The diaries of nineteenth century colonial wives give a fascinating glimpse into the era, the lifestyle, the attitudes – and, of course, the food. I loved the following explanation of breakfast - the meal in which we tolerate the least variation from our personal routine. Note that the ‘Civilian Wife’s’ status as a mere appendage to her husband is reinforced by her name. She is “Mrs Robert”.
Dec. 9. - Yesterday Lord de Grey passed through on his way to the Doon, where he is to have some shooting. The Collector asked us to breakfast to meet him, and we sat down at eleven o'clock to an excellent Scotch breakfast - a great contrast, let me tell you, to the orthodox Indian one. The latter, as seen in ninety-nine houses in a hundred, is merely a mistimed dinner, differing in hardly any respect from dinner except in not beginning with soup. You sit down to a blank table covered only with flowers, and the servants hand round course after course - fish, curry, cutlets, aspic, game, winding up by placing finger-bowls and dessert n the table ! It is a custom we have never reconciled ourselves to, and in our own house we insist on having an English breakfast-table but long and weary have been the struggles, with every fresh servant before he will give up his attempt to show us what is proper.
Diary of a Civilian Wife in India, 1887-1882, Mrs Robert Moss King.
The Recipe for the Day comes from a cookbook contemporary to Mrs Robert’s adventure. The slightly pompous, paternalistic tone of Culinary Jottings: a treatise in thirty chapters on reformed cookery for Anglo-Indian rites, (1885) by A.R. Kenney-Herbert is mildly amusing, but it is hard not to wince at the repeated appearance of ‘Ramasamay’ – the generic servant to the superior white man.
Here is Kenney-Herbert on the subject of trying to get good fried fish in India, where the Ramasamays just keep on sabotaging the process.
The art of frying fish consists in being prodigal in the use of the medium which you employed to cook with. The fish should be absolutely immersed in a bath of boiling fat or oil, which should be carefully tested so that you may be convinced of its temperature. "If your fat be not sufficiently heated," says the authority I have already quoted, "the fish you want to fry will turn out a flabby and greasy mess, instead of a crisp, appetising dish." For nearly all fish-frying, the frying basket is an invaluable utensil, used, of course, in conjunction with the deep-sided friture-pan.
Fish, fried in the English fashion, is generally egged and bread-crumbed. The Italians, who are perhaps the best 'frysters' in the world, either flour their fish, or dip it in batter. Both methods are, to my mind, vastly superior to the bread-crumbing process. If, however, you must use crumbs, see that they are stale, and well sifted; not the pithy lumps, both great and small, too often set before you, because Ramasamy will not look ahead, and rarely, if ever keeps a bottled supply of stale, well rasped bread in hand.
To obtain a satisfactory result, proceed as follows : -
Having crumbled some stale bread as small as you can in a napkin, pass the crumbs through a stiff wire sieve; then place the plate containing them into the oven to dry thoroughly. To apply them properly, beat up two eggs with a dessert-spoonful of salad oil, and the same of water. This mixture should be brushed over the fish like varnish, and the fish should then be turned over in a napkin, containing the dry crumbs.
Quotation for the Day.
Breakfast is a notoriously difficult meal to serve with a flourish.