See More on Facebook

Culture and society, Current affairs

Curry from the colonies

Written for those still living in India, or missing it, these books help understand daily life in colonial times.


Written by

Updated: July 3, 2019

By the 1880s, curry symbolised how different parts of the Empire were intertwined, as tastes and palates adapted to new lands and new requirements.

Colonial culinary innovations, especially the curried dishes, ensured meals were the long drawn and leisurely events that they had become in the 19th century, thanks to the wide use of gaslight and the ubiquitous presence of servants ready to serve every course, especially in the colonial outposts.

Also, these recipes and the spices that were integral to them helped make certain foods, such as the coarser and “inferior” meats of the east, more palatable, and ensured their preservation.

Besides curry, other colonial culinary adaptations included the mulligatawny soup (originally pepper water to which other ingredients were added to make it a complete dish), kedgeree, pish pash (a rice gruel popular in colonial Southeast Asia), and the notion of “tiffin” and chota hazri, or a small breakfast.

Such dishes were part of a cumulative culinary enterprise, the earliest examples of “fusion foods” — in the words of food historian Cecilia Leong-Salobir — born out of adaptation and adjustment, as memsahibslearned to work with native (local) cooks, as the latter learned to figure out their employers’ tastes, and the manner of how local ingredients and long-sustained dietary habits arrived at mutual accommodation.

A new wave of experts

In 1889, Daniel Santiagoe’s Curry Cook’s Assistant or Curries and How to Make Them in England in their Original Style was published in London.

A cook who had served the British in Madras and in Ceylon, and whose father had been a butler and fiddler in Ceylon, Santiagoe had impressive credentials.

His master, John Loudoun Shand, a plantation owner in Ceylon, wrote the book’s introduction, explaining helpfully to the reader that curries were perhaps one reason why Easterners had longer lifespans and that Santiagoe’s use of English was quaint, but his knowledge of curries excellent.

Santiagoe begins his book of 60 recipes by providing a list of ingredients for making curry powder. He considerately provides two separate lists, since ingredients readily accessible to the Ceylon cook would not be as easily available to the London resident and vice versa.

By this time — the late 19th century — curry powder was sold commercially but good cooks insisted on making the authentic stuff from scratch.

Chicken tikka masala.—nwflightdesign/via Flickr.

Colonel Kenny-Herbert’s books, Fifty Breakfasts, Sweet Dishes and Culinary Jottings for Madras, based on his newspaper writings in Madras, had also been published in the 1880s.

The army colonel had established the Common-Sense Cookery Association in London to teach “high class cooking” to Westerners.

In several newspaper pieces, Kenny-Herbert appeared anguished over the fact that young ladies keen to write columns approached him seeking tips on the making of curries, brazenly confident that a few classes would give them the necessary expertise, and were totally oblivious to the reality that it took several months, or even years, to master this art.

In Henry Yule and AC Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson, a dictionary of colloquial Asian terms published in 1886, curry was defined as a “savoury dish made up of ‘meat, fish, fruit or vegetables cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric’ served to flavour the two staple foods of the east — bread and rice, both of which are bland dishes”.

Travelling west

George Francklin Atkinson’s Curry and Rice (1858), with its eye-catching lithographs, shows how the lives of the sahibs and the locals were intertwined in small colonial towns and hill stations. Besides ayahs and lascars, cooks were the first undocumented international travellers from colonial India.

Some two decades before Santiagoe wrote his book, Hadjee Allee had already established a reputation for himself for his kebabs.

In 1851 the writer William Moy Thomas, in a story called The Elixir of Life, mentioned Hadjee Allee as the famous cook who had newly arrived from India to work in the Bengal Hotel.

Allee, Thomas’s narrator says, was known for his “Indian dupeajja, Keorma, Jerdu and Koorma Plow, Indian Coaptu, Kitcheree, Mancooly and Indian cababs”.

The story by a man about town narrator appeared in Household Words, then edited by Charles Dickens.

The real Hadjee Allee did move to London. He married a British woman in 1846. A decade earlier, he had also published a book, Receipts for cooking the most favourite dishes in general use in India, partial reproductions of which are available in later books.

There were some translations before this too. In 1831, a Sandford Arnot, a linguist and one of the Orientalists that had once been based in Calcutta, translated for the London Oriental Institute, a Persian book of recipes into English: Indian cookery, as Practised and Described by the Natives of the East, perhaps the first cookery book from India available in English.

Cookery and advice

Apart from these early cookbooks by officials and travelling cooks, another genre comprised mainly of books that offered advice.

