Book Review: The Ultimate Army Cookbook

The Ultimate Army Cookbook

Kikky Sihota
Roli Books
Rs. 795 PP 176

No institution has preserved as many customs and traditions from the British era as the Army. Not only have several of the regiments created in the pre-independence years been retained but many of the old social protocols and niceties continue. Food too is surrounded by traditions and as an army officer’s daughter, and later as a wife, Kikky Sihota grew up in a world punctuated by these rituals and conventions. Not surprisingly, much of The Ultimate Army Cookbook: A Memsahib Cooks is devoted to descriptions of various gatherings and occasions.

One of the practices she describes in some detail is of ‘dining in’; a formal dinner arranged whenever an officer joins a new station. Just before dinner is served the senior sergeant of the mess staff would stamp march “up to the commanding officer… and say loudly ‘Bhojan prastut hai, Shriman’ (Food is served, Sir!)… The host then would request the senior-most visitor to proceed for dinner, while his wife requested the lady. The gentleman present, having discreetly gained knowledge of the lady seated next to them, would go to the selfsame lady and request her to accompany them in to dinner… After everyone was seated, two bagpipers would enter, their pipes trilling compellingly.”

While the descriptions that precede each of the chapters give you a flavour of army life it is the recipes that make up the meat and bones of this book. The recipes, though a mixed bunch, are all ones with which a community of army wives would be familiar. These are recipes that they would usually have in their repertoire as well as recipes of dishes that are common at casual meals and formal dinners. However, unlike most community cookbooks in India which tend to be centred on the foods of a sub group with regional or religious affiliations, the recipes from The Ultimate Army Cookbook are more secular in their orientation. The common thread uniting them is that they are mostly for recipes of dishes that were popular during the Raj. Based purely on the recipes included in the book it would be fair to say that anyone nostalgic for uncommon Continental food should wangle any invite to an army dinner.

There’s the Gimlet, a favoured gin-based cocktail that the sahibs used to love on hot summer days, Eggs Florentine, Mushroom Roulade, Stuffed Tomatoes, Aubergine Roll – a Swiss-roll style adaptation of the famous Italian melanzane alla parmigiana, Chicken Cordon Bleu with Wine Sauce and and Charlotte Royal. Others like Troopers’ Hash Browns, Flagstaff House Chicken, General Harrummph’s Wings, Major Grey’s Chicken, Sergeant Blimp’s Drumsticks and Miss Pepper’s Chicken Steaks leave no doubt about their origins. It’s a pity though that the author has chosen not to go into the history of the dishes – they would have made for fascinating reading.

While The Ultimate Army Cookbook opens up a window into the life of an army wife to the outside world, most community cookbooks are texts connecting a younger generation with the culinary tradition of their elders. It’s one of the reasons that community cookbooks are often included in the trousseau of a young bride. Almost every Tamil Brahmin bride owns a copy of Samaithu Par by S Meenakshi Ammal, an exhaustive compendium of recipes that was first published in 1951. It proved to be so popular that is was finally translated into a three-volume English collection titled Cook & See: Traditional South Indian Vegetarian Recipes. Apart from recipes it also offers guidelines on performing various poojas as well as the planning and conducting of all marriage rituals from the pre-marriage stage to the naming ceremony of the child. Each volume was translated into English at a different date with the first published in 1968 and the third as late as 1995.

Many of these books never enter public circulation. Dadimano Varso, a collection of Palanpuri Jain recipes, is a privately published and privately circulated book. Kumudini Usgaokar and Shama Sardesai’s marvellous book on Hindu Goan cooking, published by the Fomento Foundation (a part of the Cidade de Goa group), Traditional Taste of Goa, is virtually unavailable outside Goa. Dorothy Rodrigues’ Salsette Vasai East Indian Cook Book II published in September last year is also privately distributed. Fortunately, Michael Swamy’s newly released The East Indian Kitchen is widely stocked as is Katy Dalal’s magnificent two-book series on Parsi food Jamva Chaloji. While the first book includes recipes of popular dishes like dhansakh, patra ni macchi and lagan nu custard, the second book is devoted to recipes that were made 50 years ago. The reason, Ms Dalal plainly states, is that, “Our people should know and remember what had been cooked in their grandparents’ times.”

It is when the recipes are supplemented with anecdotal stories that readers get an insight into the cultural history and context of a dish. In The Suriani Kitchen: Recipe and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala, Lathika George recounts the folk tale of Big Sister Dove and Little Sister Dove that emphasises using only the most tender string beans and eschewing the big, tougher ones. Little Sister, the story goes, left only the best beans for Big Sister who finding fewer beans misunderstood her sister’s intentions and threw her into the flame. “To this day, Big Sister coos in anguish, remembering forever her thoughtless deed.”

But for an annoying stream of photographs with meaningless captions and tenuous connections to the text, and the unnecessary superlative in the title, The Ultimate Army Cookbook would be thoroughly enjoyable. It would have been so much clearer if it had simple been titled The Indian Army Wives Cookbook: A Memsahib Cooks.

Antoine Lewis, a food and wine columnist, has been editor of Savvy Cookbook.

Published March 29, 2013

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