An Invitation To The Community Table: Anglo-Indian home chefs are offering a taste of their closely guarded culinary heritage | Verve Magazine
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February 11, 2022

An Invitation To The Community Table: Anglo-Indian home chefs are offering a taste of their closely guarded culinary heritage

Text by Reem Khokhar. Illustrations by Reya Ahmed.

Newly minted food entrepreneurs – Ruth Phillips from Faridabad, Karen Martin from Bengaluru, and Jerry and Penny Williamson from Kolkata – share their distinct motivations behind reviving an interest in Anglo-Indian cuisine

Faridabad-based home chef Ruth Phillips had an idyllic childhood growing up in the Rajasthani town of Abu Road – known to most for housing the last railway station en route to Mount Abu – where she was part of the Anglo-Indian community that was approximately 25-family strong in the ’80s. The youngest of six sisters, Phillips recalls days consumed with activities: impromptu get-togethers orchestrated by the members of the tight-knit group; bicycling with the other children to “Big Bridge”, an expanse in stone, from where they watched the swirling Banas river rise high during the monsoon; and picnicking to the nearby village of Siyava, where they gathered sticks to build a fire over which the adults cooked jungli pulao – a jumble of rice, meat and vegetables. The children would play rounders, an old English game, or splash about on the banks of the river while waiting for lunch. “Both my parents are Anglo-Indian. My dad is from Ajmer and my mum, from Rajkot,” she says, pronouncing it “Aj-mere”. “My maternal great-grandfather was British, but I am unsure of where the British ancestry began on my paternal side. We are an easy-going, fun-loving lot; we live in the moment. And cooking our distinct dishes is an integral part of our celebrations and lives,” says the 43-year-old, reminiscing about dried-fruit-filled Christmas cakes, salted meats and quirkily named favourites like cock rolls. This is the food she grew up eating in Rajasthan, rather than local specialities like dal baati churma and lal maas, only partaking of these when she moved to Delhi as an adult.

The cuisine is a primary marker of the Anglo-Indian lifestyle and, like the hybrid culture, is a unique blend of Indian, British, and other European influences. The dishes are slow-cooked and seasoned with a closely guarded masala mix that is peculiar to each home (not much is known about its basic flavour profile other than the common presence of a few spices like cinnamon, cumin, star anise and coriander seeds, and that the pungency and heat are derived from pepper rather than chilli), two distinguishing features of the preparations.

The origins lie in the kitchens of 18th-century British memsahibs who wanted their khansamas to cook food more suited to their tastes, leading to traditional British food incorporating Indian flavours and ingredients, like soups blended with cumin and chillies or roast meats sprinkled with pepper, cinnamon and cloves. The trend continued to develop inside army canteens, railway quarters and gymkhanas – strongholds of the East India Company. Dishes like railway mutton curry, in which vinegar or tamarind juice ensured longevity on long train journeys undertaken for work, or dak bungalow chicken curry, rustled up with basic ingredients for visiting British officials by cooks stationed at remote rest houses (situated on the dak or postal service route), became synonymous with the cuisine. After Partition, many Anglo-Indians, uncertain of their status in independent India, migrated to the UK and other Commonwealth countries. But those who stayed back continued to make this cuisine their own, with puddings, stews and roasted meats jostling for space with pulaos, curries and chutneys on their bountiful tables, to which they remained restricted apart from traces in old gymkhanas and an occasional appearance on a handful of restaurant menus.

Over the last two years, however, Phillips and a few other Anglo-Indian cooking enthusiasts turned home chefs in an attempt to extend the lesser-known cuisine’s reach, keeping in mind the shrinkage of the culture and size of the community in the country, accelerated by intermarriage. Official population estimates peg the number of Anglo-Indians within the country at a few hundred while unofficial estimates claim it to be close to a few lakhs. And bearing in mind that the younger generation is becoming more familiar with “trendier” local and international fare – a fallout of the food no longer being regularly cooked in several homes – the efforts are also directed toward enticing their own back to their culinary roots. Still, their laid-back attitude and characteristic restraint beget rusty social media engagement and gatekeeping of recipes, even at the cost of hurting business prospects.

A deep-seated fear of opening up the community to the risk of cultural misrepresentation has been instrumental in keeping Anglo-Indian cuisine largely private – and Anglo-Indians out of the restaurant business. Conversely, the kitchen-to-customer home chef model is a more secure one, enabling them to retain control in a familiar setting while going against the grain and drawing attention to the food and food habits that define their ethnic identity.

“I am used to misconceptions about Anglo-Indian cuisine – many people associate it with just burgers and sandwiches. But I also want to prove that it can be more than homestyle food restricted to the family dinner table.” Bengaluru-based home chef Karen Martin is an anomaly, given her drive to reinvent Anglo-Indian food in a contemporary style. Experimental though she may be, she is as careful about protecting certain aspects of her legacy. “While my newly published book, Culinary Treasures from the Anglo-Indian Cuisine, shares many of my family recipes, there are some things – like our home-made masala – that have been passed down through generations, and I am not comfortable letting those out,” says the 25-year-old.

