Vegetarian Egg Curry & Indian Trifle - Bring Colonial Bengal To Your Kitchen

 Vegetarian Egg Curry & Indian Trifle - Bring Colonial Bengal To Your Kitchen
(L-British Library; R-Aparna Challu)

Imagine waking up one morning on a teakwood bed covered in a fine quality Manchester cotton bedsheet, some embroidered lace wrapped around the sleek vertical posters and headboard, and fluffy pillows that are definitely not yours. You see the date—it’s 23 November 1907 and you are in Calcutta in your shoshur-bari (in-laws’ house). You need to get up and cook for your husband and your family. What do you do? You know that Prajnasundari Debi of the famous Tagore family in Jorasanko has recently released a cookbook that can be used to stir up a hearty meal quickly. What’s more, you have your mother’s cookbook—a certain Mrs Beeton had written a book some 40 years back that could help you make the best English dishes—something she had given you before your wedding, telling you that now you are married, you would need to learn to be a bhadramahila, a genteel Bengali woman.

Late 19th and early 20th century colonial Bengal was filled with tonnes of books and advice manuals training women to be genteel. The new-age Bengali baboos of the bhadralok (high-caste Anglicised Bengali clerks and administrative officials in the British colonial government) now not only wanted their wives to be ‘modern’ bhadramahila but also wanted them to be so in a certain way—be more like the British memsahib in her mannerisms and education, but never too much of a ‘bibi’—a modern woman who would forget her Indian roots. Such ‘fast’ women were actually ridiculed, whereas if a woman wasn’t modern enough, she was perceived to be a ‘prāchinā’ (of the older ages).

All of this education has been termed by historians as ‘construction of the new Bengali woman’. This construction has been explored in relation to domesticity and cooking also, with hundreds of manuals (several written by men) being released to teach the new woman how to cook like a bhadramahila. With the nationalist fervour being as high as ever, several of these books were also aiming at teaching women to cook for a virile and physically strong man. This was also a product of the colonial classification of the Bengali man as an effeminate weakling. So, specific food items like ghee were deliberately included in the menu. As a matter of fact, women were advised (a lot many times by men!) to use as much ghee as possible to build a strong menfolk.

Cookery books that instructed the women in ‘how best to produce, under the special circumstances of the country, the dishes approved by the taste of the polite society at home,’ were regularly published. The content list of Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s Pak Pranali (1883) and W.H. Dawe’s The Wife’s Help to Indian Cookery: Being a Practical Manual for Housekeepers (1888) and Mrs Beeton’s The Englishwoman’s Cookery Book (1875), showed some stark similarities. In fact, there were quite a lot of exchanges between the English and Bengali recipe books and a European dish could very well have an Indian form.

It could be said a lot of modern northern and eastern cooking evolved out of here, and the best part is that you can still stir up a fine spread very easily using these recipes. While dishes like ‘Indian fowl curry’ or ‘calf’s foot jelly’ might seem a little too fantastic for our modern Indian kitchen, most of the dishes are fairly simple and still hold the taste they used to about a century ago.

Take note of these exquisite recipes especially carved out from the annals for you to bring history to your kitchen and cook like a 19th-century bhadramahila.

Jo Cooks

Aaloor Muffin

What better an appetizer than vegan potato muffin?! Follow Prajnasundari Debi’s recipe to make some crispy Aaloor Muffin (Potato Muffin).

Also, note that this one of the very few variants that use pointed gourd instead of cheese.

Ingredients: Potatoes 250 gms, 1 onion, 4 green chillies, 6 pointed gourds, refined flour (maida), water or milk 30 gms, salt, 2 pinches of black pepper, gram flour, flour, ghee 150 gms.

Pranālī (Process): Peel the potatoes and boil them. It will take 20-25 minutes for them to boil. Mash the boiled potatoes. Dice the pointed gourd in wheel shape (round) and cut the onion and the chillies really small. Heat the ghee and upon getting heated, stir up the onion and chillies followed by the pointed gourd. Stir the gourd for 2 minutes and then add maida to it and stir for 3 minutes. Once the gourd gets properly mixed with maida, add water, a little salt, and a pinch of black pepper. Once the gravy gets thick, put it aside in a bowl making sure that the mixture is not too dry. This would take 3 minutes. Take the mashed potatoes and make ball-like shapes with them. Then flatten them out and place the gourd mixture on top of it. Put another potato flat mash on top of this. The filling should hold both the potato wheels together. This would look like a sandwich. Make 2 muffins in this way. Take a separate bowl and put gram flour, flour, and some salt. Add water/milk and mix them well. Dip the muffin in this muffin and deep fry them in ghee. It takes around 5 minutes to get fried properly.

