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  • “The Sublime Art of Curry-Making”: Culinary Trends in British India
  • David Smith (bio)

By the time Colonel Arthur Kenney-Herbert wrote his bestselling book Culinary Jottings for Madras (1878), no self-respecting British memsahib would have dreamt of serving curry at a dinner party. The British rulers of India might have eaten curry for lunch or a quiet little dinner at home, men might have enjoyed curries at their club, but Indian food was nowhere to be seen at formal occasions. Things were very different a century earlier, in the days of the East India Company. A young Englishman by the name of John Grose travelled out to India in 1750 and later wrote about his experiences. In Grose’s time, the company’s employees were mostly eating the local food. He writes:

So much however is certainly true, that most of the Europeans soon reconcile themselves to the country-diet, and many at length prefer it to their own, even in point of taste or relish, independent of its being undoubtedly more wholesome, and more adapted to the climate. . . .


The diet of the British in India changed over time. European dishes started to appear on their dinner tables, and Indian food began to fall out of favour. Dr. Robert Riddell, the superintending surgeon for the Nizam of Hyderabad’s army, wrote his Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book in 1849. The book shows that, although the British were still enjoying Indian dishes at that time, European dishes had already gained dominance. Of the twenty-three chapters of recipes, only one focuses on what Riddell calls “oriental cookery,” although the book does contain an extensive selection of recipes for Indian food. There are forty-four recipes for curries, together with recipes for pilau, biryani, kebabs, and a dish called “ash,” which is made with meat, pulses, vegetables, fruit, sugar, milk, and spices.

Although Riddell includes many Indian recipes in his book, it is clear that the British were already anglicizing traditional dishes. When describing some of the ingredients used by Indian cooks, he explains:

Most of these would be disagreeable to a European palate, and are therefore omitted, though found in the receipts; and which, if copied, a literal translation would require. One or two are given, more as a curiosity than supposing they will ever be tried, however piquant they may be to an Asiatic palate.


Riddell was writing primarily for readers who were living in towns and cantonments and who were in a position to enjoy formal dinners. However, [End Page 196] curry was still the staple diet of soldiers in camp and officials in remote outposts. George Atkinson, a captain in the Bengal Engineers, wrote a satirical book titled “Curry & Rice,” on Forty Plates (1859?) in which the “forty plates” are anecdotes about different aspects of life at a typical station. In a chapter titled “Our Agriculturists,” he describes preparations for a meal:

Then are the table attendants actively alert; the sacrifice of the chicken has been accomplished; the savoury condiments for our Curry have been amalgamated, and are seething in the pot; the everlasting omelette is about to be cooked, and the unfermented cakes [chapattis] prepared.

Kenney-Herbert had arrived in India in 1859 as a young cadet and spent his early career in camp and at small stations similar to Atkinson’s. As his military career progressed, he was posted to Madras and his social life, like Riddell’s, began to encompass formal meals and regimental banquets. When he retired to England in 1892, he wrote an article for Macmillan’s Magazine about his life in India. He describes a burra khana, or big feast, held by a colonel at his bungalow on a military cantonment. There were numerous courses to the feast, including one of eight different types of boiled and roasted meats, but the meal also included a course of various curries accompanied by chutneys and pickles (“In the Days of John Company” 119, 123).

The burra khana would have been held when Kenney-Herbert was a junior officer, sometime in the 1860s. At that time, the curry course clearly had not been abandoned on formal occasions. Almost...


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pp. 196-200
Launched on MUSE
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