A Recipe for Brown Stew

By Geeta Budhraja

This is the apéritif to what I hope can translate into a larger comprehensive project on the delights of Anglo-Indian cuisine. Born into a family where conversations celebrated food – what to eat, why, the origin of the dish or ingredients, etc. – and a healthy inclination towards fusion, it’s not surprising that Anglo Indian cuisine is by far my all-time favourite.

An illustrated bowl of steaming stew sits on top of a cookbook
Image courtesy of Ms. Priyanka Sarkar.

 

My paternal grandfather was Chief Engineer with the Indian Railways from the early part of the twentieth century when it was still under British governance. He maintained links to this colonial past until well after Indian Independence, which showed up in the cuisine served at railway parties and were a part of celebratory dinners at home. The khansama, or family cook, who was typically local and Indian, was trained in whipping up all the basic Anglo-Indian dishes, as he’d previously been in the employment of the “gora sahib” (white British men).

My father was with Dunlop India Limited, which had its headquarters in the Anglo-Indian Mecca- Free School Street in Calcutta (now Kolkata). So, meals at our home were a celebration of all things Anglo-Indian.

In this post I am going to look at a quintessentially Anglo-Indian dish that is a fusion of a very typical British base to which Indian spices or an Indian touch has been added to rather glorious, if I may say, results.

The khansama had been used to serving British bachelors who came without their wives as the first wave of officers, unsure of living conditions in India. They introduced the gora sahib to Indian spices like turmeric, mustard seeds, cumin, cloves, cardamom, and asafoetida to rather promising responses. When the memsahibs (their wives) arrived, they wanted to reclaim their husbands’ palate, and therein lies the origin of the battle of spices between the khansamas and the memsahibs. Anglo-Indian recipes are the battleground of this war that was never quite won by either but settled into a grudging truce where either one would concede defeat depending on the response of the bada sahib (husband).

A key dish is a brown stew (distinct from the Caribbean one that gets its name from the addition of brown sugar). A British stew is a dish wherein meat and vegetables are simmered to create a very light and flavourful soup-like consistency, while stew in India is trotters simmered in a gravy with onions, garlic, ginger, and yogurt along with spices like cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and mace. The end result is a rather rich gravy-like dish. The brown stew referred to here is a fusion of these two, and its origin probably lies in one of the kitchens where the British memsahibs would have asked for stew, and the only stew that the khansama knew of was paya (trotters) curry.  So, for his ‘stew,’ he probably substituted the trotters with the meat of choice and added ‘English vegetables’ like carrots, celery, and potatoes. He also retained spices like black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon sticks, whole peppercorns, and bay leaves, thinking that the memsahib and the bada sahib would not appreciate a bland bowl of soup particularly in the winters when this would be a typical dinner repast. The understanding was that there should be a little bit of warmth to blunt the edge of the season, which of course the spices such as cinnamon and cloves would deliver. Sometimes ‘Indian’ or local vegetables like round gourd and cauliflower would also be added if they were handy.

Additionally, this stew is thickened with whole wheat flour – what in India we call atta, which is the entire kernel of wheat that has been ground – rather than refined flour. To go back to the origin of its use, the khansama in the railway houses, when told to dish out a stew (I believe in my house at least this is what happened), ran out of refined flour and innovated by adding what was available, which was wheat flour. Atta is a little coarser than the refined flour and makes for a richer, earthier gravy with a nutty flavour. A roux calls for light sauteing with clear instructions to not allow browning, while atta requires a rich brown hue to remove the raw taste and enhance the nutty flavour lending a rich brown colour to the stew. Any good khansama wouldn’t consider his “Angrezi” (English) khana (food) complete without a liberal dash of Worcestershire sauce as the crowning glory. The end product would be dished out in elegant white porcelain bowls, usually sprinkled with a little bit of garam masala garnished with a combination of coriander and parsley.

Brown stew, as I know it, is a steaming hot, rich, and flavourful repast. It is redolent with a heady mix of spices, spiked with tangy Worcestershire sauce and generous portions of chicken, mutton, or pork. This dish is an ode to a successful marriage of culinary cultures.

 


Dr. Geeta Budhraja is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Aryabhatta College, Delhi University. With over 30 years of teaching experience, she has been actively involved with students and college life in the classroom and areas of art and culture, theatre, and other administrative responsibilities. She works actively in theatre production, culinary culture, and gender studies, and has contributed articles on Feminist Theory, Performance Theory, and book reviews in national and international journals. She has also been an invited speaker on Cultural Studies in international and national forums. She writes poetry and non-fiction.

She may be contacted at drgeetabudhiraja@gmail.com.


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