Jun 29, 2015
Having studied in missionary schools in Kolkata, Anglo-Indians have been a big part of my life. I had Anglo-Indian teachers as well as classmates. My interest in the community is what got me excited when I came to know about the book, A Grandmother’s Legacy written by Jenny Mallin.
Jenny’s endeavour is to preserve and share the culinary history of the Anglo-Indian side of her family in India. I spoke to her recently about her book, which is going to be released this November.
Please share your family history and association with India.
Well, my family connections to India began as early as 1798 with 19-year-old Benjamin Hardy (my great great great great great grandfather) who came from a Yorkshire woollen mill town in England. As Private No. 77 with the newly formed 1st Battalion of the 84th Foot regiment of the British Army, Benjamin and his regiment sailed out to India in 1798.
He left behind his Yorkshire-born wife, Frances and it was to be another 23 years until they would meet again. Benjamin’s regiment were to stay in India with postings as diverse as Madras, Bombay, Goa, Kattiawar (which is now Baroda) and Kutch.
At the age of 44, Benjamin was discharged from the British Army due to ill health (chronic rheumatism) in 1819 and he made the decision to stay in India (possibly because of the dry climate) and retire there.
Frances, his wife sailed over in 1820 to spend the rest of their days together and soon Frances bore a child, Joseph but sadly it was to be their only child as Benjamin passed away three years later on December 23, 1823. However, Frances and her young son chose to stay in India and that’s how the next five generations came to be settled in Madras.
What do you think is the role of the Anglo-Indian community in Indian history?
Despite their loss of identity, I think the Anglo-Indians had a definite role to play in Indian history. During the British Raj period, the Anglo-Indian community in particular were chosen to work in the civil service, railways and Telegraph as they were able to link the two cultures effortlessly, their mother tongue was after all English, and they knew and understood the country in which they were born in.
What is Anglo-Indian cuisine all about? What are the influences that have moulded it? Name some of the most popular dishes.
Anglo-Indian food can best be described as a fusion between English and Indian food. I know from my grandmothers’ recipe book that they ate Yorkshire Pudding, made their Butterscotch Tablets, and in particular one grandmother baked very old English puddings which date back to the 17th century, like Chester Pudding (an early version of Lemon Meringue Pie ) and Transparent Pudding (another early version of the famous Bakewell Pudding).
But there’s another form to Anglo-Indian food, which is in a separate category of its own, a unique identity of their own type of food which came about through living in India, experiencing all the different spices available and, of course, the heat which had a lot to do with their recipes.
An example is Ding Ding Curry, which is used with meat that has been marinated in spices and vinegar and left out in the sun to dry. Unmistakably, we have our own beloved Anglo-Indian recipes that are unique to our heritage: Country Captain, Pepperwater, Meatball Curry with Yellow Rice, Almode and of course Kul-kuls.
Are you aware of any restaurants that serve it?
Well, the only Anglo-Indian restaurant I’ve ever eaten in the UK has been at Chutney Mary’s, which is located in the fashionable district of Chelsea in London. You see, why would I eat Anglo-Indian food outside when my mother cooked the best Anglo-Indian food around and all from her little kitchen in West London.
How did you chance upon the idea of writing a book?
Sadly, my father died very unexpectedly at the age of 85, of a heart attack five years ago. My father had been my mother’s carer for several years as she was bed bound. So, following my father’s death, I would visit her in her care home each day and I would try and recount past holidays and happier moments with her.
But, there comes a time when conversation naturally runs dry, and it was then that I realised I would need to find something, a subject that would occupy her mind and hold her interest for months, and possibly, years during this difficult time of her life. We had always shared a common love of cooking, my earliest memories are of watching my mother in the kitchen, cooking and I would stand beside her and watch her prepare the most delicious dishes.
My thoughts turned to the big old recipe book that had been handed down through the generations which my mother, Cynthia had passed on to me recently. Each one of my maternal grandmothers had written in their copperplate handwriting their recipes, the first one being Wilhelmina (Joseph Hardy’s Anglo-Portuguese wife) who started off the recipe book in 1844.
Going through the recipe book with my mother proved the perfect distraction in assisting us both in the loss of my father. I would talk each day to my mother and she would help me figure out what each of the grandmothers by a “viss” of plums or “5 oll of table rice”. Both words were in fact measurement terms in full use during the British Raj period.
