ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Anglo-Indian Identity through the Culinary Lens

Food writing can function as an alternative mode in historiography, making visible the history of the Anglo-Indian community.

In The Trotter-nama: A Chronicle (1988), I Allan Sealy historicises the evolution of Anglo-Indian cuisine as fusion food. He offers an elaborate description of diverse local and foreign agencies that the Great Trotter, the fountainhead of the Anglo-Indian community in the novel, recruited in his kitchen to introduce a unique culinary tradition. In Vegemite Vindaloo (2006), David McMahon, a diasporic Anglo-Indian, juxtaposes the Australian food Vegemite with the Portuguese and Anglo-Indian curry vindaloo as a culinary metaphor for representing the doubly hyphenated identity of an Australian Anglo-Indian. In The Secret Vindaloo (2014), Keith Butler, an Anglo-Indian in New Zealand, sarcastically writes that vindaloo is a secret recipe to represent the invisibility of Anglo-Indian immigrants in multicultural Australia.

Why did these writers all choose cuisine to represent the Anglo-Indian cultural identity? Using the culinary as a mode of representation is not limited to Anglo-Indian writers. The Kolkata branch of the All India Anglo-Indian Association announced in 2018 that it would organise a winter carnival where members would cook and sell typical Anglo-Indian fare such as pork balichow, sausage curry, yellow rice and meat ball curry. In the same year, the Forum of Anglo-Indian Women in Chennai organised a fair called the “Anglo-Indian Craft and Cuisine.”

Anglo-Indian cuisine’s history goes back 500 years to the birth of the community in the 16th century when Portuguese traders landed on the Coromandel shores for spice trade. The search for spices had lured Vasco da Gama to the Malabar coast in 1498. The Portuguese were the first to establish their colony in India. Portuguese men married local Indian women to build a rapport with the colonised subjects. They gradually became fond of eating European food cooked with local spices, creating a fusion cuisine. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English contributed to the evolution of Eurasian cuisine or Anglo-Indian cuisine over the centuries. Typical Anglo-Indian dishes, such as pepper water, vindaloo, and Dak Bungalow chicken reveal the influences of local culinary customs on the European preparations of soup, stew, and meat.

Vindaloo is a Portuguese dish that was originally cooked with pork, wine vinegar, and garlic. Consumption of pork was minimal in India as it was a forbidden fare for Hindus and Muslims, the major population groups. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2006)Lizzie Collingham observes that Portuguese missionaries not only persuaded their Christian converts to eat pork but also taught them how to cook it. However, wine vinegar was not available in India, and some Franciscan priests substituted it with vinegar manufactured from coconut toddy. They prepared a sauce by mixing tamarind pulp and plenty of garlic to the toddy vinegar and adding a masala consisting of black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices. Today vindaloo is also cooked with fish, poultry, and even vegetables. Dak Bungalow chicken curry is another Anglo-Indian dish whose very name suggests its
colonial history. In The Raj at Table: The Culinary History of the British in India (1993)David Burton writes that during the 1840s, single-storeyed bungalows were built across the country for travelling government officials. These rest houses were called Dak Bungalows. Dak Bungalow chicken curry was a dish improvised by the Indian butlers and “mussalchees” (spice-grinders) who looked after these rest houses.

The recipe books of Bridget White Kumar and Patricia Brown highlight the conventional Anglo-Indian dishes to be used in specific social, religious, and cultural occasions. Kumar’s Anglo-Indian Cuisine: A Legacy of Flavours from the Past (2013) offers a glimpse of the history of the community in that phase of British Raj when the railways had become an important part of the Anglo-Indian life. In a recent email interview with the author of this article, Kumar observes:

Being an Anglo-Indian and having grown up with this cuisine, I felt it was necessary to document and preserve this cuisine which has been shrinking over time. A lot of regional influences are being merged with the cuisine so I felt that the old traditional dishes needed to be preserved.

Her reply reveals an anxiety over the loss of the community’s unique culinary culture. Although Anglo-Indian cuisine is a fusion cuisine, the community is resisting further interpolation in its recipes. The title of Kumar’s book emphasises the colonial legacy which is an important factor in the construction of Anglo-Indian culture and identity. The inclusion of the recipe for Railway Lamb/Mutton curry and its history in Kumar’s book has an archival value. The chapters of Brown’s Anglo-Indian Food and Customs (1998) are designed around the concept of different social occasions such as birthdays, summer holidays, funerals, Christmas, New Year, baptisms, and weddings. She uses personal memory to narrate the collective experience gathered from these social occasions in Anglo-Indian families. A tinge of nostalgia is apparent in her recollection of her childhood days.

A study of these books and a historical analysis of the select recipes enable a non-Anglo-Indian reader to perceive the Anglo-Indian cuisine as a distinct fusion food that the Anglo-Indians can claim as their own objet d’art. It also reshapes the conventional notions of racial hybridity and cultural hybridity. Christina Voicu argues that even now the double consciousness and multiple belongings of mixed-descent groups are often interpreted according to the racist ideologies that reveal the power relations between the centre and the margin, the West and the rest, the majority and the minority.

In an age of physical and cultural displacements, identity has become a contested topic. As far as Anglo-Indians are concerned, their anxiety for preserving their cultural identity is intensified due to their minuscule demographic size. Although placed in such a context of travelling cultures, many Anglo-Indians want their cuisine to resist further mutation. They believe that this is a way to stabilise the cultural identity of the community in this age of globalisation. The double consciousness inherent in the nomenclature “Anglo-Indian” finds a positive expression in their unique food history. Food writing in this context functions as an alternative mode in historiography that brings to light the history of a hitherto under-represented community. The recipe books, food blogs, exhibitions, and fairs showcasing traditional Anglo-Indian dishes are an effective means for putting up a strong resistance to transcultural mutations so far as culinary practices are concerned. However, the experiences of the Anglo-Indian immigrants, as described in the books of McMahon and Butler, show that fusion is a continuous process in the making and remaking of the Anglo-Indian cuisine.

 

 

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Updated On : 31st Jul, 2022
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