Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tiffin in the Bay.

There was great excitement and interest in Brisbane in April 1881 when the Merkara, a British-India Company mail steamer en route from London via Batavia (Indonesia) arrived in Moreton Bay to deposit some of its passengers. A party of “between seventy and eighty ladies and gentlemen” made up of the mayor, aldermen, and “a number of our leading residents” were invited by the Captain to lunch aboard the vessel during her sojourn in the bay.

This was no mere lunch, this was apparently tiffin. Or at least it was one interpretation of the concept of tiffin. Presumably it was so named as a matter of principle - it was an “Indian” ship, it was the lunching hour, and there was ‘curry’ on the menu. It was in fact a huge meal which lasted several hours during which multiple courses of hefty British and Anglo-Indian food were washed down with copious amounts (it seems) of alcohol. Those former colonials must have been made of stern stuff.

The report of the event in the Brisbane Courier the next day is a marvellous example of nineteenth century food journalism – effusive, yes, tinted (by today’s standards) with political incorrectness, certainly, - but charming nonetheless. And as an added bonus, it reminds us of a ‘lost’ (or at least seriously underused) word.

The "luncheon" in the saloon was a banquet of the most récherché kind. On the very elegant bill of fare it was styled " Tiffin," and if any gourmet wants to kuow what tiffin is let him read the following paragraph slowly and on an empty stomach.
We are all seated. The apartment ia a charming one, taking in the whole breadth of thevessel, the sides being of birdseye maple panelling, and light gilt moulding running along the white beams. There are four tables ranged in parallel lines the whole length of the Saloon. These tables are bright with flowers and glass, and the snowy table napkins are arranged in shapes of such marvellous ingenuity that to unroll one critically is to penetrate an Asian mystery A small army of white helmeted, white robed kitmagars await a signal from some unseen chief, and then disperse noiselessly to offer each guest turtle or mulligatawny soup. This is a painful moment. The rich green fat swims alluringly in the pellucid liquid, but with a sigh you motion it away and take the other, having heard that an Indian cook scorns curry powder and makes his mullagatawney from the fresh condiments ground up on a stone. Your acuteness is richly rewarded. Given a turtle any ordinary artist can make good turtle soup, but the mullagatawney made by a Bengalee is hopelessly unatainable to the European chef.
By the time you have disposed of a salmon cutlet, you begin to realise that you are under the spell of a superior race. The kitmagar, who anticipates your every want before even your slow brain has had time to definitely formulate it, belongs to iu ancient civilisation. His ancestors were comporting themselves in the stately manner that distinguishes their descendant 3000 years ago, at which time yours were running about the woods dressed in a suit of blue paint, and had possibly not yet rubbed off their tails by assuming a sitting posture.
But let us get back from history to the entrées. Will you have “lamb chops and French beans”, “chicken cutlets and green peas,” or “fillets of duck and olives,” “stewed pigeons and mushrooms”, or “roast turkey and ham.” It is best not to have all five, because the dish of dishes has yet to come – the curry. Here is its, a plate of snowy rice – each grain of which looks as though it had been boiled in a separate saucepan – and then the choice of curried chicken, vegetables, or prawns. Of course you choose the crustaceans, and become suddenly conscious of how the most prosaic wants of our nature may by cultivation become sublimated into artistic appreciation of a truly noble art.
During the last half column remember you have been plied by assiduous attendants with champagne. In your gallant struggle with the bill of fare you have continually sought fresh vigour from your glass, and after each application a dusky hand has bid it foam again to the brim.
The sweets of many and curious sorts, the iced jellies, the almond pastry, the peach vol-au-vent, the cheese, the salad, the fruit- all these we pass with a mournful non possumus; and whilt you sip the cup of coffee which is the final note of this glorious concert, permit us to explain that this is “tiffin” – on board the Merkara.

What of the kitmagars - those silent, stately, dusky-handed attendants? The OED knows kitmagar as khidmutgar - a male servant who waits at table, the word apparently coming from Urdū.

Recipe for the Day.

I give you an interesting perspective on “curries” from The Englishwoman in India: information for ladies ..., 1864. The slightly confusing instructions as to the mixing and pounding of the ingredients are as they appear in the book.

Every native knows how to make these: chicken and prawn are, perhaps, the favourite ones: up country the dry prawns, which are sold by the seer in the bazaar, can be made into a very good curry, if they are well washed and half boiled in .water till tender.

1 lb. coriander seed (Dummiah).
¼ lb. turmeric (Huldee).
¼ lb. red chillies (Lai mirchee).
¼ lb. black pepper (Kala mirchee).
¼ lb. mustard seed (Rai).
2 ounces dry ginger (Soaut).
2 ounces garlic (Lussun).
2 ounces vendinne.
½ lb. salt (Nimmuck).
½ lb. sugar (Shuprgeo).
2 ounces cummin seed (Zeera).
½ lb. gram (Chenna).

Fry this and take off the husks, then pound it with the other ingredients and mix with

½ pint salad oil
½ pint vinegar.

Quotation for the Day.

Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what's for lunch.
Orson Welles


Shay said...

Peach vol au mouth is watering at the thought.

KT said...

This reminds me of going to Indian buffet lunch with a Korean-American friend (I'm white-girl born in the wrong continent) and we would exclaim over the food all the way to the restaurant and all the way through lunch. Mmm... curry.

The Old Foodie said...

Oh Yes .... curry in any form ... and peach vol-au-vents. Sounds like a great example of fusion cuisine to me ....