Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Period Piece : Culinary Jottings for Madras

I had long heard of this book by Wyvern (real name Col Arthur Robert Kenny-Herbert) and got myself a paperback, facsimile reprint, published 1994 by Prospect Books, for the very reasonable price of seven quid in London in 1995. It is now available online, free, at :

Col Kenny-Herbert (1840 - 1916) arrived in Madras in 1859, after his schooling in Rugby, to join the Madras Cavalry. After his retirement in the early 1890's he returned home to found the Commonsense Cookery Association. Culinary Jottings was first published in 1885 in Madras by Higginbothams Ltd, a firm that is still in business (see pic).

This period was the High Noon of empire in India, plenty of memsahibs came out to stay in the country for the entire length of the spouse's service. But since it was unimaginable or out of the question for a memsahib to take to domestic duties when the husband was a de facto ruler of a district, cooks were a necessary part of the domestic establishment. This is where Wyvern comes in with his Culinary Jottings and homilies on cook management.

Culinary Jottings is purportedly a book on Anglo Indian cuisine but is really mostly about how to prepare authentic Brit food, albeit Frenchified in the fashion of the late 19th Century, in steamy Madras (the souffle should not collapse), making maximum use of ingredients locally available. It is not a mere recipe book but a serious cookery book of, and in the style of, the times with the author going into enormous detail on getting every step just right. Wyvern has a rambling, person to person style and sometimes bludgeons you with detail, but the book makes first class reading as an amusing diversion. Especially to be commended are Wyvern's fulminations on the cussedness of Ramasamy and Meenakshi (the Madras equivalent of Joe and Jane ), his generic names for all Indian cooks.

At the risk of being tiresome by quoting at some length, here is a sampler on what Wyvern calls " Ramasamy's Awful Soup" :

" Ramasamy's .... self-taught method of soup-making may be briefly described as follows : He cuts up the soup-meat, and bone, and throws them into the digester pot; he next adds the vegetables, pepper, salt and spice, covers the dish with water, puts the vessel .... on a good, brisk fire and walks off to his rice, leaving his tunnycutch* to watch the broiling. All she does is to see that there is plenty of firewood under the digester. .... boiling point is speedily reached in this way of managing matters. In an hour or so the cook returns and finds the water he put onto the pot to be reduced to about one-third of its original quantity; this is, of course, a very strong broth, he accordingly strains it off, and calls it his "first sort gravy". He then returns the meat & c. to the pot again, covers it with water and lets that boil away. The liquid thus produced, I need scarcely say, is terrible to look upon, and very nasty to taste, the whole essence of the meat having been frittred away by this first process. It is a dull, greasy looking fluid like dish washings. Nevertheless, Ramasamy strains it off and calls it " the second sort gravy". He next amalgamates the two "sorts", browns the mixture with burnt onion, and clarifies it with the white of an egg. Having got it clear, he rasps some raw potato into it to obtain a nice glutinous starch, and when the soup seems sufficiently gummy, he strains once more and sends it to the table".

Concludes Wyvern : "Setting aside other considerations, pray observe the wastefulness of this awful process. .... half the quantity of soup-meat and bone required by the ignorant native cook may be saved if he could be prevailed upon to follow the laws of intelligent cookery". (And pray observe Wyvern's liberal use of hyphenation).

(* A tunnycatch is literally a water carrier but refers to a general factotum, as often female as male, who all cooks had to have.)

Having a couple of live-in Ramsamy's of our own for the last ten years (strapping,eager beaver lads, keen to please) , I empathise with Wyvern. I see nothing racist in his remarks, there are over thirty passages in the book on the foibles of Ramsamy, and they are properly to be seen as tirades against the inborn cussedness and obstinacy of cooks in general. I know, I know and I often liken the inventiveness of my lads to that of a telegraphist trying to impart sense to a telegram he only needs to render into Morse and belt out.

