An Ode to Sir “Brown Sahib”…

The Last Holiday; Chef Didier and Georgia Byrd

Sometime back I watched a movie called ‘The Last Holiday’ at a fellow foodie,younger brother and buddy Sid Khullar’s welcome abode.There is a dialogue in the film where the protagonist Georgia (Queen Latifah) and renowned Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) take a walk through the local food market and Chef whispers to her, “You and I know the secret of life…Butter!” Ahem, I say both Sid and I look at each other and we smile Since then, every time I have thought about the movie, I know I have smiled.  

I have watched films around or about food earlier, but this one was subtle and had its essence speak for itself. And was I not smitten! Don’t I go haywire while talking food? Well, let me get back to track. As far as this piece is concerned, it is about a cuisine I love (though it is difficult to imagine any cuisine that I may not be fond of)-Anglo Indian food. Although the name itself is self explanatory, yet there are fables behind it. I say fables because they are fable-ish.

In Delhi, sometimes I miss that old world charm. That relaxed pace of Tollygunj club in Kolkata or an old tea garden bungalow of Assam; a life that would revolve around sweet sunrays of winters and gently flowing rivulets of summers. And to discover somebody who could talk about all of that, and enjoy food the way I do in Delhi, is a sheer pleasure. I stumble upon “Brown Sahib”. My first impression-what a name! I am compelled to compare our Brown sahib with another sahib I knew-Massey Sahib. For people who are not too (shau)keen about cinema, it is a film released in mid 1980’s where Raghuvir Yadav plays the part of this ambitious young man-Francis Massey whose wit and intelligence do not support his ambition. He is enamoured by anything British and dresses up and acts like an English bureaucrat.

If only Massey Sahib knew how to cook and eat like the British, probably he’d have been a part of that conglomeration of people who developed since the Raj what we today call Anglo Indian food. The cuisine is a result of inter mingling and inter marriages between various European races and Indians; the community which was later termed as Anglo-Indian. Primarily of Indian and British ancestry, the taste buds of this community clearly have been influenced by both the European and Indian genes. The result was the development of an unopposed cuisine which would grow to be a highly relished one in centuries to come.

Brown Sahib Interiors

As I enter Brown Sahib in Saket, Delhi, I saw happy, non egotistic yet confident faces. I liked the essence of warmth; and most importantly the essence of space. The interior was spacious, subtle and had an old world charm. One of the attendants leads me to a table of my choice. I was soon to be joined by Rajyashree, the lady behind the restaurant which serves Anglo-Indian and Bengali cuisine. There was an instant connect .Needless to say, we started chatting about Kolkata and its food culture. I wasn’t a bit surprised to know that her passion for various cuisines had started right in her childhood with her family being extremely outgoing about trying different cuisines.

Before we start discussing and dissecting food, let me tell all of you that, this post primarily has an Anglo Indian flavour. Some of the dishes that I tried had French a influence, since parts of Bengal also had French presence. Pure Bengali cuisine will feature sometime later when I trail through Bengali culture and food which I love separately; I will not be able to do justice to the earthy cuisine of Bengal in this post.

Ah! There comes the first wing of our lunch; the Mulligatawny Soup. That’s what gets invented when an English man wants to have some decent soup and all he gets in South India is Rassam! The term in itself is of Tamil origin and can be traced back to millagu or pepper and thanni meaning water. Those who have never tasted the soup, it is a thick soup with small chunks of meat, rice and vegetables. Clearly it looks like a soupy version of the Indian curry. By the way, we need to find a way to serve this soup piping hot.

Stuffed Crab

The soup is followed by stuffed crumbed crabs. Scrumptious is all I can say. The flavour of the crab meat was infused in the stuffing, yet it wasn’t overwhelming the dish. The smooth graininess (the length to which we go to describe indescribable tastes!) was homogenous, as it should be, and I was delighted with the dish. Period.

In his Natural History, Aristotle has mentioned geese and chicken rearing, but not ducks. In Europe, the first mention of duck rearing in any written document came in 37 BC, Roman Empire. According to author Waverly Root (Food),“Had ducks been domesticated in England by Elizabethan times? They were cheap enough to make that seem likely-six pence for a large bird.”

Keeping history aside, Europe still came up with fantastic duck recipes, though later then the Asians (China, 2500 BC). One of those is Duck à l’orange. Rajyashree serves me the same teasing my taste buds systematically. French origin; and as the cuisine is known for its emphasis on technique, I am too looking for the technique in this dish. Needless to say, taste is the priority. It is a roast duck served with orange sauce; it is important that the duck is young and tender. Brown Sahib’s Duck à l’orange was nice, subtle and was comforting. I am reminded to mention that the dish was in the menu because Chandannagar, a small city 30 kms from Kolkata was formerly a French colony. With a lot of other influences including literature and culture, food was one aspect which was heartily welcomed even then.

