Drinking the Raj

Imperial Britons, stationed in withering climes but determined to keep wearing knits and eating roasts, were of necessity drunks. And although today certain brands of gin try to market themselves as the face of Victorian alcoholism, in the heyday of the Raj, when mad dogs and Englishmen came out of the mid-day sun, it was often to cool themselves off over an enormous bowl of boozy, sugary punch. This poses the obvious question: what must their hangovers have been like?

To find out for ourselves, we threw a party.


Nothing approaches the torpor and desperate whimsy of late empire like grad students throwing a theme party. The friends of cookingtheraj, bless them, were more than game, bringing drinks, snacks, and bar-tending wisdom, and, for the most part, politely pretending not to notice Blake’s attempts at dancing. In return, we punished their bodies with strange punches and a pastry you won’t believe isn’t from a state fair.


Drink 1) Imagine that half your friends want Cuba libres, the other half want egg-nog, and you’re too lazy to make more than one drink. You might turn to The Indian Cookery Book, which offers a “milk punch” made of rum, limes, milk, and nutmeg. It’s easy to make, if not to drink. Just peel the limes, leaving the peels steeping in the rum overnight. WP_20140411_004The following night (or morning if it’s the holidays), squeeze the lime juice into the milk and give it half an hour to curdle. Add the rum and nutmeg, stir, and try not to smell it.

It’s not so bad, though! At least for a few shots. Well, it definitely tilts more to ‘surprising you can drink it at all’ than ‘good’.

Shockingly, this teapot is holding an entire bottle of rum and your daily recommended serving of calcium.

Shockingly, this teapot is holding an entire bottle of rum and your daily recommended serving of calcium.

Our next drink was a resounding success, although it started just as gross.

Drink 2) Europeans in India drank a lot of the local arrack, a rum-like liquor made from sugar. Arrack never took off in the metropole, but, for some reason, it did become a hit in Sweden, which now produces its own arrack. The beverage seems to have been brought back by employees of the Swedish East India Company, part of the once far-flung Swedish empire. The latter is now reduced to a deli in Andersonville, where, to our horror, they could not locate their arrack among the dusty boxes of pickled fish and ginger cookies. Luckily, a boutique liquor store around the corner had a bottle, proving that we are not the only terrible hipsters having misguided theme parties.

The bottle’s label accurately warned us that arrack has ‘distinctive notes of smoke and leather’, which is label-speak for ‘tire fire in grandpa’s basement’. Letting it breathe only made it smokier.

We were rescued by friends who convinced us to turn the arrack into an iced tea, and to sweeten it with an oleo-saccharum. Being the kind of people who think getting a bag of ice makes a party ‘fancy’, we were unfamiliar with this pseudo-classical mixer. But after pouring some sugar over a pile of lemon zest and letting it sit for a half-an-hour, we had a grainy brown goop that turned our arrack iced tea into the hit of the party. Plus, oleo-saccharum and [iced] tea are 100% Victorian, so we upheld our commitment to historical accuracy!



Representing Ireland


Piping hot pies


Pleasantly surprised (sort of) by the milk punch

Milk Punch

(adapted liberally from the original recipe, which called for 6 quarts of rum)

Steep the rind of two limes in a bottle of rum for at least a day. Combine with a quarter cup lime juice, a cup of sugar, half quart milk, and much more nutmeg than you think is necessary. Stir well and often.

Sweet Arrack Tea

Brew a large pot of black tea. Combine with half bottle of arrack. Make oleo-saccharum by adding the zest of six lemons to a cup of sugar. Stir together and serve chilled.

Macaroni Cheese Pie

Macaroni cheese pie is an amazing invention that developed somewhere in the intersection between Scottish and West Indian cuisine. The internet will tell you it is supposed to be made with a hot water pastry crust and cheddar cheese. We used a classic American preparation–Pillsbury premade pie crust–and mac and cheese made with scraps of cheese leftover from a reception in the history department.

