Archive for December, 2009

An Ode to Sir “Brown Sahib”…

Posted in Food History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by ashthefoodie

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.