Church inspired by French architecture in Chandan nagar

Rajyashree’s roots of belonging to an old aristocratic Bengali family speak volumes of her love for food. As we journeyed through the lanes of the Bada Sahib bungalows of Bengal and Assam and Tolly’s (pet name for Tollygunj Club for most Kolkatans) steak kebabs, we drool, smirk, laugh and smile. Here comes our shepherd’s pie. A dig into it, and I knew I’d cross my limits of indulgence today; very well done up pie with potatoes and minced meat.

Shepherd's Pie

It is interesting to know that the first pies in England developed in the fourteenth century. Some culinary historians believe that it has origins in the word magpie. The way a magpie collects tit bits, the original pie was supposed to have bits and pieces of a lot of things-minced meat (primarily beef), potatoes, flour and eggs amongst others. The shepherd’s pie started off as  the cottage pie. The term cottage at that time was used for people who’d have a humble dwelling. Potato (used in the pie) was one crop which was affordable for the general masses. It was not until the eighteenth century that the term shepherd’s pie came into usage. It was mostly used for the pie rendition with mutton mince. As of today, both are used synonymously; though the Americans, Irish and English are still confused over who should hold the crown for inventing it. I am sure, even stepping foot on moon does not qualify to be the hottest debate on earth as this one: Who invented the pie?????

Banoffee Pie at Brown Sahib

While I would like to acknowledge the British for the bakes like banoffee and shepherd’s pie, roasts and bacons, the Portuguese and the French did it with dishes like Vindaloo, Beveca and Dodol. Goans are especially particular about calling the dodol theirs, though there are regions all over south Asia where it is very popular. For the uninitiated, dodol is a sweet toffee like dish prepared from rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery. Prolonged cooking is required to give it a thick jelly like consistency; however it is much thicker and non sticky. It is believed that it originates from the Indian term doda a sweet dish prepared from jaggery and wheat flour.

Anglo Indian food developed in various parts of the country. Kolkata being the capital of British India at one point in time gained volumes out of it. Certain dishes developed in Assam, West Bengal, now Uttaranchal and parts of South India with European officials and their families having to rely on Indian cooks; needless to say some experiments did take place in the kitchens eventually popularizing caramel custard, crepe suzette and other desserts.

I am hungry now–talking food about always awakens me and I feel the urge and the need to cook hence the chef in me provokes me to write only this much. But I know there are volumes that can be written on the history of cuisine. As of now, I can thank Rajyashree for the sumptuous meal that I had at her restaurant-the only one that I know of in this city that serves authentic Anglo-Indian food. I will for sure go to savour a meal at Brown Sahib many times over not only for the food but the flavour of warmth and love that Rajyashree emits.

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21 Responses to “An Ode to Sir “Brown Sahib”…”

  1. Excellent article Ashish! History + Food is always such an interesting read, thanks!

  2. paul lyndoh Says:

    Hey Ash,
    Well written as usual.Sitting in shillong I have become a fan of yours following your blog with great interest.I dont mean to compare but cannot help comparing-You put Veer Sanghvi to shame.Maybe he should take a few writing lessons from you.You speak from the heart .
    cheers

  3. Where do I begin? At the beginning I presume.. which is precisely how Ashish’s articles begin. With scrumptious starters, he whets your appetite and the tantalizing aroma of his tales wafts through the air inviting one to stay and feast on the spread he has prepared for us. Ashish is the foodie and as fond as I am of his culinary skills, I’m as enamoured by his passion to share his goodwill and skill at not just cooking but hunting down the most exciting cuisines in town. His unbridled adulation for all things culinary and the depth of knowledge he possesses about the culture behind them is unsurpassed. It is a joy to share this man’s passion if only through this virtual world where his descriptive tales serve to do justice to the cuisine that inspired it. I’ll end with a yummy sugary sweet dessert: the smile that this article brought to my face :)
    In the Ol’ British tradition “Carry on.. Cooking”

  4. mudita paul Says:

    Your write up is really nice-I am for sure going to visit Brown sahib in the near future and meet Rajyashree.She seems like such a nice person

  5. Mary Bitan Says:

    Hey Ash,
    Greetings from Tel Aviv.As always you have done it again.I just love your posts.I am on my way to India next month.Hope to see my food Guru after ages.You better take me to Brown Sahib then
    Love as always
    Mary

  6. Ragini Raina Says:

    I stumble upon your blog via facebook.Awesome stories-You sure are a story teller with a lot of depth.You have a very strong spiritual side too as is reflelced from your articles that I have gone through.You have a new found follower of your blog.

  7. Ashish, it’s so nice to meet someone who appreciates food as much as I do. Your words really make all my efforts at the restaurant worthwhile. Tomorrow when you eat your way through the Bengali menu, I hope you appreciate it as much as the Anglo-Indian food you had the other day.

