Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Anglo Indians....going,going and Gone

Everyone in growing up in urban India up (in a certain era) had a Miss Stoneham story (ode to 36 Chowringhee Lane’s main character). I had mine growing up in Visakhapatnam, stylishly addressed as Vizag and even Walt air. I knew Miss Jones my class one teacher, with a sweaty upper lip and her enormous rotund size. Principal Almeida, who sang, Edelweiss with us in the evening sessions. Followed by Principal PA Moses , we said, in hushed tones, Moses poses near the roses (he had a patch of garden roses in his house).

Others who touched my life, from my father’s workplace (Gestetner Duplicators, an English firm and leader in the documents business). His boss FC Lyons (the General Manager), Wilson the driver, Anthony the peon and Fredrick the machine mechanic.More than anyone else, Fredrick the mechanic who brought heavenly food to the company picnic. Mutton fried and then boiled (we called it Fredrick’ mutton), the cheese and potato balls, browned onion rings. The very thought or memory, brings a gush of feelings. Ooh that smell can you smell that smell.

More on Anglo Indians, it’s Christopher at Calcutta’s Park Street restaurant, BBQ. He is , always dressed in a white shirt, dark trousers, with a tie sometimes a bow tie with a tiny scribbling pad, suggests, politely, shall I make it three (his subtle way of selling more). The story is pretty much the same, the chief order takers are Anglo Indian in BBQ, PeterCat, Moulin Rouge or Trincas. They love their job take it very seriously and at times when they are easy they chat you up. There is also a nice guy in Nelson Wang’s China Garden at New Delhi.

So what’s the interaction been, with Anglo Indians for urban folk, Teachers , Principals, Restaurants, Mechanics, Musicians (Mike Fey and Band, Seby and the Wings), an odd Cabaret Dancer in the 7os and even in the 80’s at Seven Stars or Sun and Sand. The stereotype of the Railway Engine workers of The Hindi film “Julie” Fame. The BBC documentary on the Anglo Indians who settled at Mc Luskieganj, 40 miles from Ranchi, now Jharkhand. Melville D Mello the newsreader, Cliff Richard and Englebert Humperdinck the singers. The two representatives of the Anglo Indian Community in the Rajya Sabha, Allan Sealy the author and Dennis Joseph the Copywriter. More British than the British ever were , talked misty eyed about the past almost a Proustian moment (an involuntary memory), or the flight of the pigeons, to New Zealand, Australia, Canada and sometimes America. Our children in India will perhaps grow without major interaction with evaporated and diluted community.
Is this a requiem for the Anglo India community or a Proustian tear jerker of the past. No its not it’s a celebration of the famous Raj cuisine, the Anglo Indian food, the colonial cuisine. Found in the Army Messes, The Oberoi hotels, The Imperial hotel (at The Daniels’ tavern), Dak Bungalows, The PWD bungalows, Irrigation department Rest houses, The Forest Rest Houses, MES Inspection Bungalows, Multinational Companies guest houses, the erstwhile Railway hotels and Clubs (including the dining cars), The planters Clubs in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Coorg, Nilgiris, the Old Clubs (have to mention Kasauli Club) and Gymkhanas, nuggets at Hill Stations all over India ,some effort by Oh Calcutta and Brown Sahib (current restaurants), Sola Toppee, The RaJ ( erstwhile restaurants that experimented with the Raj Cuisine).

I am told and have visited one of them in London, Veeraswamy’s has turned more regional Indian than Anglo Indian, the other one is Chutney Mary (another rather crude name for an Anglo Indian Lass), started by Camelia Punjabi is more regional Indian. The provocation for this post was a mail from Mina at The Attic. Informing us, about, a talk by David Housego (a journalist with The Economist, Financial Times, and now a textile entrepreneur in India) on Anglo Indian Cuisine. Followed by, dinner, at the India International Centre, with cooking guided and supervised by David.

