In retrospect, there is no doubt that India’s independence has been stupendously harmed. We had emerged from 200 years of a fanciful, capitalist style of government much poorer than some of the poorer colonies under the British. Our GDP was at a worrying 3% and total production was only 50 million tons. We had lost most of our native crops to the so-called “superior version” of potatoes, opium and tea – lands which, ironically, were then used to dump the spoils of war and ammunition. Moreover, we had experienced two famines – one in Bihar and another in Bengal, which left a huge dent in India’s rice bowl. Thus, making the midnight of August 14 of that year a time of mixed feelings.
It would take India almost seven decades and many leaders reaching out to other countries asking for help (with a begging bowl) to get to a level where we hold the aid card today eating. But back then, as Jawaharlal Nehru hatched a plan to put India back on its feet amid retaliation from royalty, partition, refugees and war, few could imagine the end of the tunnel. Those who witnessed the creation of modern India often describe the early years as overwhelming. We rarely knew where to start. But amidst all the dark clouds, there was a silver lining – the Raj had rather unwittingly helped India develop our modern food culture. By the time the British left, India, in its own way, had a culinary tapestry that was by far the finest in the world.
Imagine, on the one hand, we had English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch cuisine and their adapted dishes like the famous kedgeree, mulligatawny soup, French duck vadouvan inspired pork vadouvan and Portuguese canja de galinha , which became the famous Goa porridge called Pez and Arroz Doce; on the other, the cuisine that developed through the culture of intermarriage and conversion. The first cuisine is called Anglo-Indian, while the second is East Indian – each with its own particular and fascinating nuance. jugalbandi techniques, influences and use of ingredients. The two food cultures actually laid the foundations of what was called cosmopolitan cuisine through their presence not only in royal menus, picnic baskets, army messes, cafes, clubs and restaurants, but even in the pantry and railroad hotels at the time. . It is this culture that urban India, under the Raj, adopted and continued to enjoy after independence as well. What has made this cosmological food culture adapt to our tastes is two things: first, most of it has been curated for the Indian palate, be it the cutlet, the scotch egg turning into gourmet dimer cutlet or even the bread butter pudding which eventually joined hands with Hyderabadi Double Ka Meetha and became a staple of the cantonment mess popularly called Shahi Tukda.
Even the custard went eggless with Alfred Bird for India or hot chocolate. By the time this Olmec drink arrived in India with the Air Raid Patrol created by the British to deal with the air service of the Imperial Japanese Army, it had reached the form we all know today to be soft, sweet and deliciously addictive.
Even the dining table concept, with its Tudor-style frame, came to India once it reached its finesse with the French, multi-course style. The much in demand French chefs actually designed not only the menu styles that are still followed in many places including the Rashtrapati Bhavan with all the quirkiness of using different flowers to identify guests with different preferences, but also created the table setting that was on par with any royalty in the world, and that included the monogrammed show plaque. These little nuances are still part of Indian gastronomy today.
But the most impactful ritual that the colonist established in India was the five meals, beginning with Chota Hazari (breakfast), burra hazari (lunch), chaa time (afternoon/evening tea), dinner and after dinner food – the idea that became the mainstay of many early dance clubs and continues to be so . Oddly enough, while India, at least upper society, had a meal concept, the British style would eventually become popular all over India, not only with their timings but also a prefixed menu. Thus, bread, jam, butter, sandwiches, eggs, cold meats, juices, tea, soup and even the evening snack have become part of our eating habits thanks to the official establishment.
Fascinatingly, while most of these unintended changes were happening at the affluent level of society, it also had a ripple effect down below – especially for the working middle class who redefined the way restaurants, in terms spaces and food have changed. Take, for example, the pav bhaji who became a mainstay for factory workers who had to work very long hours and needed sustenance. That’s when pav bhaji came to the fore, much like the basic breakfast of bun mask and Chai. While providing India with a wealth of shops serving everything from stews to rolls, the new work culture also created the concept of the rice plate – a cheap but hearty meal for working people. The new work culture spurned by the British need for cotton, tea and a faster mode of transport (train) ultimately proved more effective in getting the Indians to accept certain things, namely potatoes, tea and chicken. Tea has earned its stripes as noon chai or the milky Chai which we know today while the chicken and the chicken egg, both of which originated in India for a long time, remained the last preference, mainly for the well-being of children and elders.
In fact, much like the tea voraciously promoted by the Tea Board at the time with free carts and cups, the sweet potato which was considered a superior variety to the sweet potato of Indian origin, was aggressively pushed into the throats of farmers who received rewards of Rs 100 (even silver medals) for growing it. Dr Benjamin Heyne, a Scottish missionary and naturalist, under this initiative planted a handful of saplings in the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens in Bangalore before traveling across India to promote the sweet potato as a response to “food shortage”.
For the love of potatoes
Eventually, it took the Bengal famine for people to turn to potato and wheat as a source of sustenance, along with less valued but drought-friendly produce like Kochu shak and googli that survive in the slums. puddles in Bengal. These natural calamities and World War II – where soldiers hid in trenches and chapatis over the fire that kept them warm – made potato and wheat a pan-Indian phenomenon. Its subsequent use in our diet even left the British amazed who thought it would be a perfect replacement for rice. Instead, the humble spud joined the rice to create a food plate that contained not one but two carbs. Today, potatoes are so ingrained in the Indian food tapestry that it’s almost impossible to trace its first strain. A proof of our shared love for potatoes and wheat was the iconic pure bhaji which, according to many historians, grew from the station to the street and, somewhere in between, became part of the Bhandara. In fact, it was one of the few dishes defining not only working class India, but also our street food which went on to define the later years of colonial India and then independent India which, in recent years has been organized by immigrants. communities – be it the Bengali cooks who set up not only the Khao Gali but also the emblematic pice hotels of Bengal; the Parsis for dairy, ice cream and fast food restaurants, the Chinese who settled in Tangra and then conquered the rest of India; Sindhis who transformed the R&R cantonment area of Ulhasnagar into one of the bustling centers of commerce and catering; the final element was, of course, the Tibetans who came with the Dalai Lama and established the famous Majnu Ka Tila – a place that gave us a taste of thupka and momos. India has given back to the world in terms of curries, bunny chow and the House of Lords most famous and favorite chicken. tikka. We agree that the events that shaped modern food jargon paled in comparison to the real problem at hand, and yet over the years this eclectic food culture with its multicolored layers has helped make India one of lucrative markets for brands globally – and in a way helping the economy too.
(The author is a seasoned food columnist and curator of experiential dining experiences, pop-ups, and chef retreats.)