The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook

Image of The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (Oxford World's Classics Hardcovers)
Release Date: 
April 12, 2010
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“The tale of the British in India holds keys to the universal story of colonization. A no-nonsense book, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook provides a very engrossing narrative and amplifies the story of how a small island off the coast of Europe managed to run an empire of millions of souls. It can be said that it all began in the kitchen. . . .”

European women who lived in 19th and 20th century foreign outposts sought authoritative voices to guide them through the challenges of living far from the familiar. Although local labor bore the brunt of daily domestic work, wives of colonialists needed information on how to direct their servants.

Traveling in India, whether from place to place as the Viceroy’s wife or as the wife of a lowly British civil servant, entailed a certain degree of hardship. Consider, for example, the wife of the eighth viceroy to India, Harriet Georgina Blackwood, who compiled a journal about her experiences, covering the period of 1884–1888. Her comments about food, menus, dinners, etc., provide ample evidence that women of her social class and station did not sully the burners of a stove.

But they did need cookbooks to help them in managing their households.

English women going out to colonial India likely packed several cookbooks in their steamer trunks. In the early years, among the many possible tomes available, Mrs. Beeton’s brick-sized Book of Household Management (1861) took up little room, but packed a powerful wallop on the lives of English women in India. Valuable not only for its culinary instructions and ties to home, the Book of Household Management also included much medical advice, valuable to those living in isolated stations without medical help nearby.

Even today, Where There is No Doctor and an updated copy of the PDR (Physicians Desk Reference) are de rigueur for people working in development in the bush.

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton jumped on the speeding curry bandwagon by including a few curry recipes and one for a curry powder touted by Dr. William Kitchiner in The Cook’s Oracle.

According to David Burnett and Helen Saberi in The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks and Curry Books (2009), Mrs. Beeton’s “Curried Salmon” recipe probably originated in Dr. Riddell’s Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book (1856–57—the watershed year of the Sepoy Mutiny).

By the 1888 edition, Mrs. Beeton (actually her editors, as she died of childbed fever in 1865, four years after publishing her bestselling cookbook) shared information about Indian servants and their habits, mostly derogatory and based on conjecture, rumor, and assumptions taken from memsahibs, as English women were called in India.

But Mrs. Beeton’s wasn’t the only book in the memsahibs’ larder. A whole “spate” of such cookbooks, many geared specifically toward the Anglo-Indian housewife, appeared later in the 19th century, most written by women who actually knew what they were talking about. They’d done it all themselves, following their husbands from one lonely posting to another, suffering through the brutal heat of the tropical sun and trials of feeding families on slim provender.

And one of the best and most thorough of those books was The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner, edited by Ralph Crane and Anna Johnston of the University of Tasmania. Dedicated “To THE ENGLISH GIRLS to whom fate may assign the task of being house-mothers in our eastern empire this little volume is dedicated by Grace Gardiner and Flora Annie Steel,” the book leaves nothing out. The authors assumed that their readers possessed little or no experience in household management. Most certainly, very few of these women cooked, even if they came from a middle-class background in England.

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook promised to turn English women into astute managers who perpetuated the idea of Empire by creating the essence of England in their households, even if those households abutted up to steamy jungles or vast plains on the Indian subcontinent. The book was also published in Urdu, a language in which Flora Annie Steel was fluent—unusual for an English woman of the times.

Chapter I started right off by delineating “The Duties of the Mistress.” Followed by “The Storeroom,” “The Accounts,” “The Duties of the Servants,” and “Table of Wages, Weights, &c.,” not until page 220 did the authors even begin to address the issues of cooking. Chapter XXI, “Advice to Cook,” spoke directly to the cook and included such salient advice such as:

“The next point is to keep yourself clean. Cooks must use their hands a great deal. Some things are better done with the hand than with spoon or fork, but not with dirty hands; so keep a piece of soap and a towel handy by the sink for constant use, and don’t use your hands unnecessarily. Don’t, for example, stir eggs into a pudding with your fingers. They do it very badly.”

Mrs. Steel and Mrs. Gardiner only included two recipes for curry and seven native dishes in their book. Their rationale seems to be summed up by the following comment: “It may be mentioned that most native dishes are inordinately greasy and sweet, and that your native cooks invariably know how to make them fairly well.”

A leisurely thumbing through of the recipes reveals a heavy tendency toward French techniques and tastes: Croustades, Croutons, and Patties; Quenelle of Brains; Bavaroise; Bouillabaisse; and so on.

Most British women in India did not cook, for a lot of reasons, class, of course, being paramount, but also the state of the kitchen facilities in most of their houses dictated the delegation of cooking tasks to Indian servants. To understand just how different kitchens in India of the time were from the kitchens in our modern houses, take a look at George Francklin Atkinson’s comments on the subject.

In 1859, George Francklin Atkinson, a captain of the Bengal Engineers and a writer of some imagination as well as artistic skill, published “Curry & Rice” on Forty Plates: Or the Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station” in India, a series of plates depicting British life in India. Of the kitchen, or “Our Cook Room,” he wrote:

“Look into that Oriental kitchen, if your eyes are not instantly blinded with the smoke, and if your sight can penetrate into the darkness, enter that hovel, and witness the preparation of your dinner. The table and the dresser, you observe, are Mother Earth; . . .

“Observe the kitchen range, I beseech you; a mud contraption, with apertures for the reception of charcoal, upon which repose pans of native mould, in which the delicacies are cooked.”

The story of how these women interacted with their Indians cooks, mostly male, makes for fascinating reading. Books like The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook burst with clues about English imperial power, the creation of the Other, and national identity both English and Indian.

The tale of the British in India holds keys to the universal story of colonization. A no-nonsense book, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook provides a very engrossing narrative and amplifies the story of how a small island off the coast of Europe managed to run an empire of millions of souls. It can be said that it all began in the kitchen. . . .