The book is mostly British food, no conessions to the geography of Madras other than use of locally available stuff. So, it is mostly a book to be dipped into and enjoyed, why would I want to eat English food in Madras, but there are a few Indian dishes which Wyvern commends.

The most notable of them is Madras Club Mutton Quoorma which is best when made with gorse and bramble fed Indian goat rather than with New Zealand lamb. This is one dish we often make at home. I provide the inspiration, courtesy Wyvern, Vasumathi my wife, a strict vegetarian by the way, chips in with a vigilant, Wyvernesque supervision and the lads excel under those conditions. All our friends, Indian and the odd firangi, love this Quoormah, its notable feature is that no chillies are used in its preparation and the almond and cashew nut paste gives it a creamy quality. Try it, it is on Page 303 of the book.

Below from the Economic Times, Bombay :

The return of Culinary Jottings for Madras

3 May, 2008, 0302 hrs IST,Vikram Doctor, TNN

I first came across Colonel Kenney-Herbert while reading Elizabeth David. This British writer who has near Goddess status in food writing was an admirer of the Colonel, praising his Culinary Jottings for Madras particularly in her study Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. That was some recommendation and I was also intrigued because I had just moved to the city that was still to be called Chennai. Who was this culinary genius who had flourished in such apparently unpromising surroundings?

Madras at that time was hardly the Raj city of the Colonel, but vestiges still existed in grand old buildings, in Higginbotham's booksellers which had published his Jottings, and the cavernous halls of the old Spencer's department store which would have supplied him with the imported tinned food whose over-use he deplored, but which he was often forced to use in order to produce what he felt was an acceptable standard of dining. These were just vestiges, and I thought the Colonel's book would bring them to life so I searched hard for it.

I asked second-hand booksellers and checked old libraries, but no one had a copy. Finally, a few years back, I got one thanks to Mr S Muthiah, Madras' historian, who had himself made a copy from a book found in a British library. Promising to return it soon, I fled to a photocopying shop and made my own copy from it.

It was worth the trouble. The Colonel's Jottings, which he published under the name Wyvern (which I'll use for brevity) is wonderful for many reasons, of which nostalgia is just one. Its certainly interesting reading anecdotes from his career which spanned from 1859, just after the Rising, to 1892, near the apogee of the Raj, but the book was never meant to be a memoir.

It really is, as he explained with full Victorian floridness: "A Treatise in Thirty Chapters on Reformed Cookery for Anglo-Indian Exiles Based Upon Modern English and Continental Principles with Thirty Menus For Little Dinners Worked Out in Detail."

To deconstruct this imposing subtitle one has to understand the culinary history of the period Wyvern wrote in. Coming to India in 1859, as a young man he would have known many British residents from the East India Company days when it was acceptable to adopt many Indian customs including eating mostly Indian food. Wyvern fondly recalls a "fine old servant of honest John Company" who would host 'tiffin' parties where he served "eight or nine varieties of curries with divers platters of freshly-made chutneys, grilled ham, preserved roes of fishes, &c."

But Wyvern's time in India saw the end to this world of Anglo-India (the phrase used to mean literally the British in India, and not the mixed race community that took on the name later) and the establishment of an Empire where British and Indians were rigidly divided. This was reinforced was by the insistence that the British live in a style identical (just grander) to what they would have lead back home.

So curry might be acceptable for breakfast or lunch or a private meal at home, but for formal public purposes it had to be British. As Wyvern notes in his introduction, he no longer saw any use for a curry based cookbook for the 'Anglo-Indian in England'; what was needed was to make food fit for "the Englishman in India."

The problem was that what this meant wasn't too clear since English food itself was undergoing profound change. The country based cooking of the past was being abandoned as England industrialised, and its new wealth drew foreign chefs like Francatelli and Soyer to London to set a new French influenced style. But there was a lot of confusion and poor execution, and this is what Wyvern wanted to correct.