The PR consultant traces her roots to her British great-great-great-grandfather, who served in the Royal Military Police in the British Army, and her Anglo-Burmese great-great-great-grandmother.

She kick-started her cloud kitchen, House of Anglo, in March 2020, where she creates contemporary versions of her family recipes by introducing foreign flavours that do not detract from their essence, but rather complement them while keeping the food current and appealing, particularly to younger consumers. The more popular items on her menu, however, remain the traditional numbers like pork vindaloo, a dish that is derived from Portugal and is now a staple in Anglo-Indian homes; roasted ham with a home-made marmalade glaze; ball curry, often masked as bad-word curry, and yellow rice; and jungli pulao. Lesser-known dishes include bone marrow rasam, brain cutlets and tongue pepper fry. “I haven’t had as many takers for organ meat, but I do put them on the menu occasionally,” she says, adding that most of her customers are from outside the community.

Martin identifies the key ingredients in Anglo-Indian food as ginger-garlic paste, salt, sugar and vinegar. Acknowledging the various regional variations, she says, “My grandfather worked in the Kolar gold mines, where the food is spicier than Bengaluru despite their proximity.” Her love for coconut, a South Indian influence, and the central place that meat occupies in their diet are evident from the menu. She recalls her grandmother standing over a large aluminium degcha (a deep, broad-mouthed utensil, particularly used for slow-cooking) on the stove, roasting meat with vinegar and salt, turning it continuously for an hour, till it was perfectly seared and the colour rich. “Most of our meats are marinated and cooked in a pressure cooker. Though not complicated recipes, they can be time-consuming with marinades taking up to 18 to 20 hours to get that tender and succulent taste.” Many dishes, like the vindaloo, are rested for a couple of days, to let the flavours mix better. Freshly made pastes and chutneys, like devil’s chutney (or mother-in-law’s tongue chutney), which is made of red chillies, vinegar and onions (and in Martin’s home, raisins and dates), and sambal, a condiment made with lemon, salt, sugar, tomatoes, onion and vinegar, often accompany meals. “Christmas time is the best, with the whole family cooking and putting up the decorations together. In our home, we play a lot of American country music, particularly carols by Jim Reeves. Everyone sings along while sipping on a hot toddy or cider and lending a hand with the Christmas cakes – soaking the raisins in rum and making the cake mix. The house smells rich and warm, and there’s plenty of song and dance,” says Martin, who eventually wants to open a cafe focused on contemporary Anglo-Indian cuisine. (“But I will still make the masala mix at home.”)

She is determined to stick with a broadly untraditional approach, even in the face of blatant objections: “I’ve faced some criticism from the community for the creative liberties I take, like serving a vindaloo with a bao. Anglo-Indians are open-minded in many aspects, like being accepting of intercommunity marriages, but there is a restrictiveness among the older generation on what is or isn’t Anglo-Indian. When I introduced the ‘Anglo boil’, which is a version of a traditional American seafood boil sandwich, and served it with a vindaloo-inspired sauce, many in the community disapproved. I received a WhatsApp message demanding that I remove ‘Anglo’ from my brand name. But I do not share their point of view. I may be criticised for giving a twist to my family recipes but the culinary world is changing, and if you are not going to do anything to revamp a cuisine, it’s going to die out.”

“Getting into a business is hard work, and you have to be prepared to burn your fingers,” says Jerry Williamson. The 66-year-old takes care of logistics at Penz, an Anglo-Indian cuisine catering service launched in March 2020, where all the dishes are cooked by home chef Penny Williamson, 60, his business partner and wife, who the venture is also named after. “Anglo-Indians flourished in the railways, shipping, postal and education departments, but very few branched into business,” says the former interiors professional and horse racing enthusiast, whose British ancestry goes back to his great-great-grandfather, a major in the British Army.

Similar to Martin’s, many of their memories around food are part of a shared experience, not just in the eating, but in the cooking. “The Anglo-Indian community in Kolkata is sizeable, and though the pandemic has slowed things down, any occasion provides an excuse to meet,” says Jerry. “Apart from festivals, the family would gather together over food. The art of making guava jelly, for instance, is a tedious process of sorting and washing the fruit, boiling it, straining the pulp for guava cheese, and mixing the liquid with sugar to make jelly. But it was always fun with everyone pitching in to help,” he adds. Penny, who is of Portuguese descent, echoes his sentiments: “Christmas is a time when family and friends get together to bake cakes and roll kalkals [a deep-fried cookie, where the sweet dough is flattened and shaped along the tines of a fork into a ribbed shell; a labour-intensive process that requires all hands on deck]”.

The menu at Penz displays a Bengali influence, often incorporating mustard oil. And several of their offerings originated in Calcutta, given its prominence as the erstwhile capital of British India. Lord Clive’s Folly, a chicken paste used to make sandwiches, was concocted in military canteens in the city and is flavoured with “East Indian spices”. Other popular dishes in the Anglo-Indian community in Bengal include pork bhooni (stir-fried pork cooked with potatoes and fresh dill leaves); Hussaini curry – reportedly named after its inventor, a cook named Hussain – where skewers of meat are simmered in a hot gravy; and the lesser-known beef glassey (derived from the French glace, which refers to a reduction of stock), created by the erstwhile khansamas, who reduced the spiciness of the curry by adding mango chutney.