Line the cups of a muffin tin with pie crust and fill with cooled mac and cheese. Sprinkle with more cheese and bake for 20-25 min. Eat warm, cold, or hungover.

Peepsage to India update! We did not win fame, fortune or a toothbrush in the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s annual Peeps diorama contest, but we did get called out and shamed (and rightly so), as “a couple of Northwestern University Ph.D. students who decided to wield their expertise on European colonialism in India by dressing marshmallow rabbits in turbans instead of working on their theses.”


Peepsage to India


While cooking up our delicious veal curry, I happened to mention to Blake that my hometown newspaper ran a Peeps diorama contest and I was kind of maybe thinking of entering it or something. Blake immediately responded, as he does to most ridiculous ideas, with manic enthusiasm and we dreamed up a tribute to (sugary critique of?) the 1911 Delhi Durbar.


Image of the real thing for comparison. Note the exceptional (some might say obsessive) attention to detail and commitment to historical accuracy.

After one planning brunch, two shopping trips, way too many construction sessions and with the help of our much more craftily inclined friends Beth and Katie (author of the amazing webcomic http://ifeelshame.com/ — go read it now, it’s much better than this blog), we finished our masterpiece.


This artists’ statement should put it all in perspective.

Our diorama is a cheeky send-up of the pomp and pageantry of British India, which was never more absurdly extravagant than in the durbars, gigantic assemblies of Indian notables and British officials. Durbars were held in 1877, 1903, and 1911, in an ultimately misguided effort to win the loyalty of Indian subjects by squandering their taxes on bejeweled saddles for elephants and gilded onion domes (on tighter budgets ourselves, we iced elephant-shaped cookies and sprayed painted an actual onion). The 1911 Durbar was presided over by George V, King of England, Emperor of India, and, at times, marshmallow rabbit. It was attended by thousands of lavishly dressed dignitaries from the various ‘princely states,’ ostensibly independent kingdoms in India that were in fact puppets of British rule. Arrayed in their finest felts and stick-on gems, our princely peeps pay tribute to their legacy.

Go vote for us at http://twincities.upickem.net/engine/Details.aspx?p=V&c=119048&s=60364539.

Next week we return to our regularly scheduled cookery with an experiment in home ginger beer brewing. It promises to be a potentially explosive disaster!


I am Curry-ous Yellow

Since we complained in our last post about Victorian Britons’ whiter-shade-of-pale approach to plating, it’s only fitting that we prove our selves wrong by turning now to this vibrant, colorful chicken curry. If you look at it too long, you might burn your eyes!


Curry Powder 6 oz of Turmeric, 4 oz coriander seeds, 2 oz cumin seeds, 1/2 oz white pepper, 1/4 oz cayenne pepper, 1/2 oz caraway seeds, 1/4 oz ginger powder, 2 oz fenugreek powder 

IMG_6167Mrs Barwell’s recipt for curry cut a fowl in pieces & 8 middling sized onions in slices fry them in 2 oz of butter very slowly till soft stirring all the time When done drain the butter from the onion & put them with the pieces of fowl into a sauce pan add one teaspoonful of curry powder one [illegible] of salt 1/2 pint of butter milk or milk curdled with lemon juice then stew these very slowly until all liquid is absorbed when add 1 pint of good gracy steaks stew again until well mixed

Compare and contrast! Our Cheeto-colored curry powder in the bowl and the store bought example in the spoon, with significantly more than the pinch of cumin we added.

Compare and contrast! Our Cheeto-colored curry powder in the bowl and the store bought example in the spoon, with significantly more than the pinch of cumin we added.

You certainly won’t get overheated eating Mrs. Barwell’s curry.[1] Her recipe calls for a nearly infinitesimal quantity of cayenne to be diluted in a pint of buttermilk and smothered in turmeric. Shockingly, this experiment in homeopathic cookery gives off little heat. Instead, caraway, coriander, cumin, and eight onions flavor the curry like an everything bagel—or, what you might imagine to be the taste of a giant chicken-in-a-biscuit cracker soaked in warm cream. We mean that in the best possible way.

