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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 July 2008

The Nabob's Table

In keeping with the culinary theme on History Hoydens this past month, it only seemed fitting to tackle yet another historical kitchen, and the kitchen in which I’ve been spending the most time recently (certainly far more than in my own), is that of the Englishman abroad in India at the turn of the eighteenth century.

In his book White Moghuls, William Dalrymple reports that the food served at the English Residency in Hyderabad was essentially a replica of what one might find back home in England, listing “plum cakes, a goose, a turkey, and ducks innumerable besides fowl and mutton”. And that was just for one meal! Likewise, when a British lady named Maria Graham traveled across India in 1809, her review of the foodstuffs to be found in Bombay reflects her diet at home: butter (excellent), beef (tolerably good), mutton (lean and hard), poultry (good and abundant). Graham was impressed by the bread to be found in India—“the best I ever tasted, both for whiteness and lightness; the last quality it owes to being fermented with coconut toddy”—but found the cheese “hard and ill-flavored”.

Maria Graham’s market list does, however, reflect some items one wouldn’t find at home. After going through the basics of bread, beef and butter, she mentions “bumbelo… like a large sand eel; it is dried in the sun and is usually eaten at breakfast with kedgeree, a dish of rice boiled with dol (split country peas), and colored with tumeric”. On a visit to the zenana of a local dignitary, Graham sampled “sweetmeants made of ghee, poppy seeds, and sugar; some of them were tolerably good, but it required all my good manners to swallow others”. Other Europeans abroad were also experimenting with the local dishes. One Frenchman in India sent home rave reviews of biryani, “rice boiled with quantities of butter and fowl and kids, with all sorts of spicery… which refreshed us greatly”. James Kirkpatrick, the Resident of Hyderabad, preferred Indian cuisine for his own table, expressing a particular fondness for a Hyderabadi dish made of aubergines. Maria Graham also commented on the aubergines or brinjaal, writing in her diary from the outskirts of Bombay, “I saw last night at least two acres covered with brinjaal… the fruit is as large as a baking pear and is excellent either stewed or broiled; the natives eat it plain boiled or made into a curry.” Even among the more resolutely insular residents of the British residency at Hyderabad, one finds mention of fowls being boiled down for mulligatawny soup and references to “tiffin”, a South India term referring to a light lunch. The word has since percolated into general English usage as a synonym for snack, a development that my dictionary places circa 1800, exactly this period.

Nearly as telling as what they ate was what they didn’t eat. Graham comments that “cabbage, carrots, and turnips, from European seed, are still scarce”. In Hyderabad, the Resident, who seems to have been dining largely on aubergines, sent to Calcutta for seeds to plant peas, French beans (clearly a favorite at home, as Graham also mentions their absence), lettuce, endive, celery, and cauliflower. Most surprising of all was the absence of the potato from local cookery until this period. James Kirkpatrick wrote to a friend, mourning, “I have not tasted [potato] for these two years or more.” That, however, was changing. Maria Graham wrote from Bombay a few years later that “twenty years ago, the potato was scarcely known in India, but it is now produced in such abundance that the natives in some places make considerable use of it.”

It makes an interesting cross-cultural exchange, doesn’t it? Mulligatawny and kedgeree, now British staples, in exchange for the potato. I’m still looking around for a period aubergine recipe, equivalent to the one my characters in Hyderabad my have eaten, so if I find one (and can make it work as well as Kalen’s culinary experiments), I’ll let you all know….

I can't resist adding one additional random fun fact--although my post is more about the British diet in India, Indian cooking had also made its way to Britain. In 1807, the first ever Indian restaurant opened in London. Called the Hindostanee Coffee House, it became the watering hole of choice for old India hands.

11 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Ah Lauren, and I was just deciding to have Indian food for lunch today. Now I'm really hungry! Wonderful post and an interesting counterpart to the other food posts I've read at the Hoydens.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fascinating, Lauren!! I recall that when I was researching TOO GREAT A LADY, "tiffin" was in use not only to refer to afternoon tea or a snack, but also euphemistically for what we might call an "afternoon delight." The erudite debaucher (in his married days) Sir William Hamilton, spinning the euphemism even further for those in the know, referred to Emma as "the fair tea maker of Edgware Road" (At the time, Emma was installed as the mistress of his nephew Charles Greville, in a modest cottage at that location.)

8:55 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

How fascinating, Amanda! There was a whole mystique of Eastern exoticism and eroticism in vogue at the time and I wonder if that had something to do with that dual meaning for "tiffin", using a term they perceived as oriental to signify forbidden sensual pleasures?

9:05 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Very cool! I love food stuff like this. It's such wonderful stuff to sprinkle into a book (esp the bit about coffee house).

9:08 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I, too, wonder, what the origin of the euphemism was. You may have hit it. Some months ago on TCM I watched "White Cargo," a positively awful 1942 film where Hedy Lamarr played the native love interest (it took place on an African plantation run by Brits, and she was supposed to seduce the hero). Her character name: Tondelayo, but she tells the leading man that he should do as the others do and call her "Tiffin."

9:14 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Kalen, I know! I'd love to have a character visit the Hindostanee Coffee House one of these days-- I find it so intriguing that at the same time that our heroines are dancing at Almack's and eating ices at Gunter's, you have gentlemen partaking of curries and smoking their hookahs at the Hindostanee Coffee House (there was a special hookah room).

The life of the proprietor is even more interesting. An Indian gentleman, he traveled to Ireland, where he eloped with a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Jane Daly. Despite the elopement, he seems to have been accepted into the ranks of the Anglo-Irish gentry-- when he published his "Travels" in 1794, a large number of Irish gentry subscribed to the publication. Growing bored with the life of an Irish gentleman, he moved to London, where he opened his coffee house, but wanderlust seized again, and he moved to Brighton, where he opened what William Dalrymple describes as "Britain's first Oriental massage parlor". He finally wound up with the title "Shampooing Surgeon" to Kings George IV and William IV.

Amazing, no?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

One of the things I really loved about reading WHITE MUGHALS was finding out that Anglo-Indians were mostly accepted into society before the Regency period (not to mention finding out all the people who are descendants of those mixed race immigrants).

11:06 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Lauren! I so want to work the Hindostanee Coffee House into a book now. Do you know how long it stayed open? (Years, not hours of operation).

5:03 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, Tracy! I haven't looked into how long it stayed open, but I do know that it was open at least as late as 1811, since there were advertisements for it in the papers that year. What I also wonder (but haven't checked out) was whether it remained a one-off or whether there were imitators.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lauren,
I don't know if you have seen
Margaret MacMillan's Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India. Very interesting info.

10:33 AM  

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