A viss is equal to the British Imperial three pounds in weight and an oll is an abbreviation of ollock, a measurement term for measuring grain, flour, rice etc. My great grandma Maud would use the term “pollum” when writing out her ingredients, so she would write “5 pollums plums” and on this occasion my mother was stumped.
I Googled this word on the Internet and the only thing it came up with was hashish, surely not Maud! It was months later that I was finally able to find out that a pollum was the old word for the weighing scale brass dish found in the markets and bazaars!
So, what is A Grandmother’s Legacy all about?
It’s very much a family memoir/cookbook filled with family stories and anecdotes, with a large collection of sepia family photographs including the oldest one I have, which is of Wilhelmina and Joseph Hardy, which would have been taken in 1860. Each one of my grandmothers has her own chapter where we learn about their lives, the kind of food they ate, how they entertained and a selection of some of their recipes.
We also learn about life changing events that were taking place around them and the effect it had on them. For example, we learn how Wilhelmina’s daughter Ophelia and her family directly benefited by the positive changes of the new infrastructure of India when the British government took control over the East India Company.
With new road networks, and the building of dams, bridges and irrigation canals, it meant that sanitation and public health improved. With Ophelia’s daughter Maud we discover some different recipes to her mother’s, and this is largely due to the fact that train travel was now possible; Maud and her family were entitled to travel in their own train carriage due to my great grandfather’s status as being a Permanent Way Inspector in the South Indian Railway.
In addition to the grandmothers’ chapters, I have written a chapter based on my own travel experiences around India, I write about meeting my Great Uncle Eugene, the last family member on my mother’s side of the family to remain in India, who was born during Queen Victoria’s reign who, at the age of 93 was still a smart and dapper gentleman wearing his silk cravat and cashmere waistcoat on a visit to his home for afternoon tea.
How did you research for your book, and how long did it take?
My daily visits to my mother encouraged me to ask her lots of questions about the family, I was starting to feel that I was getting to know each of my grandmothers through their recipe book. I would show her old family photographs and she would identify everyone for me.
At this stage, the recipe book was literally falling to bits, it was an old ledger book and each page had to be turned very carefully as it would literally snap in half like a papadum! I knew that my next project was for me to type up every recipe and convert it into metric. Also, that all their history and culture was about to get lost also. This set me on a mission to try and preserve as much detail as I could about my family and their heritage. Before I knew it, I had a book…
I quit my job as a personal assistant to concentrate on writing my book full time. It’s taken over three years to do, but it’s been an absolute joy for me. The actual research took well over a year and the writing two years, spending time alone in my room writing up to 18 hours a day as I found it difficult to stop when the words were flowing! It was all consuming you could say.
When can we expect to see the book in the stores?
The book will be available in November this year, however ahead of this I am running a 45 day book campaign, which started on June 23 and it gives everyone the opportunity to order my book in advance. I am flying to India in November to do personal book launches and hope to do several of them around the country, in particular in Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai.
It will also be a fascinating journey back for me as one thing is definite for sure, I’m going to visit the street where my great grandmother Maud lived in Bangalore.
My mission is to let every Anglo-Indian on this planet know about my book as I have a growing fear that with my next generation, all evidence of the Anglo-Indian culture and heritage will otherwise be lost.
Wilhelmina’s Christmas Cake Recipe
Wilhelmina’s well-thumbed and well-loved 19th century recipe has had all kinds of additions and changes made to it since her original version! Her ingredients would have taken much longer to prepare as they do now – her currants needed to be “cleaned, stoned, picked and dried” and she would have made her own butter which had to be “perfectly free of water”.
It must have been quite a rich cake as she used 40 eggs, with 1 ½ lbs of flour, ½ lb semolina and 2 wine glassfuls of the best Brandy available. Over the years, her daughters, and also their cooks would have made a little change here and there to both the ingredients and proportions, according to their liking and in the introduction of a new ingredient.
Prunes and plums were eventually added by her granddaughter, Maud to the recipe, butter was replaced with ghee (clarified butter) and baking powder added to give the cake a lighter feel. Irene, Wilhelmina’s great granddaughter has written across the side of the page “This quantity will make a 16 lb cake”.
One of my grandmothers definitely had a Hindu cook, as a quarter of the way down the left side of the page are two recognisable Hindu symbols. The first one is “Om”, which is a symbol of the Absolute – as the cross is to Christians, and the second is a Hindu swastika – an ancient symbol of good luck and auspiciousness.