Written first by men and, from the 1870s onward, by British and Anglo-Indian women (several of whom wrote anonymously), these were intended to help women who travelled to India as wives and homemakers.

The authors shared copious notes on setting up a house, appropriate clothing for every occasion, habits for everyday living, recipes for entertainment and how to run a household and, especially, manage domestic staff.

—Wikimedia Commons

According to the books, servants were childlike but could be cunning and evasive. They were an indispensable part of colonial life, but they had to be carefully monitored and disciplined, going by these books.

Moreover, as kitchens were not very healthy places, cooks had to be rigidly supervised.

Among the first books of this kind was written by R Flower Riddell, a colonial official who served as Surgeon General to the Nizam of Hyderabad in the 1840s. Riddell’s Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book appeared in 1849, and servants feature in the very first chapter.

Riddell was unequivocal in his warnings about their dishonest ways and suggested that servants be registered at the “thana” or local police station before employment.

He also listed the kinds of domestic workers and the salaries they usually received.

For instance, in Bengal, there was the sircar or accountant, the khansamah or butler, khidmatgar or table servant, bawarchee or cook, dhobee or washerman, bhisti or water carrier, halalkur or sweeper, hurkara or messenger, durzee or tailor, durwan or porter, ghareewan or coachman, syce or horsekeeper and others including tent pitcher, hookah attendant and female servants such as the ayah or nanny and amah or the wet nurse.

The book details the necessary care for maintaining poultry and horses, then goes on to providing “receipts” (archaic for recipes) for the making of various dishes, including soups (two different kinds of mulligatawny), sauces, chutneys, fish, puddings, and of course, curries which appear toward the book’s latter half in the chapter, “Oriental Cookery”.

Riddell lists the detailed ingredients for making curry powder (four kinds) on pages 402-3.

—Wikimedia Commons

Women take the stage

Later writers often mentioned their years of residence in India in the book’s very title, so as to establish the validity of authorship.

Books such as The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook to the Kitchen in India (1869) was declared to have been written by “a thirty-five years’ resident”, and JH’s Household Cookery: Tested Recipes Collected During 23 Years’ Residence in India, was published in 1902.

There were other writers who wrote for the India-returned or those who had already acquired a taste for the new foods.

Henrietta Harvey wrote her Anglo Indian Cookery at Home by gathering recipes from various parts of the subcontinent and suitably “Anglicising” them.

She had returned with her dekchis or metal cooking utensils, curry powders and curry stone (akin to the mortar and pestle but used to grind spices for curries). Her book remained a classic for some years.

Mrs Grace Johnson’s Anglo-Indian and Oriental Cookery (1893), introduced her book as “Oriental cookery modified by English, French and Italian methods”.

A decade later, in 1903, Joseph Edmunds wrote Curries: and how to prepare them.

He sold his own version of curry powder and had his carefully picked recipes vetted by cookery teachers and eminent chefs.

Making vs manufacturing

Though curries featured on the menus of a couple of coffee houses established in the 1770s and the Hindustanee Coffee House set up by Sake Dean Mohammad opened in 1810 (and closed a year later), curry powders and other packaged foods such as chutneys, sauces and pickles were already commercially available by the end of the 18th century.

Experienced cooks, however, insisted on concocting their own powders.

In a book written by the head chef of the British royal household from the 1880s to the 1910s, Gabriel Tschumi describes how cooks at the palace (evidently there were many) were disdainful of curry powders that were bought and insisted on pounding and mixing their own.

Mulligatawny soup.—Miansari66/Wikimedia Commons

While every cook and cookbook writer worth her while stood by her version, there was also widespread belief that curries were a way of building good health.

Harvey Day, in his Curries of India, was particularly eloquent on the benefits spices conferred on the human body.

As Day wrote: “[Almost every spice had some] antiseptic value and many are carminatives: that is, they tend to reduce flatulence, as do dill and caraway. The paprika and chilli families are extremely rich in vitamin C, an anti-scorbutic vitamin, which is good for the skin. This may be one reason why so many Indian women have such remarkably clear skins.”

Ginger’s medicinal value had been recognised by the ancient Indians and the Chinese but King Henry VIII (1491-1547) was especially appreciative of ginger’s value as aphrodisiac. A mention that is revealing not because Henry VIII remains best known for his many marriages but for the fact that ginger was already known to the West as a trading commodity, long before spices such as pepper entered the picture.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Asia News Network
About the Author: ANN members comprise The Korea Herald, China Daily, China Post (Taiwan), Gogo Mongolia, Yomiuri Shimbun and The Japan News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Statesman (India), The Island (Sri Lanka), Kuensel (Bhutan), Kathmandu Post (Nepal), Daily Star (Bangladesh), Eleven Media (Myanmar), The Nation (Thailand), Jakarta Post, The Star and Sin Chew Daily (Malaysia), the Phnom Penh Post and Rasmei Kampuchea (Cambodia), The Borneo Bulletin (Brunei), The Straits Times (Singapore), Vietnam News, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Vientiane Times (Laos).

