For those with nostalgia for Raj era cuisine, make a beeline for this rare culinary treat
By: Suman Tarafdar
Posted on: September 2, 2017
LF Says: ★★★★
It was a starter that would have sufficed as a meal. A nice, comforting, filling one. Camp Soup, the starter for The British Raj cuisine’ at Saffron, was a winner from the first spoonful. A lightly spiced broth of lamb and lentils with dried mint – I at once imagined it being a star in a veranda or dak bungalow in some far-flung outpost of the Raj, with an attentive khansamah (cook) bringing it out in a Spode pattern porcelain tureen! The British era in India may have left some notable legacies, its food has, however, not always been the best received. The departure of the Brits, along with a lack of adequate research, has left this rather large gap in India’s culinary story.
In a swirl of cuisines that are that now rapidly finding a place in contemporary India, there is also a less evident but much more gratifying trend – the search for roots of the land’s traditional cuisines. Old texts are being pored over for clues and recipes, and experiments to translate these often-lapsed dishes are finding success.
Often commanding this trend are leading hotel groups. The Oberoi Group, oft sited as a hallmark of Indian hospitality, has systematised this with its Rivaayat initiative, launched about a couple of years ago. Any glimpse into this multifaceted nationwide initiative is fascinating, and latest of which is a peek into British Raj cuisine at the Trident’s hallmark Indian restaurant Saffron.
Chef Sandeep Kalra, Executive Chef, Trident, Gurgaon, explains the story behind each dish (yes, the restaurant staff will do this for any guest), as they make their appearance. He explains that the research alone for this topic has taken him a couple of years. “We did a lot of research, consulted people, went to places that still serve this kind of food, looked up old books…” he points out.
The 30-odd dishes are from all over the subcontinent, and in their own way reveal the differing culinary interactions between the erstwhile colonial rulers and their subjects. The menu includes Dak Bungalow Murghi Roast, Khuni Khichri, East Indian Fish curry, Jhalfarajie, Aam Murghi Bombay, Country Captain Chicken Curry and Bandy Coy Fry among a host of others with just as intriguing names. The stress, however, has been on authentically recreating the dishes, and not making it gimmicky.
Chef Kalra narrates how the now famous Railway Mutton Curry came about. “An officer travelling by Frontier Mail saw khansamahs preparing mutton curry and tucked in. While he did like the dish, he needed the spice level reduced, and instructed that coconut milk and tamarind be added to reduce the spice level.” Over time, this became a popular staple, and not just in trains.
Research reveals the cuisine tended to be less spicy, instead leaning towards a greater degree of sweetness than an average Indian meal would have, says Chef Kalra. “There is no use of red chillies in the dishes, which we have replicated here,” he says. Instead, ingredients such as Cayenne pepper, parsley and almonds have been used to add flavours. Lemon is also commonly used to add flavour.
There were challenges in translating the dishes to a fine dining level. A lot of what is available in the modern kitchen – whether it be ingredients or processes, or even cooking on gas and ovens, would not have been available in the earlier era. “Some refinement is required,” says Chef Kalra. Citing the example of Camp Soup, he says that instead of the earlier process, the lentils and vegetables used are pureed.
Care was also taken to select the right dishes. “We had to keep in mind that dishes must stand out on their own and combine well with each other,” says the chef. Also knowing the history of the dish was important.
Browsing through history
Of course, there were some dishes that stood out. Among starters, the Chingree samosa, deep fried curried prawn samosa, was unsurprisingly good. The Nargisi Kofta or Lamb Mince Scotch Egg, was not dunked in a curry. With a name that originates from the Nagra or narcissus flower, it was an eye catcher in a pattern of yellow, white and brown.
There is a wide variety of choices in the mains, again highlighting the diversity of the land. From the east is the East Indian fish curry, Bay of Bengal Bekti in traditional Bengali style, a favourite for many from the region. A more unusual dish is the Aam Murghi Bombay, sautéed chicken in a delicate gravy of fresh mangoes with nutmeg.
Perhaps a more pan Indian experience from the era would be Country Captain Chicken Curry, stir fried chicken with brown onion and coriander, often prepared for those in a hurry – rushing military personnel come to mind!
Lamb comes in multiple flavours. The Madras Club Lamb Qorma, lamb braised in velvety, spiced sauce, enriched with ground almonds and cream is, as the ingredients suggest, rich in texture and taste. The Railway Mutton Curry, is a more traditional lamb curry with potatoes, curry leaves, tamarind and coconut milk.
Of course, there are vegetarian options too. Among the better-known ones are Brinjal Vindaloo, a sweet and sour eggplant curry with cumin and chilli, or Jhalfarajie or home style vegetables cooked with onion, curry powder and green chillies. A lesser-known dish is the Cauliflower Foogath, cauliflower stir-fried with mustard seeds, curry leaves, Bengal gram and coconut.
A notable dish was Dhal Churchurree, five pulses cooked together – wait for it - with green apple and cayenne! That was an unusual taste, and quite appealing.
There are a number of rice dishes too - Khuni Khichri, with potato, rice, moong lentil and almond; Polo Pilaf, seafood rice with almonds, cardamom and cinnamon; and the Pathan Chicken Pilaf, North west frontier rice dish cooked with aromatic chicken.
If there is space left, for dessert, there is Caramel custard. Or Bombay Pudding, semolina and egg pudding with cardamom and cloves. Or Granny Whitburn’s pound cake.
Perhaps that very British tradition of a cup of tea, introduced to India by them too, will help you make you fit to face the real world again.
‘The British Raj cuisine’ at Saffron is on till September 8, 2017 at the Trident, Gurgaon.
LF Says: ★★★★
Coordinates: 443, Udyog Vihar Phase V, Sector 19, Gurugram, Haryana, India