The talk was largely around curry powder, using a powder instead of fresh spices. The lack of enthusiasm of the English ladies, deduced from the fact that the cookhouses were far and detached from dining areas, hence very little supervision. Accounts on cuisine, that the officers and more so, the soldiers ate poorly as there were often scrawny chicken and goats and sheep available ( read from some unknown sources). He had some detailed accounts which were anecdotal and enthusiastic. I would say more put together out of enthusiasm on the subject rather than absolute research. Where are words like Mish Mash and Rumble Dumble, so characteristic of Anglo Indian Food.

No mention of the use of Sherry and liquor consuming patterns, the high tea, the desserts, the caramel custard, use of pork and beef , breakfast and tea time treats, the influence and proliferation of bakeries and breads all over India, the reasons of neglect or lack of adaptation of the rich mughlai foods in the Anglo Indian diet, the aliveness of the cuisine in India today, the boarding houses and hostels of schools and colleges like Mayo, Sanawar, Doon, Welham and Scindia and St Stephens (read my post on Scramble and Mince at St Stephens Café from the Archives), of course NDA, IMA and OTA as Army training establishments, The mess at Lal Bahadur Shastri academy that trains IAS officers, apart from all the Institutions I have mentioned above. His talk left me cold, wanting for more.

The food, the menu, his talk was largely centered around the menu he had prepared, and pretended this was the universe in terms of Anglo Indian Cuisine, was at best a feeble attempt by the IIC (I presume North India cooks masquerading as Anglo Indian artists). Mulligatawny soup which I must say had authentic garnishes, (chopped boiled eggs, brown onions, chopped Bombay duck and peanuts) .Actually I will make it simple list the menu and mark my comments astride.
Soup,: Mulligatawny Soup, Anglo Indian Pumpkin Soup (As I said Mulligatawny was nice)
Non-Vegetarian: Captains Country Chicken ,Anglo Indian Mutton Cutlets, Pork Vindaloo Fish Cakes, Egg Curry. (The Chicken was bland with capsicum and pedestrian, cutlets like ordinary cutlets are, fish cakes I like them because they are fish cutlets and not particularly Anglo, pork, some element of work esp. the vinegar- Goan and the egg curry was decent)
Vegetarian: Ladies-fingers Fugath, Country Captain of Vegetables, Brinjal Bharta, Spiced Fried Potatoes, Dal Khichur (or Kedgeree)i .Rice & Roti ( just had the spiced potatoes and the Khichuri, not the Kedgeree with a kippers and a poached egg one would expect, which was hmm what can I say, surprised no breads at all, I mean English breads, no mention in the talk or represented in the food) ( Even to this day we get the Sourdough bread from the Manor Hotel in Delhi, loosely called Manohar Bread).
Chutneys/Pickles / Garnishes (some were nice, esp. the chopped mango as garnish apart from the garnishes with the soup, mentioned above)
Desserts: Bread and Butter Pudding, Banana ,Fritters, Ice Cream (bread and butter pudding was nice but not from what ought to have been and the fritter was passable).
Net, it was an Indian meal with Anglo Indian names, I guess a certain cuisine, any for that matter needs, learning , scale and practice over a period of time with of course the ingredients. The ambience was nice with tables reserved for Jairam Ramesh , Deb Mukherji, and guests like the Timms…. Pamela Timms a member of the eating out in Delhi Forum where I am a member, refused to recognize me as usual. All the heat and dust around her High Teas, I guess.
It was pleasurable as an experience sharing the table with publishers Bill and Lisa Hawk. As I am not a member of IIC, was there through the Attic, the snooty waiters refused to even ask us for a drink. At the end I have to say, it’s a rich tradition and a rich cuisine which was presented in shallow manner with passable food in an elegant setting.
Do you have a pleasant memory of the Anglo Indians and the food , please do write in .
So Long !

Friday, April 16, 2010

2 Nights 3 Days....... You are in The Army Now

Headed for the Silver Reunion of my regiment at Babina, the dice is loaded. Boarded a shagged out coach of the Shatabdi Express to Jhansi, the destination is Babina (an acronym, Briish Army Base in Native Asia). Babina is also one of the poorest districts in Uttar Pradesh, though it feels like Madhya Pradesh. It’s the district where Rahul Gandhi has his humble meals in a humble village home of Bundelkand ( of the once famous Chandravanshi kings who gave us Khajuraho and Orcha, why is it that, illustrious kingdoms in the past are impoverished areas today, e.g. Pataliputra is modern Bihar). Was expecting the blood red German Coaches. Instead stuck with an early 70s was it the 80s coach. Lots of officers from my Armored Regiment and their families are travelling today. My neighbors on the train are (children of General Sanjeev Loomba, my first squadron Commander) Sahil and Shayla Loomba (and her husband Rohit).