  8. Balwinder Gill Says:

    Sir,
    I enjoyed your story on Anglo Indian food.You will be glad to know that I did follow your advise given to me as class 12 student when I came to your house in 1999 with my mother Sonia Gill .Do you remember ? I am now working as the executive chef of the Bay Island hotel in Texas.I manage three resturants and have 50 people reporting to me.I have just opened an Indian resturant at the hotel called Khatir and was looking to serve Anglo Indian food and hence I find the link to yor blog.This world is so small virtually.I cannot forget your words of encouragement and the lovely meal you served us at your welcome home.My mother still swears by you and remembers you fondly.Thank you Sir for your encouragement then

  9. Ashish, Your writing is as sumptuous as the food of which you write. Our much anticipated visit to Brown Sahib is even more so with your reflections on the Anglo-Indian cuisine. Love the way you weave history and recent popular culture into your ruminations on food. Your generosity and exuberant spirit touch us deeply. And we look so forward to spending time with Rajyasree and her fine team at Brown Sahib when they bring a taste of Bengal to us.

  10. George lee Says:

    Dr Chopra,
    Very well written piece.you write as well as you speak and you speak as well as you cook.Truely a great story teller.Everytime I meet you and you talk about food I become a fan of yours as your discription of food pampers my taste buds beyond control.Thank you for your help with the clearences.When do we go for a meal to Brown Sahib now ? Before or after the shoot ?

  11. Kurt Miester Says:

    Hey Ash,
    Remember Kurt, your friend in SHANTI NIKETAN,German Embassy, when I was the first Secretary there.What a surprise to find your blog-google searched for you and found you and your blog.beautiful I must say-Your passion for food seems never ending.I still remebember the pork chops you made for us.The taste still lingers on.I am now posted in Moscow and the Charge’d’affairs of the Embassy here.Will be in touch with you.Nice to see your blog.Lovely.Never doubted your passion for food.Hope you have lost weight though.
    Cheers

  12. GK the queen of the hills Says:

    Ash as in Ashley as in Ashish,No matter how much I may fight with you but you have always had this uncanny way of feeding me that you would emotionally get rid of my anger by cooking for me and I would end up smiling.Gosh I am getting nostalgic now.All I want to say is that the food that you serve with love surpasses many.I will never forget that.You explain food like no body else.It is like going through a reality show with a lot of flavour.Miss you .No more praise otherwise you will bloat and that is certainly not good for your health.
    Graciously yours
    GK from the hills of North East

  13. My anglo bhabhi is the best cook in the family. The kind of spices she uses and the love with which she cooks is truly remarkable.

    The food sounds yummy, you describe it so well.

  14. Mouth-watering images and article. I’m not familiar with Anglo-Indian food but your post is enough to convince me of its joys! The combination in the dish ‘Dodol’ reminded me of rice flour dumplings with a jaggery filling. The difference is that interaction with varied cultures produces tastes that are more refined. Looking forward to more….

  15. As I wake up this new year’s day cuddled in my quilt on a cold wintery day,I remember you.The love with which you would bring my cup of tea with toast and with Symphony’s wagging her tail following you playing her own Symphony is missing very much in my life.The passion with which you would feed friends and even foes is a virtue which very few people can even dream of having.I sit on my computer and I type ashish chopra foodie ,your blog makes its presence felt on google.I browse and I read..This is the first time I read your blog though.Once again I am in love with you.You are special and will remain one never to to eradicated from one’s life.I have cherished my moments with you.
    I wish you happiness and good health for the year 2010 and keep cooking and feeding people as you have always done.
    Joy to the world
    Amen

  16. Christine Massey Says:

    Ashish,
    Loved your article on Anglo khaana as we would call it! Brought back so many memories of Calcutta and lovely home-cooked meals which I then would take for granted, but now which I miss so much! Will try out Brown Sahib for sure. My mum’s an excellent cook too, but she’s currently thousands of miles away, and I only have family recipes done by my grandmum and her to fall back on, but they hardly ever turn out as well! But it was lovely meeting you, and look forward to more posts on yummy food!!

  17. You you could make changes to the page title An Ode to Sir “Brown Sahib”… FOOD FOR THOUGHT to more specific for your blog post you create. I loved the the writing all the same.

  18. Hi, we at North East Monologues like your blog and would like to get in touch with you via email. We are at http://www.northeastmonologues.com and on FB as well.

  19. I like your blog very much !It’s done very artistically and I love the title”Food for Thought”.Awesome pictures compliment the text that is equally well written!

  20. I truly tend to agree with everything that was in fact authored inside “An Ode to Sir Brown Sahib | FOOD
    FOR THOUGHT”. Many thanks for all of the details.
    Thanks for the post,Nick

  21. Arghya Sanyal Says:

    What were the names of the dishes , which had French influence on Bengali cuisine ?

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