Perhaps it would have come out differently if we had been able to find some fenugreek, but after a through search of area shops [Ed. Note–We went to the corner store and they were out] (and good deal of suspicion about whether such a thing even exists), we had to do without. The curry’s flavor might also have been changed if we had added whatever a pint of “grasy steak stew” is, but, even in the interest of furthering culinary knowledge (or as the Germans say kitchenwissenschaft), we had to pass on two cups of meat grease.IMG_6180

Even without heat, fenugreek, and grasy steak stew, and even though its claim to being a curry is somewhat dubious, this dish could easily satisfy dinner guests as ‘Creamy Caraway Chicken.’

Special thanks to our guest chef Sally Olson, whose Dutch ancestors would be proud to know she is keeping up their national tradition of bland, stew-like meals.


[1] To be fair to Mrs. Barwell and Turnbull, these jaundiced curry proportions were recommended to British cooks. An 19th century version of Meg Dod’s Cookery Book recommends the same recipe—with the exception of caraway.

Drunk Cooking the Raj

Kedgeree is among nineteenth-century Britain’s finest hangover cures. Salty, fishy, eggy and (to its Victorian consumers) a bit spicy, the dish is designed to mop up the remnants of the previous night’s alcohol intake.


Mrs Turnbull apparently didn’t care for the British Raj’s quintessential rice dish and did not include a recipe in her book. She might have considered kedgeree too English a dish to have any place in an Indian cookbook. After ransacking the Internet for recipes, we finally turned to the old reliable—Mrs. Beeton, of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management fame. Since kedgeree is essentially an English invention, it’s probably more ‘authentic’ to get advice from England’s nineteenth-century version of Martha Stewart. Mrs. Beeton offers two recipes in the kedgeree, kidegree, kichari family. One features a really ridiculous amount of smoked fish and the other is basically just lentils, rice, and spices.

Ingredients. Any cold fish (dried haddock is generally preferred); to 1 lb of fish allow ¼ lb of rice, 2 hard boiled eggs, 2 ozs. of butter, salt and pepper, cayenne.

Method. Boil and dry the rice, divide the fish into small flakes, cut the whites of the eggs into slices, and rub the yolks through a wire sieve. Melt the butter in a stewpan, add to it the fish, rice, whites of eggs, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and stir the ingredients over the fire until hot. Turn the mixture on to a hot dish, press it into a pyramidical form with a fork, decorate with the yolk of egg, and serve as hot as possible.  Costs 10 d. to 1 s. 2 d.

From Mrs Beeton’s Every-day Cookery New Edition, London Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd. 1907

DSC_0083It turns out smoked haddock is almost impossible to find in the U.S. After scouring the neighborhood markets on the north side of Chicago, we decided that smoked mackerel would be close enough. We also decided that 1 lb smoked fish to two cups rice was too expensive a ratio to contemplate, so we quartered the recipe to more manageable proportions.

Making rice and tearing fish into shreds are fairly self-explanatory, so a word about eggs. The Victorians believed eggs to be the fanciest and loveliest of nature’s wonders, and a much nicer garnish than the green things we might use to add a dash of color to the browns, grays, and whites of Northern European fare. DSC_0106In this case, eggs are literally on top of the food pyramid. But now, unlike our pilaw-and-egg-garnish visual disaster (which, if you remember, looked like two snowmen making love), it actually looks kind of nice! So score one for Mrs. Beeton.

Would we recommend it sober? No. As we were eating it we wished we were much, much drunker. It seemed like the kind of really good bad idea food you would love when intoxicated.

Would we recommend it under the influence? For drunk food, you could do worse. Luckily, the day after we made the recipe, I had the opportunity (in the interests of historical research) to try out the kedgeree as it was meant to be eaten—with ample servings of beer on the side. At 1 am, it was delicious.