Serve with: Khichudi or with Dal-Rice

Prajnasundari Debi often found herself in the midst of several debates, one particular time about the recipe of guava jelly. In another event, she argued that the remaining portion of a fruit, rather than being thrown away, could be used to make morabbā (candied fruit). Mother Tagore, thus, was eminently creative when it came to cooking. Here’s another dish to get your creativity spiking. Ever heard of

Mellown Spicy

Vegetarian egg curry

Follow this recipe to make egg curry without using eggs.

Ingredients: Potatoes, split Bengal gram, onions, ginger, chillies, turmeric.

Pranālī (Process): Peel the potatoes and boil them. Cut the potatoes from the middle, in half-egg shape. Scoop out the insides and stuff it with lentil mix of split Bengal gram that’s been soaked in water overnight and ground-up fine with a seasoning of salt and sugar. The filling should resemble an egg yolk. Heat ghee or oil in a pan and fry the stuffed potatoes. In a separate pan, add onions, ginger, chillies, and turmeric to the ghee/oil. Fry it till the oil separates and the masala starts drying up. Add a little water and let it simmer. Put the potatoes and keep stirring till they are cooked well. Sprinkle ghee on top, then cover the pan for some time. Serve hot.

Serve with: Khichudi or with Dal-Rice

Mrs Beeton, photographed in about 1854
Mrs Beeton, photographed in about 1854Walls with Stories

Following the appetizers and the main course, are Mrs Isabella Beeton’s famous desserts and a special kind of dessert wine.

Indian Trifle

Note: The recipe has been copied verbatim from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Ingredients: 1 quart of milk (~ one litre), the rind of 1/2 large lemon, sugar to taste, 5 heaped tablespoonfuls of rice-flour, 1 oz. of sweet almonds, 1/2 pint of custard.

Mode: Boil the milk and lemon-rind together until the former is well flavoured; take out the lemon-rind and stir in the rice-flour, which should first be moistened with cold milk, and add sufficient loaf sugar to sweeten it nicely. Boil gently for about 5 minutes, and keep the mixture stirred; take it off the fire, let it cool a little, and pour it into a glass dish. When cold, cut the rice out in the form of a star, or any other shape that may be preferred; take out the spare rice, and fill the space with boiled custard. Blanch and cut the almonds into strips; stick them over the trifle, and garnish it with pieces of brightly-coloured jelly, or preserved fruits, or candied citron.

Time: 1/4 hour to simmer the milk, 5 minutes after the rice is added.

[Mrs Beeton also gives us these extra details that only add to our imagination.]

Average cost, 1shilling. (We can only wish some things had stayed the same!)

Sufficient for 1 trifle.

Seasonable at any time.

Egg Wine

This winter, go vintage and cook up a nice Egg Wine to go with your muffins and pastries.

Ingredients: 1 egg, 1 tablespoonful and 1/2 glass of cold water, 1 glass of sherry, sugar and grated nutmeg to taste.

Mode: Beat the egg, mixing with it a tablespoonful of cold water; make the wine-and-water hot, but not boiling; pour it on the egg, stirring all the time. Add sufficient lump sugar to sweeten the mixture and a little grated nutmeg; put all into a very clean saucepan, set it on a gentle fire, and stir the contents one way until they thicken, but do not allow them to boil.

Serve in a glass with sippets of toasted bread or plain crisp biscuits. When the egg is not warmed, the mixture will be found easier of digestion, but it is not so pleasant a drink.

Sufficient for 1 person.

Now that you’ve pretty much become an expert of colonial cuisine, get off your Manchester cotton bedsheets, get your cutest apron out, and prepare to bring history to your kitchen. Just remember to cut the patriarchy into slices and toss it in the bin while you’re at it.

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