breakfast habits interacted with the rich and diverse Indian culinary landscape
The story of curry and curry powder often portrays Indian culinary traditions as being manipulated by their colonisers. But the British were responsible for creating breakfast curries.
Within the historical kitchens of colonial India, there is a fascinating blend of cultures and flavours that have left an indelible mark on the country’s culinary landscape.
Breakfast curries are an intriguing fusion that is a testament to the cross-cultural exchange that occurred during the colonial period, marrying the traditional British breakfast with the vibrant spices and ingredients of India.
In this exploration, we delve into the origins, influences and enduring legacy of breakfast curries, shedding light on how this unique gastronomic fusion became an integral part of India’s culinary heritage.
Join us on a journey through time as we uncover the rich and flavorful tapestry that was breakfast curries during colonial India.
The British Raj
Edward Fane, the nephew of British General Sir Henry Fane, provides a vivid description of breakfasts during his travels through India in 1858.
Contrary to the simple English breakfast of bread, tea, and butter, the morning meals of local English families included bacon, eggs and toast.
As these breakfast habits interacted with the rich and diverse Indian culinary landscape, a unique fusion emerged – the breakfast curry.
Common elements of breakfast curries included spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric and garam masala, which were added to dishes like scrambled eggs, omelettes, or even leftover meats.
This was the breakfast curry, a common feature of the British Raj’s diet.
As Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1877, the culinary landscape underwent significant changes.
British officers’ wives and children joined them to establish permanent residencies in India, and Anglo-Indian cookery became much more Anglo.
Dinners were typically British, featuring roasts and potatoes, but breakfasts retained their Indian character.
Anglo-Indians continued to enjoy curry, albeit often in private.
Breakfast curry became a kind of guilty pleasure for Anglo-Indians, a break from the British foods that were typically served to guests.
The 1894 Mem Sahib’s Book of Cookery noted that “curry is eaten in almost every household at least once daily, generally at breakfast”
Despite some dismissive accounts of curry, most colonial cookbook authors seemed to appreciate curry and wanted to learn more about it.
How did Colonial Food Culture Evolve?
The nature of British colonial presence in India and the colonial food culture underwent significant changes over the centuries.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, British people working in India for the British East India Company were mostly single men who were heavily dependent on their Indian servants for food.
Therefore, they ate regional foods of the Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) Presidencies.
These meals often centred around the foods cooked and eaten by meat-eating Indian Muslim communities at the time, namely creamy, Persianate qormas and qalias: curries.
As British rule formalised and stabilised, British colonial officials living for decades in India started to call themselves Anglo-Indians.
Culinary fusions developed too, such as kedgeree, which contains so much flaked fish it’s pretty much nothing like the daal and rice khichdi that it’s based on.
Another colonial creation was the Tiffin.
Derived from the British slang ‘tiffing’, it emerged as a light lunch adapted to India’s hot weather.
While these tiffins contained mainly curry and rice, the Sunday Curry Tiffin was an overindulgence of food with mulligatawny soup, curry and rice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
But when it came to curry, 19th-century cookbook recipes seem surprisingly authentic.
These cookbooks highlighted that for British imperial officers, there was not just one generic ‘curry’ but a range of curries, some of which were quite accurate representations of local South Indian breakfasts.
All these recipes call for whole spices or ground whole spices. They also featured cooking methods that are still common in India today.
By the late 1800s, Anglo-Indians prided themselves on their abilities to perform both sides of that hyphen.
As the British colonial government became increasingly institutionalised, underscored by increasingly bigoted programs of racial difference, curries became a more intimate part of Anglo-Indians’ diet.
Breakfast curry was a break from conspicuous consumption, from demonstrating knowledge of the latest European dining trends, from the seemingly ceaseless work of entertainment that formed the cultural backbone of British colonial life.
It seemed many British officials were nostalgic for the days of social integration. They were nostalgic for curry.
Was ‘Curry’ a Colonial Invention?
The word ‘curry‘ has often been labelled a derogatory oversimplification of India’s diverse regional cuisines.
The word itself was never Indian. It was introduced by the British as a term to label Indian dishes. The word to this day, means nothing to native people in South Asian countries like India.
Some historians claim that the word Curry evolved from the old English words Cury and Currey. Others say Curry is an Anglicised version of the Tamil word Kari.
Therefore, it is important to note that dishes which non-Indians call ‘curries’ were a part of Indian diets long before the British arrived.
In fact, during colonial India, curry was a site of mutual accommodation and negotiation between colonial officials and their Indian staff, especially their cooks.
The British colonisers’ fondness for spicy and savoury breakfast curries is a testament to Indian food’s resistance to cultural domination.
Today’s conversation about curry and colonialism often focuses on curry powder.
Specifically, how English businessmen cheapened India’s diverse masalas by marketing instead a single spice blend of mainly turmeric and how curry powder’s imperial spread to Britain and its colonies served to incorporate the “exotic” subcontinent into the English body politic.
The written record of colonial food tells the story from the British side.
But these cookbook authors and household manual writers and memoirists weren’t doing the actual cooking.
These recipes belonged to the household manager, the khansama, or the cook (bawarchi) who prepared breakfast curries alone.
The Indian cooks’ skills and culinary traditions overcame Anglo-Indians’ pretensions to conquer their dining tables throughout, eventually, the whole British Empire.
The Legacy of Breakfast Curries
The legacy of breakfast curries from colonial India persists today, as these culinary fusions have become integral parts of Indian breakfast traditions.
Dishes like masala omelettes, keema (minced meat) with toast and spiced scrambled eggs continue to be enjoyed across the country.
Additionally, the idea of combining traditional Indian spices with Western-style breakfast items has influenced modern interpretations of breakfast in India, showcasing the enduring impact of colonial culinary exchanges.
In tracing the origins and evolution of breakfast curries during colonial India, we find ourselves immersed in a culinary narrative that transcends time and borders.
The fusion of British breakfast traditions with the diverse and aromatic spices of India resulted in a gastronomic legacy that continues to tantalise taste buds today.
It is evident that breakfast Curries are more than just a culinary relic; they represent the resilience of Indian cuisine in the face of historical changes.
The amalgamation of ingredients, cooking techniques and cultural influences has given rise to dishes that not only reflect the colonial era but also celebrate the harmonious blending of flavours from different corners of the world.
Whether you savour the spice-laden omelettes, relish the flavorful keema with toast, or indulge in the nostalgia of colonial breakfast tables, the legacy of breakfast curries is a living testament to the enduring power of food to bridge cultures and create something uniquely delightful.
So, the next time you savour a masala-laced breakfast, remember the bygone era when British and Indian culinary traditions danced together.