Kidgeree (Indian Recipe)

Ingredients. 4 ozs. of rice, 4 ozs. of dhal [lentils], 4 ozs. of ghee, a few slices of green ginger, peppercorns, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon, salt.

Method. Cut the onions across into rings, fry them in the hot ghee until nicely browned, then remove them and keep them hot and crisp. Add the dhal and rice, previously washed and dried, to the ghee, cook gently until all the ghee is absorbed, then barely cover with stock or water and add the ginger and peppercorns, cloves, etc., to taste. Cook very slowly until quite dry, and serve garnished with the fried onions.  Cost 1 s.

From Mrs Beeton’s Every-day Cookery New Edition, London Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd. 1907

DSC_0098This rather more Indian kidgeree is delicious at every level of sobriety—Alex has already made it three times, and we’re sure she wasn’t drunk for at least two of them. It’s the only recipe so far that we’d actually add to our regular cooking routine. Lentils are a cheaper, less bony source of protein than fish, but are often spoiled by their association with healthfulness. Some fried onions will solve that, though, just like they will most things. Try it yourself, Internet!


This cat is so domesticated it isn’t sure if it eats fish or vice versa.

It’s Pap!

My notes for this recipe start with the word ‘gross’. To make baby food, Mrs. Turnbull recommends you tie up some flour in a cloth and boil it for three hours.

IMG_2383 IMG_2388

IMG_2389Through the magic of cooking chemistry, after the three hours are up you’ll have a dough ball with a weird paste substance in the middle.


You crack open the dough ball, scoop out the paste, and mix it with some more water, milk, and sugar.  (Paste is not really the right word—the substance inside the ball looked more like a chalky Valentine heart than the type of food you would give someone with no teeth.)


Voila! Baby food! The aim of this recipe seems to be making a substance that looks as close as possible to breast milk in the hope that appearance will transform into reality and soupy, sweetened paste will turn into something nutritious and digestible. After reading this recipe, infant mortality rates in the nineteenth century start to make a bit more sense. IMG_2405

Apparently Mrs. Turnbull was just repeating the best medical advice of her time. Her recipe follows almost exactly those prescribed by medical experts.[1] Dr. Pye Henry Chavasse, who made his name writing parenting advice books for anxious Victorian mothers, offers the same recipe, though he recommends grating the flour ball, which is a much more efficient technique than the one we went with—stabbing the flour brick with a spoon until it shattered. Why cook the flour at all? I asked an unimpeachable source—a friend with a kid—and she told me that uncooked flour can upset infant stomachs. And I imagine boiling your flour for hours would have done a decent job of killing off whatever weevils were living in it.

Do we recommend it?



We do not.

[1] Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in England, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 59

They Eat Veal, Don’t They?

“Where guns fail, butter may succeed”- Napoleon


In the eighteenth century, Britain and France competed with each other for control of much of the world, including South Asia. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, France’s empire in India, America, and elsewhere had withered, but the French could still hold their own in the kitchen. They set the global standard for over-complicated excellence, while British cuisine is only just now recovering from its bad reputation in the heyday of empire. The French even tried to usurp Britain’s right to bastardizing Indian food. One A. Viard, a self-described “man of the mouth” (homme de bouche), included a take on curry (or as he spelled it, in a slap in the face to English, kari) in his 1806 cookbook, Le cuisinier impérial.

Does his recipe best Britain’s culinary efforts? Does it approximate anything Indian? To find out, we tested his fussy, bitchy, typically French recipe.

