Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Calcutta in Olden Time.

Ah! The Life of the British expatriate in Colonial India! I caught a glimpse of it during my brief research into my post on Burdwan Stew, and cannot resist sharing it with you. 

The story comes from a section called Calcutta in Olden Time, in The Calcutta Review, Vol. XXXV, which was published in Calcutta in 1860 - but as the header suggests, covers the social situation and meals (and drinking habits) of half a century earlier.

The distinctions of rank among Europeans were rigorously insisted on in Calcutta last century, as strictly as at the Court of Lisbon. People were few, and the Anglo-Indians were equally noted on the banks of the Hooghly as of the Thames for social despotism, through boasting of political equality. 

… Lord William Bentinck was the first man in high position to break through "the unjust and aristocratical distinctions which have for so long a period festered the feelings of those in the less elevated grades of Indian society, by extending the invitations to Government-House to persons, who, previous to his appointment, had not been considered eligible to so high an honour." He opened his levéess at Government-House to a lower grade, much to the displeasure of Civilians and Big-wigs :—

Breakfast is described as "the only dégage meal, every one ordering what is most agreeable to their choice, and in elegant undress chatting à la volonté; whilst on the contrary, dinner, tea, and supper are kind of state levées." Business was despatched in the morning. Europeans then did not work as hard in offices as they do now, and when Lord W. Bentinck arrived here he was surprised at the laziness even then prevailing. The Europeans were eased by the keranies of a great part of the little work they would otherwise have to perform. The dinner hour last century was about 2 o'clock; it gradually became later. Lord Valentia states, in 1803 "at 12 o'clock Calcutta people take a hot meal which they call tiffin, and then generally go to bed for 2 or 3 hours, the dinner hour is commonly between 7 and 8, which is certainly too late in this hot climate, as it prevents an evening ride at the proper time, and keeps them up till midnight or later, the viands are excellent and served in great profusion to the no small satisfaction of the birds." 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, Hartley House thus describes the dinner.

"At twelve a repast is introduced, consisting of cold ham, chickens, and cold shrub, after partaking of which, all parties separate to dress. The friseur now forms the person anew, and those who do not choose to wear caps, however elegant or ornamented, have flowers of British manufacture (a favourite mode of decoration) intermixed with their tresses, and otherwise disposed s so as to have an agreeable effect. Powder is, however, used in great quantities, on the idea of both coolness and neatness: though, in my opinion, the natural colour of the hair would be more becoming: but the intense heat, I suppose, renders it ineligible. At three, the day after my arrival, as is usually the case, the company assembled, in the hall or saloon, to the number of four and twenty ; where besides the lustres and girandoles already mentioned, are sofas of Chinese magnificence; but they are only substituted for chairs; what is called cooling, in the western world, being here unpractised, and during the whole period of dinner, boys with slappers and fans surround you, procuring you at least a tolerably comfortable artificial atmosphere. The dishes were so abundant and the removes so rapid, I can only tell you, ducks, chickens, fish, (no soup, take notice, is ever served up at Calcutta.)"

Supper was light, at ten o'clock, a glass or two of a light wine, with a crust, cheese, then the hookah and bed by 11. Lord Cornwallis, on New Year's day in 1789, invited a party to dinner at 3 ½  at the Old Court House. Turtle and turkey courted the acceptance of the guests, a ball opened at 9 ½  in the evening, supper at 12, they broke up at 4 in the morning.

People sat a long time after dinner, enjoying stillness in the heat of the day, "It is no unfrequent thing for each man to despatch his three bottles of claret, or two of white wine, before they break up; having the bottles so emptied, heaped up before them as trophies of their prowess." Nor was this confined to the gentlemen. Hartley House mentions.—" Wine is the heaviest family article; for, whether it is taken fashionably or medicinally, every lady, even to your humble servant, drinks at least a bottle per diem, and the gentlemen four times that quantity."

… With respect to drinks, beer and porter were little used being considered bilious,—the favourite drinks were madeira and claret; cider and perry also formed part of the beverages; ladies drank their bottle of claret daily while gentlemen indulged in their three or four, and that at five rupees a bottle! This was far inferior to the beer drinking propensities of various men 20 years ago, when a dozen a day was thought little of in Mofussil districts. A drink was in use called country-beer. “A tempting beverage, suited to the very hot weather and called country beer, is in rather general use, though water artificially cooled is c commonly drank during the repasts: in truth nothing can be more gratifying at such a time, but especially after eating curry. Country-beer is made of about one-fifth part porter, or 1 beer with a wine glass full of toddy or palm-wine which is the general substitute for yeast, a small quantity of brown sugar, and a little grated ginger or the dried peel of Seville oranges or of limes; which are a very small kind of lemon abounding in citric acid, and to be had very cheap."

As the recipe for the day I give you a thoroughly Anglo-Indian dish of cod, from The Cook and Housewife's Manual (1826)

Cod Curried.
A large fish that comes in fine flakes is best. Fry the pieces in butter, with plenty of sliced onions, of a fine brown, and stew them in a little white gravy, thickened with butter rolled in flour, about a glassful of rich cream, and a large dessert spoonful of curry powder.

Observations—Cream for curries is, we think, the better of being a little turned, that is, thick and sourish, but not clotted. Good butter-milk makes an excellent substitute for cream in this and all common made-dishes.

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