In my recent digging around in nineteenth century English texts covering the topics of Indian and ‘Oriental’ cookery, I was reminded of the topic of ‘Burdwan’ or ‘Birdwan’ stew, which has been on my list of things to tell you about for some time, so here goes!
It is clear from the references that Burdwan (or Birdwan) stew is an Anglo-Indian dish. The name presumably indicates some connection with Bardhaman (Burdwan or Barddhaman,) a city and district in West Bengal.
The earliest recipe I have come across to date is from Culina Famulatrix Medicinæ: Or, Receipts in Modern Cookery, with a Medical Commentary (1806) by Alexander Hunter, and it is a wonderfully opinionated piece:
An Indian Burdwan Stew.
A half-grown fowl being ready boiled, let it be cut up and put into a stew-pan with three table spoonfuls of essence of anchovy, three table spoonfuls of Madeira wine, a little water, a lump of butter rolled in flour, some shred onion, and Cayenne pepper to the taste. Stew over a slow fire till the onions are become tender. When poured into the dish, take a fresh Lime, and squeeze a little of the juice into the stew. Cold boiled or roasted lamb, or kid, are equally good when dressed in this manner.
This dish is frequently introduced in the East Indies, when the appetite begins to flag, after eating heartily of two courses; and being often dressed by the master or mistress, in the presence of the company, it is generally paid great attention to. The French have a saying, “L'appetit vient en mangeant.”[appetite comes with eating]. Hamlet says,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it feeds on.
When the stew is dressed on a small chafing dish, in the room where the company dine, it sends forth such a savoury smell, that it reminds us of what Eve felt when the apple was presented to her, during her disturbed dream.
- The pleasant savoury smell
So quicken'd appetite, that I, methought,.
Could not but taste it.
When Chilly can be procured instead of the Cayenne pepper, and the mild Bombay onions, the Burdwan becomes a dish that few can resist. But being too rich a mess to make a meal of, and being only eat when the stomach is satiated, Ignotus is of opinion that Archæus will enter his protest against the introduction of this eastern luxury.
An English Burdwan Stew.
TAKE a rabbit, or well fed fowl, and after being cut up, put it into a stew-pan with some slices of veal, and as much strong beef gravy as will cover the meat. Roll a piece of butter in flour, and add some shred onion, anchovy liquor, Cayenne pepper, salt, and port wine, to the taste. Stew over a slow fire for the space of twenty minutes, shaking the pan two or three times. Cold veal, rabbit or fowl, will make a good Burdwan.
Archæus is always indulgent to those men whose change of climate and modes of living have created a second nature; but he constantly shows his displeasure when he sees plain eaters suffering themselves to be led astray by dishes, that never were intended for them.
And a slightly simpler version, sans commentary, from the same era:
Oriental Dish, called a Birdwan Slew.
The following is a genuine and original receipt for making a bird wan stew, as practised in the East Indies, &c.—Let a fowl be first half boiled in a little water: then, cutting it up, put it to a pint of the water in which it was boiled, with two dozen anchovies, a glass-of white wine, a little butter and flour, boiled onions, pickled oysters, and Cayenne pepper, and stew it over a gentle heat. This, in India, is commonly done over what they call a lamp table.
The Family receipt-book, or, Universal repository of useful knowledge and experience
in all the various branches of domestic œconomy (London, 1810)
The actual dish was known before the first published recipe, as is the usual situation. The Calcutta Review in 1860 included an article on Calcutta in the Olden Time in which it quoted Lord Valentia on ‘Calcutta people’ in 1803:
They partook much of highly seasoned grills and stews; a particularly favourite one was the Burdwan stew, made of flesh, fish, and fowl, a sort of Irish stew, it was considered not very good unless prepared in a silver sauce-pan.
The importance of the silver saucepan is also mentioned in Original Letters from India (1817) by Eliza Fay.
The Doctor’s Lady is a native of Jamaica and like those “children of the sun,” frank and hospitable to a degree - fond of social parties in the old style “where the song and merry jest circulate round the festive board" particularly after supper. Dinner parties they seldom give; but I have been present at several elsewhere since the commencement of the cold season. The dinner hour as I mentioned before is two, and it is customary to sit a long while at table; particularly during the cold season; for people here are mighty fond of grills and stews, which they season themselves, and generally make very hot. The Burdwan stew takes a deal of time; it is composed of every thing at table, fish, flesh and fowl; - somewhat like the Spanish Olla Podrida. Many suppose that unless prepared in a silver saucepan it cannot be good; on this point I must not presume to give an opinion, being satisfied with plain food; and never tasting any of these incentives to luxurious indulgence.
In The Cook and Housewife's Manual (1829), by Meg Dods( pseudonym of Christian Isobel Johnstone) the author manages to give both an English and a French spin to her version of the recipe. She also leaves no doubt as to her real feelings about ‘Asiatic’ cookery.
This eastern preparation is of the English genus, devil, or French Salmi. It is made of cold poultry, rabbits, venison, kid, game, but is best of the latter. Make a sauce of melted butter with cayenne, or a fresh Chili if possible; a bit of garlic, essence of anchovy, and a sliced Spanish onion. Stew over a spirit-lamp till the onion is pulpy, when the Burdwan will be ready. Squeeze in a lime or Seville orange. Serve round very hot.*
*It would be very may to swell this section of the Manual with a formidable array of uncouth dishes and strange names, with Indian, Syrian, Turkish, and Persian Yaughs, Kabaubs, and Cuscussuies, &c., as modern travellers, and particularly the French, have paid considerable attention to Asiatic cooker; but this we consider a mere waste of space, which may be more usefully employed.