He clearly had plenty of experience of the new cooking, yet he didn't go to the fashionable extreme either and denigrate all English cooking. He notes approvingly how a French waiter only coats salad leaves with the lightest vinaigrette dressing ("The thing to avoid is a sediment of dressing"), but also goes into the details of how to make a good English bread sauce or brown gravy.

Nor, despite his subtitle, does Wyvern disdain curries. He points out that because they are falling out of fashion people are forgetting how to make them properly, so have no idea of how good they can be. Naturally he's well aware that all curries aren't in the Northern style that others assumed was standard for all curries, and he emphasises the value of typically South Indian ingredients like tamarind and coconut milk. His appreciation for Indian vegetables is also quite unlike the British (or many Indians for that matter): "With cold cooked country vegetables, I have made capital salads; young brinjals, the mollay-keerai, bandecai, country beans, greens of all kinds and little pumpkins gathered very young, are all worthy of treatment in this way." He even recommends snake-gourd, 'podolong-cai', cooked in brown gravy as "well worth trying when vegetables are as scarce as they always are in hot weather."

That's an interesting way to look at snake-gourd, a vegetable most people turn up their noses at, and it shows another reason to value Wyvern. The Jottings fall into an interesting category of books on how to make foreign food in India, written by foreign writers based over here (Tarla Dalal on Mexican food does not count), so there is both authenticity and practical applicability. The entertaining Italian cookbook Food Is Home by the Goa-based chef Sarjano is one example, and then there's The Landour Cook Book from American missionaries based in that hill station, a book on Vietnamese cooking by the Vietnamese wife of an erstwhile director of the Alliance Francaise in Chennai, and other such books by the wives of diplomats.

Their great value is to show us how to look at available ingredients here differently, as Wyvern does with coconut flowers: "A very superior dish... The white stalks of the flower, if quite young, can be served exactly like asparagus. I.e.: — boiled, laid in a very hot dish, with plenty of butter melting over them.
Parts of the Jottings, it is true, can make one squirm since Wyvern didn't escape the British prejudices. A running theme in the book is to talk about Ramaswamy, meaning the standard native cook, whose abilities he acknowledges, but whose many shortcomings are deplored especially in comparison to Martha, a standard plain English cook. Ramasamy's shortcomings include lack of cleanliness, love of shortcuts like using tins and taste for dubious decorations like country parsley (coriander leaves).

It easy to get annoyed by this, until one considers how often we have heard upper-class housewives in India say exactly the same thing about their cooks. Wyvern is also fair, and his real point about Ramasamy's failings is that they are due to employers who don't get involved with their kitchens, leaving the cook directionless, yet faulting him when problems inevitable rise.

Wyvern's basic message is that we need to think intelligently and without prejudice about the food we eat. This is conveyed in a manner that is detailed without being boring, stern without being forbidding, and leavened with a bluff, military sense of humour and an unselfconscious appreciation of the joys of food.

It's not far from Elizabeth David's own style, so one can see why she appreciated him. The good news now is that Culinary Jottings for Madras has been reprinted by Prospect Books, the specialist food book imprint set up by the late Alan Davidson.

Tom Jaine, who has revised and extended Davidson's magisterial Oxford Companion to Food, now runs Prospect and very kindly sent me a copy of the reprint (their second, after a first in 1994), which has an introduction by Leslie Forbes with details of Wyvern's subsequent life.

This is a facsimile of the fifth edition for which Wyvern added on a fascinating essay on Indian kitchens, which for some reason was dropped for the seventh edition which is what I had earlier. Wyvern seems to have fiddled around quite a bit with his editions and given how interesting he always is, it would have been nice to have an appendix with all the major changes.

But that's a detail, compared to the joy of having him back in print at all. Sadly Prospect doesn't have an Indian distributor so those who want the book will have to order directly from their website at I hope an Indian distributor will take up Wyvern's book, which should never have vanished from out book and kitchen shelves.

1 comment:

Emlyn said...

Excellent article. Fascinating.