The Williamsons are focused on authenticity, staying true to the recipes and flavours that have been passed down through generations. “All Anglo-Indian food is slow-cooked. It tastes better when you put in time,” says Penny. The couple counts a large number of Parsi clients – perhaps drawn to a kindred meat-centric cuisine – among customers outside the community. “Anglo-Indian food is well integrated into Kolkata society. There is no place where there won’t be a demand for a couple of Anglo-Indian dishes,” says Jerry.

Despite the favourable response, the couple does not intend to market their initiative aggressively. Penz has a limited presence on social media, and they prefer to keep a low profile, with WhatsApp and word-of-mouth publicity being more in tune with their private nature. “We feel uncomfortable blasting our work on social media,” explains Penny about their passive approach. “We have a group of a few hundred on WhatsApp, through which we communicate our menus and receive orders. But my husband feels awkward to even send reminders on WhatsApp to customers. We can’t handle unlimited orders at the moment since there is only so much that we can cook in a day.”

The Williamsons had launched an Anglo-Indian restaurant, Penny’s, in 2018, but it lasted only a year. They did plan to go pan-India with packaged Anglo-Indian food, which might have created large-scale interest in the cuisine, and the community by extension, but eventually decided against it. Jerry points out how there is a cautiousness around drawing attention from unwanted groups in case it threatens the community’s lifestyle and culture. “In the current climate, one might be targeted for transporting certain kinds of ingredients,” he says.

While they have observed a more ambitious streak in the younger generation, they believe that the cuisine is facing a precarious future. “Our children are keen to inherit my wife’s recipes and keep the culinary tradition alive. But since many Anglo-Indians, including our daughter, are married outside the community, I think the original cuisine will eventually disappear,” says Jerry.

“Children nowadays are exposed to so many different cuisines. When I was growing up, we only knew what was cooked for us at home, and we enjoyed that. My mother cooked Anglo-Indian food regularly for us as kids, but I rarely made it for my family. My interests were in baking and cooking other cuisines.” When Ruth Phillips launched Ruth’s Anglo Kitchen & Bakery in Faridabad in April last year, she had been making Anglo-Indian food regularly for just two years. It was only after losing her mother and finding her father craving some of his favourite dishes that she took to cooking them. “But I still only made a couple of dishes, like meat pepper fry or vindaloo,” she says. “That changed when I realised my daughters didn’t know much about our food. My daughters, who are 13 and 10, are now getting to eat the food I grew up eating, and they enjoy it.”

Her menu includes several popular Anglo-Indian dishes: ball curry and yellow rice, masala lamb chops and mutton jalfrezi. Phillips’ memories include the generously laden tables at festivals like Christmas and Easter. “There was always a special lunch. My mother would make yakhni pulao, chicken korma, salad and fried papad, and all the kids were allowed a glass of shandy. At Easter, there were chocolate eggs brought in from Ahmedabad by my father, while Christmas was all about home-made treats – Christmas cakes; chocolate, monkey-nut and coconut fudge; fairy wheels [rose cookies]; doughnuts; and ginger wine,” she shares.

Tales of resourcefulness in the kitchen, born of the need to stretch ingredients, particularly in large families like hers, abound as well. Examples include hotchpotch (some call it pish-pash), where a smaller quantity of meat would be used with other ingredients, with the meat bringing flavour. “We were a big family, and Dad was the only earning member in the house. My mother would instruct one of my older sisters to go buy six chataks [approximately 300 grams] of mutton. The meat would be bulked up with vegetables and macaroni, and made into a stew so that it would be wholesome and the larger quantity could go around.” Phillips recalls this being a regular practice with many Anglo-Indian families at Abu Road. “Everyone had large families. Stretching ingredients or repurposing leftovers was common in all our homes.”

This tradition is also visible in jalfrezis, which originated as a way for khansamas to use leftover roast meats that would typically be stir-fried with spices and vegetables. “My mother would not let anything go to waste. Even leftover rotis were deep-fried and eaten with chai for breakfast the next day,” says Phillips.

She is keen to bring these and other childhood memories around food into the present by opening an Anglo-Indian restaurant but, like Martin and Penny, is reluctant to relinquish complete control even if expanding. “Even when I’ve had others helping me, I have carried my garam-masala mix in my handbag, to apply it to the meat and I have then carried the bottle back home with me,” says Phillips, most of whose business is powered by word of mouth and We The Chefs, an online platform that connects home chefs to customers.

“I need to study the market before I can think of expanding. Experimenting with a pop-up at a farmers’ market, where I can gauge people’s responses to the lesser-known dishes, is a good start.”

Phillips is banking on her older daughter, who has an aptitude for cooking and baking, to eventually take over. “I hope she will develop an interest in my recipes. I want someone from the next generation in the family to start cooking the food, to continue our legacy.”

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