We are off to a good start, all food oriented persons and our conversation skews towards unheard of food places in Delhi, Sahil a doctor with St Stephens Hospital surprises me with his repertoire of fantastic places in North Delhi, Ganesh In Karol Bagh (he clucks sympathetically, I haven’t heard of It), you have to have the fish and keema naans. Then Mezbaan , Zaika and Chacha Kebabs in Kamlanagar and A-1 Bakery behind Bungalow Road. I make copious mental notes. Rohit gets up from his slumber and adds a few places in South Delhi, fortunately I know all. I was beginning to lose the faith you know. Breakfast arrives.

I have to declare, I enjoy Train food especially breakfast more than the plane food. I am regular on aircrafts and I nod distastefully when they serve breakfast in air. Here I was enthusiastically looking forward to the cutlets with peas and limp fries, cold omellette and bread with a dubious sauce. It’s probably because I do it once in a while. I love it , somehow the childhood memory and the novelty of the semi warm breakfast on the train has not worn off yet. We are served, there are three variants, and we have all three . That’s, cutlets and bread, omellete and bread and upma vada. The waiter understands, this is the high rollers table and knows a handsome tip will be given. So he passed on the extra breakfasts of the regular train travelers to distastefully nod no to breakfast, to us.

We arrive and I have a crew for the next 2 nights and 3 days, Driver Lance Dafedar Devendar from Meerut and 10 Armored Regiment and Sowar Pradeep Chauhan my Buddy from Pataudi and my Regiment The 15 Armored Regiment. We have a smart Gypsy Jeep, while some get Toyota Innova’s and hired Tata Indica’s I am happy with mine. Immerse into a warm afternoon at the big tent at the Officers Mess, The relief is the Cold beer and the warm snacks, I switch to a gin and lime with the typical army mess style pickled onions (actually the right way, which many Michelin starred bars and restaurants miss out). The conversation meanders. Everytime a white haired, or bald, or apple shaped old timer walks in there is some cheers and laughter. Really almost like a convocation of old Turkey Buzzards. I remark we will appreciate some people in the course of the next few days and also depreciate a few. Laughter all around.
Lunc is lserved, Biryani and Bone Curry, the tradition continues, we (me and my good friend Raghu) taught this to cooks in the late 80’s nearly 22 years ago and here at the reunion we have the same lunch after an intense liquid diet.

The next big gig is the The Big Feast or Barakahana, quite honestly a relic of the past, designed for the British officers to interact with local Risaldars and the Risalas (todays JCO and the local subunits)The Cavalary which is todays armored regiments were raised by local fiefs providing a standing cavalary unit in return they got the right to collect taxes..

The food in the army is of a certain type with a certain taste. You eat it more out of hunger than desire. Especially with traditional recipes changing. I personally like the halal meat curry as compared to jhatka meat, with rice. The Jhatka always has bone fragments. The atmosphere is festive mostly rum is drunk. As a special case, the Commanding Officer, a youngster of mine when I was in the Unit (that’s how they call it), snapped his fingers and summoned whisky for me. Which a lot of people benefitted from including, Sahil, Rohit, and Vivek Law( amongst others). All children of Officers I had served with.

When someone remarked, you often see Samil with all the younger guys , I responded they are often smarter and I tend to learn more. Incidentally, Vivek Law, runs one or some of the channels for TV 18. So the food at the Barakhana was nothing much to write about. Also, the puritanical methods have changed for out sourcing some stuff to local caterers, who treat it as a wedding party and botch it up. So the traditional stuff you expect at the Barakhana or the JCO Mess party, go missing. Like hot pakoras, boiled eggs and sometimes egg pakoras stylishly called scotch eggs, liver fry, keema kaleji , spicy potato chips freshly fried with lots of red pepper, have just vanished. Even the food at The Officers Mess has changed for semi- western -continental -jankapuri style -caterer with a stylish names of unknown dishes. My advice stick to your grain and the basics, that’s pure and that’s puritanical, which still can be maintained and revived.

