was also the last serving of Rajera cooking. A hybrid of Indian flavours and British food habits, the cuisine has few takers today in either country. The legacy of Raj cuisine, which includes dishes such as mulligatawny soup, captain country chicken, kedgeree and the ubiquitous curry, inspires less pride than it does nostalgia. It lacked both distinct flavours and 'class', as it were, and even though the curry has outlasted the empire, it never quite got the stamp of pedigree. In fact curry powder is, at least in part, to be held responsible for Raj cuisine's precarious position, believes former journalist and food enthusiast, David Housego. "In today's more flavour-conscious world, the problem with curry powder is that it provides uniformity of taste to whatever it is applied to, " he says. Housego traced the origins of Raj cuisine and explored the possible reasons for its disappearance from restaurants and homes at a recent lecture at the India International Centre in Delhi. The British brought no strong tradition of cooking. They adapted to their taste the use of spices and, soon enough, curries of every type and degree of richness were invented. "By the early 20th century, a taste for exotic curries developed, which reflected the Edwardian love affair with French food and with the period's ostentatious taste, " says Housego. "There was a recipe for Coronation Curry that included red wine, apricot puree and mayonnaise. " Another mishmash is mulligatawny soup, which continues to be widespread. From south India, its name is an anglicised compound of Tamil words: meligu (pepper) and thanni (water). Vindaloo is from Goa and kedgeree was a version of khichdi with fish. Pickles and chutneys were favourites for voyages. Other travel specials included railway mutton or lamb curry and dak bungalow curry. Captain country chicken, Housego guesses, was thought up by a captain in a small boat going up a river in Bengal. Worcester sauce, which Housego calls the "Raj sauce par excellence", has a similarly whimsical but apocryphal origin. "In the 1830s, a governor of Bengal, Lord Sadys, apparently went to a company called Lea and Perrins and asked them to make a sauce following his recipe, " recalls Housego, laughing. "When they made the sauce, it was disgusting. They left it in the barrel for a few months. When they opened it to throw out the sauce, they discovered it was delicious. " Some say that even the sauce's creator, Lord Sadys, was cooked up. On the other hand, curry has no standard recipe despite its popularity. "In the 18th century, English people returning home from India probably got their cooks to mix whatever spices they liked," says Housego. "That's really the essence of curry powder. " Curries "were seen as a way of using leftovers from the previous night's dinner, which could have included a cut or two of roast meat. They were also seen as a means of disguising the poor quality of meat in India," he adds. However, curry has been declared a fraud by eminent food writers and restaurateurs. "There is no such dish as curry," Camellia Panjabi, owner of Indian restaurants Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy's in London, told a British daily. "It is a sauce, not a meal." Chefs like Madhur Jaffrey and Panjabi, says Housego, promoted authentic Indian cooking abroad. In an interview with The Guardian, Panjabi said, "I wanted to introduce proper regional Indian food to the hotels, but was told, 'No one will order them!' I was convinced they would, and put real Indian dishes on the menu rather than meat swamped in curry sauce. " Second helpings Food critic David Housego believes Kolkata has best preserved the legacy of Raj cooking. Rajyasree Sen of Brown Sahib, a Bengali restaurant in Delhi, agrees: "You get it at clubs, old restaurants on Park Street. mulligatawny soup is common. Roasts and stews are common. I know a lot of families do Scotch eggs and devilled eggs are popular across Bengali homes. " Indians also adopted many desserts such as the caramel custard and steamed pudding. At Brown Sahib, which opened in November 2009, colonial items on the menu such as railway mutton curry and bread and butter pudding account for about 40 per cent of the total sales, says Sen. It's all a dash of. . . Another legacy of the colonial era that's endangered is Anglo-Indian cuisine. Though similar, with names such as ox tongue vindaloo, Anglo-Indian masala steak, Anglo-Indian dal dash, duck puli fry (duck in tamarind sauce) and Aunty Eves salt fish pickle, Anglo-Indian cooking is as unique as the names its dishes bear. Trying to salvage this tradition is Anglo-Indian recipe-book writer and blogger Bridget White Kumar. Her family belongs to the Kolar gold fields and is a mix of Dutch, British and Portuguese origins. In 2002, she compiled recipes for her daughter who was moving to London for further studies. When that was a hit with both the daughter and her friends, Kumar considered publishing a recipe book. She put a mammoth manuscript of 500 recipes together, but the lukewarm response from publishers - some rejected it, others offered a "pittance" - was discouraging. She divided the recipes into six books and published them herself with the help of the Anglo-Indian Guild. The first, The Best of Anglo Indian Cuisine - A Legacy, was published in 2004. Kumar dug up old recipes and tried them. "Old recipes don't have proper quantities, " she says. "It's all a 'dash of this', a 'pinch of that' and a 'handful of something else'. I tried them, put in proper quantities, and made it easy for people to follow. "
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