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Culture and society, Current affairs

Modi defends citizenship decision

PM Modi says it has nothing to do with Indian Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, that unity in diversity is integral to India while addressing ‘Aabhar Rally’ at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan today to kick start Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi Assembly Elections campaign slated for early next year, amid protests in Delhi and all over the country against the contentious Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizenship(NRC). Modi raised slogan of ‘vividhta me ekta, Bharat ki visheshta’ (Unity in diversity is India’s speciality). PM Modi while giving his party and government’s view on CAA and NRC said, “Muslims being misled, I have always ensured that documents will never come in way of development schemes and their beneficiaries.” Citizenship law and NRC have nothing to do with Indian Muslims or with Indian citizens, he clarified. “We have never asked


By The Statesman
December 23, 2019

Culture and society, Current affairs

The Chinese version

Muhammad Amir Rana asks what is the Chinese version of Islam.  TENSIONS between China and the US have escalated after the House of Representative’s Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, 2019. The move is of a piece with the allegations of many international media and human rights organisations that China is persecuting the Uighur community and violating their rights — allegations that Beijing has denied. Calling the US action a political move aimed at damaging its international image, China says it is running a deradicalisation programme to mainstream its communities. Read: Amid global outcry, China defends internment camps of minorities in Xinjiang The Chinese claim has not been verified by independent sources and mystery shrouds its deradicalisation or re-education programme. China needs to demonstra


By Asia News Network
December 16, 2019

Culture and society, Current affairs

India under Modi is moving systematically with a supremacist agenda, says PM Imran

Imran Khan made the comments after India passed a controversial citizenship requirement. Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Thursday that India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been moving systematically with a Hindu supremacist agenda. The prime minister was referencing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill passed by India’s upper house amid protests on Wednesday. The bill will let the Indian government grant citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants who entered India from three neighbouring countries before 2015 — but not if they are Muslim. Modi’s government — re-elected in May and under pressure over a slowing economy — says Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are excluded from the legislation because they do not face discrimination in those countries. Taking to Twitter, Prime Minister I


By Asia News Network
December 13, 2019

Culture and society, Current affairs

Nepal moves up in Human Development Index but still lags behind in South Asia

Nepal’s human development index of 0,579 indicates that people are living longer, are more educated and have greater incomes, according to the Human Development Report. Despite global progress in tackling poverty, hunger and disease, a ‘new generation of inequalities’ indicates that many societies are not working as they should and Nepal is not an exception, according to a new human development report released on Tuesday. The old inequalities were based on access to health services and education whereas the new generation of inequalities is based on technology, education and the climate, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report. “Previously, we talked about wealth as a major driver for inequality. Now, countries like Nepal are in another inequality trap and that concerns


By The Kathmandu Post
December 12, 2019

Culture and society, Current affairs

Taiwan among top 10 study destinations for U.S. students

Thailand and Singapore among other Asian destinations. China welcomed the highest number of U.S. students last year, followed by Japan and India in second and third places, respectively, according to a recent survey about exchange students in Asia. South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, and Indonesia rounded up the top 10 list of the most popular Asian countries among U.S. students. According to AsiaExchange, “The high level of education, low exposure to crime, economic freedom and good healthcare system are a few examples of why Taiwan is ranked 2nd on the annual Global Peace Index.” It’s also very safe to live in Taiwan, as crime rates are low, the Website stressed, noting that Taiwan’s focus on human rights, gender equality and freedom of speech has made it a top destination for education. Taiwan, whose institutions are strong and reliable, has remained la


By Warren Fernandez
December 12, 2019

Culture and society, Current affairs

SAARC turns 35 but has very little to show for its age

The regional bloc of seven South Asian countries and Afghanistan has largely been held hostage to the rivalry between India and Pakistan, say analysts. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation might have turned 35 but its three-and-a-half decades of existence has largely failed to advance its own central tenet—regional cooperation. As SAARC marked its 35th anniversary with a flurry of congratulatory messages from heads of government, expressing their commitment to regional cooperation, many analysts and diplomats wonder if these promises will ever translate into action. The regional association has failed to hold its 19th summit, ever since 2016 when India sud


By The Kathmandu Post
December 9, 2019