CURRIES & BUGLES: A MEMOIR & COOKBOOK OF THE BRITISH RAJ
By Jennifer Brennan
Penguin Books, India, 2020, pp. 344, `325.00
Any story of India’s culinary culture begins with an enquiry into its ostensible Indianness. The first few fundamental questions often have to do with the origin of staple vegetables and spices such as tomatoes and chillies. That both were introduced into the subcontinent’s basic diet, with the colonial contact and that too only recently, is common knowledge now. Similarly, herbs such as coriander have been known to have come to India through either the Arab or the Chinese route. This kind of assimilation and consequent transformation of gastronomic culture underscore the ever-evolving nature of food, especially, in the Indian subcontinent which is marked by a myriad gustatory influences. Such sensual hotchpotch is the subject matter of the two very different books under review.
In a lot of ways, Turmeric Nation speaks to the current moment in Indian foodways, ‘where for more of us, our relationship with food is about choice’. The book opens with a clear-cut plan of untangling the ‘chaotic connections between food and identities’. This self-confessed schema further underscores the contemporaneity of the book as the consumption of ‘biryani’ and ‘beef’ and the corresponding identity discourse have lately saturated popular dialogue. Shankar, however, expands the horizons of the spectrums through which food can be (and has been) investigated. While exploring factors that command our attunement to certain foods, not only does she take into account religious and social structural essentials but also geographic, genetic or lifestyle-based influences. She also speculates on the emotional and attitudinal basis of our tastes and rituals. For instance, the section titled ‘Grief’ paints a nuanced picture of the many food rituals and death feasts which form a significant part of India’s foodscape.
A relatively subtle exploration of India’s foodscape is also undertaken by Jennifer Brennan in her cookbook Curries & Bugles. The cookbook captures the culinary taste of the Anglo-Indian community during direct British rule. The book was first published in 1990, when it was honoured with the prestigious award for literary food writing by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Most of the recipes in this cookbook are spun around the principal twin themes of fusion and hybridity. For instance, under the subtitle ‘A Kedgeree by Many Other a Name’, kedgeree or kitcherie is described as an Anglo-Indian dish. The inclusion of fish is a key differential here as the Indian khichri is ‘a dish of pulses and rice, butter, spices and onions’. Kedgeree, a culinary adaptation, stands testimony to the multicultural yet distinct nature of a cuisine that came into being with colonial contact. A combination of local ingredients with English dietary practices is the defining characteristic of many recipes such as ‘Clam and Bacon Koftas with Apricot Sauce’, ‘Chapattis with Butter and Marmalade’, ‘Jhalfarajie’, ‘Mulligatawny Soup’, ‘Colonel Skinner’s Chutney’ and ‘Railway Lamb Curry’, to name a few. With Brennan’s cookbook an Indian foodscape marked by a unique gastronomic hybridity comes to life.