June 15, 2012 7:55 pm

The history cook: Polly Russell

Our new columnist unearths the questionable taste of the colonial housewife in India - through a cookbook
A 'memsahib' in India, circa 1910©Getty

A 'memsahib' in India, circa 1910

Pakwan-ki-Kitab: Memsahib’s Guide to Cookery in India, Mrs John Gilpin, A.J. Combridge & Co, Bombay, 1914

The curiously named Zenda pudding appears on the proposed luncheon menu for day 48 in Mrs John Gilpin’s Memsahib’s Guide to Cookery in India, published in 1914 with the title Pakwan-ki-Kitab (A Book of Cookery). Memsahib was the address given in colonial India to married European women, and their life, as described by Mrs Gilpin, was a struggle against heat, dust and loneliness. Her book – small, brown and cheaply printed – sets out menus for 90 days, as if measuring out a term of punishment.

 

There is scant information about the author herself, but she was probably one of the many women who came to the colonies via marriage or mission (or both), charged with reproducing England’s beliefs and tastes in their new foreign households. From the 1850s onwards, some of these women started producing advice manuals for the benefit of their successors.

In a section of the book titled “Hints to the Housekeeper”, Mrs Gilpin insists on the importance of maintaining “moral courage to keep oneself and the staff up to the mark”. Memsahibs should resist the urge to “lie about all day under a punkah [fan] in a dressing gown, reading trashy novels” and should “be trim and neat as you would be in your home in England”.

But keeping up one’s spirits was nothing compared to the challenge of producing the complicated meals expected of such a home. “Never forget that the wellbeing of yourself and the rest of household hangs in great measure on the food with which the household is supplied,” Mrs Gilpin warns.

On the day that Zenda pudding is proposed, the other dishes include: Pompadour cutlets; savory rolls; pacha eggs; Printanere salad; vegetable chartreuse; devilled sardines; Livonian soup; larded fillet of cold fish; timbale of macaroni; Polish leg of mutton; beef marrow savoury; and surprise soufflé. This daily menu, like most in the book, makes few references to Indian cuisine, in ingredients or style. The food is solidly European, formal and heavy – fine for a cold winter’s day in England, but torturous to create and eat in the oppressive heat of India.

Pakwan-ki-Kitab©Joss Mckinley

The effort inevitably required servants, and Mrs Gilpin is as focused on the management of staff as she is on the preparation of supper. Many of the English women who arrived in India came from middle- and lower-middle-class homes, with little experience of managing a team of servants, particularly male ones. Mrs Gilpin gives detailed lists of servants’ duties and wages, and instructs the reader to insist on certain protocols to check corruption. “Make a point of seeing the food brought in from the Bazaar every day, laid out on the clean table or marble slab in the kitchen,” she writes. “You must shut your eyes to a certain amount of petty thieving, but let them see you know about it and would resent any increase in the same.” Servants were to be treated like children.

Mrs Gilpin’s disdain for the locals and her defiantly European-style menus are a reminder of how the imperial project was promoted as much in the colonial kitchens as on the battlefields and government offices. For the memsahib, the cookery book served as armour and weapon against the trials of life in India.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; “Pakwan-ki-Kitab” by kind permission from the Bristish Library collection

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Zenda pudding

“Mix a tablespoon of flour with rather more of chopped suet, the same of sugar, two of grated coconut and the same of sultanas. Form into a thick cream with the yolks of three eggs beaten into a wineglassful of milk. Grease a mould, fill it with this, cover with butter paper and steam for an hour. Serve with a whip sauce made by beating the yolks of two raw eggs with a glass of sweetened sherry and a little lime juice over the fire until it is quite a light froth. A particularly delicious sauce.”

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