Walking in the evening on a lonely road with small loud speakers lining the road is almost an eerie experience listening to golden oldies like Jim Reeves and sometimes ( the organization my dearest wife Praveen works, Big 92.7 Fm ) broadcasted from Jhansi and transmitted on a lonely road in Babina seems like a communist country in Eastern Europe or Mao Zedong's era in China.

On the wonderfully done up Regimental Dinner Night with the works in the offing, I fell ill (too much of a good thing). My good old squady Katy sir(squadron Commander), ferried an Army Doctor to my room and got me medicines. The next morning Col HS Bedi and his ever so gracious wife offered to take me back on the chartered aircraft parked at Jhansi (from Alchemist Airways). We took the hours flight and were out of the Delhi airport in jiffy. A private plane experience absolutely unique for me.

Apart from the food, where would you find such affection anywhere and in any organisation. Your Old boss, bringing a doctor, another senior colleague taking you back in a private plane. Your youngster the CO, looking after what you are drinking. Dearest Friends Raghu, Rajiv Chaddha, Parry and Manish being by your side and making you feel 24 again. Almost magical even if it was for 2 nights and three days.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tea Centre : Mumbai, Paradise Lost

Prahlad Kakkar who ran this place for a few years once said “Tea makes you go in the morning and come at night”. The tea Centre has subsequently been run by Rathikant Basu (yes the bureaucrat turned, Star honcho, turned and humbled by his own channels Tara fame).Honestly I went to the place after reading Kalyan Karmakar’s blog (in this case blogs on the place). I have been in and around Chuchgate for nearly three decades, did a recce once, never sat down to eat there. This time we did.

It is not much of a salesman eating out kind of place, there are hundred others around Nariman Point. However, it may have been one, since a salesperson was a pretty high once in the value chain. It was started in 1956, by the Tea board. One of the objectives of the Tea board was , to popularize the consumption of tea in popular or populist settings. Delhi had the Tea board restaurant on Jan path, which was run by a grand Uncle of mine. It certainly, feels grand, yes Kalyan, a little like Calcutta club or at least a private club. New York has The Russian Tea Room. Mumbai, at Church gate, beside the Stadium restaurant in Resham Bhawan has the Tea centre.

This is large restaurant with crisp white covers and beige sofas (the ones with arms), maroon serviettes and air conditioning that’s below 20. Adjoining is a party room and a small tea store where I bought a bergamot flavored earl grey tea and a very cute round strainer.

Now the food, well I never do the blunder, but we did this time, we ordered the executive continental lunches, which promised. Grilled fish, Pimento Rice, Jacket Potatoes, Coriander Sauce Vegetables and Desert. Similar stuff for the vegetarians minus the fish. We thought it will be fast and the process of ordering quick. It turned out exactly the opposite, people around us got their food and we drank iced tea and twiddled our thumbs for 40 minutes. Enter the Executive Continental lunched, the vegetarians looked disappointed, The Non vegetarians equally disappointed, the grilled fish was in a mustard kind of sauce, the potatoes were boiled and smeared with brown gravy, the rice a vegetarian pulao,. The Desert an apology of a strawberry soufflé.

Overall a mediocre experience at an illustrious place. Maybe it was what we ordered, the perils of a food taster. The maths, about Rs 1500/ for the six of us for lunch a feeble dessert and teas for all-The quirky stuff on the menu and the walls like a “ a teapot is neck deep in hot water but still manages to sing” are really funny.

It’s a great a place for a middle aged manager to bring out the secretaries in his office for tea and pakoras. Its rather harsh, but actually some stuff like this was happening. The current lease holder is Cyrrus Chenoy, The new manager was Vispy a crisp middle aged man on his second day at work (his last job was at RTI, that’s another food story, I mean RTI). Around us everyone seemed appreciative and cool, For me it was a promised paradise lost.

Though out of line in most places, here there are tiny bells to draw attention to your table.

So Long !