Kari of Veal Flank, Indian Style Cut the flank into small pieces (the size of oysters), blanche them, and put them in cold water. For an entire flank’s worth of pieces, set three quarters of a pound of butter, a half teaspoon of saffron [we nixed the saffron for reasons of poverty], 10 pods/cloves of the hottest pepper, a pound of bacon cut into flat squares, and two bay leaves. Sautez the flank pieces with butter and pepper; when they are well-cooked, mix in 4 teaspoons of flour. When the flour is added, wet the flank with bouillon: there needs to be a lot of sauce. Add mushrooms, two cloves [of actual clove] pricked in an onion, which you will carefully remove when the kari is complete. When the ragout is half-cooked, you will add artichoke hearts, turned and three-quarters cooked [we interpreted this to mean ‘from a can’]. You will also add small onions. You must not skim the fat from this dish, because it is so spicy. You will need a loaf of rice. You will have a pound of rice that you have washed 5-6 times; you will have boiling water. You will cook the rice for ten minutes, and then drain it in a horsehair sieve. You will butter up a casserole dish large enough to contain the rice. You will put it in the oven, at a low flame, so that your rice dries, forms a loaf, and changes color. At the moment of serving, you will pour the ragout into a serving dish, and turn the loaf over onto a plate, because that is where the rice goes when you have kari.


Obviously, Viard wasn’t hung up about authenticity; veal and bacon aren’t staples of Indian cooking. On the other hand, he did worry that even his Frenchified (and possibly offensive) recipe might confuse French cooks. He repeatedly reassures readers that making rice isn’t complicated and reminds them that peppers are hot. Viard expected that veal curry would be an exotic experience, and maybe a frightening one.


We were scared for our arteries. After melting a stick of butter (less than half of what Viard wanted) to fry bacon and peppers, we browned the veal in a golden pool of animal fat, and then added stock, artichokes, and onions. Viard warned that we might be tempted to drain some of the fat away—but without its protective coat lining the inside of our faces, the peppers might be too spicy. So, as a concession to health, the fat stayed.

Alongside our hot and fatty intercultural assemblage, Viard had us cook a ‘loaf of rice’ in a process that also began with butter. We coated a pan with the butt-end of a stick, then poured in a couple servings of cooked rice molded into a loaf-like mound, which we cooked until the outside was crisp and brown. I guess Viard couldn’t entertain the idea of eating a starch that wasn’t at least shaped like a baguette.


The final product was confusing but delicious. The creamy, savory, spicy flavor of the curry paired wonderfully with the buttery crunchy rice loaf. Viard’s recipe isn’t authentically (or recognizably) part of any food tradition, but it is one of our favorite dishes.

Welcome to Cooking the Raj

I found Mrs. Turnbull’s recipe book while I was in London last year doing research for my dissertation. I was trying to find information about poor Brits in India in the nineteenth century, and I figured medical people would have lots of fun judgmental things to say, so I went to the library at the Wellcome Collection. The Wellcome Library has loads of medical texts, judgey and otherwise, but my research was immediately derailed when I discovered they also have a massive collection of cookbooks. Women used to write down their home remedies in recipe books, so mixed in among advice on the best way to cook a roast and techniques for a perfect Yorkshire pudding, you find instructions for concocting weird unguents and questionable uses of mustard seed. Browsing through these books, I found the recipe collection of Mrs M H Turnbull. Mrs Turnbull lived in India in the 1820s and recorded recipes for Indian food—or at least the versions of India food British people ate. Her book was particularly charming because she had clearly continued to use it once she returned home to England. The Turnbull family also seems to have thumped through the recipes before they donated it to the Wellcome Collection. A recipe for a draught to relieve morning sickness is decorated with a child’s scribbles—maybe from the same baby whose mother was the grateful user of the draught.

Unfortunately, none of this had that much to do with my dissertation. So instead of shoehorning it in, I decided to make this blog. My friend Blake and I will cook up Mrs Turnbull’s recipes, along with some others, and see if they’re any good. We are picking the ones that look either the most delicious or the most revolting, so I wouldn’t really recommend using this blog for dinner planning. But if you’d like to find out what bizarre combinations of ingredients British people thought were Indian in the nineteenth century, or how veal fits into the Hindu diet, read on…