Indian picnics - a relic of the raj


"In India, eating is a private affair not to be witnessed by onlookers, and it is regarded as improper to eat in the open. Besides, it is often too hot, and flies and wasps, monkeys and dangerous animals are familiar intruders. It is only the poor who have their tables and their pots and pans beneath the sky of necessity."

Claudia Roden


I'm guessing she is not quite right, because I think this painting of a wealthy Indian and his guests eating outside belies that concept. Mind you I guess it could just be the terrace of his palace. Anyway it is almost a fitting illustration of an Indian picnic. I cannot tell you how difficult it has been to find a suitable illustration of a British picnic in the days of the Indian Raj.


Picnic is one of my very favourite books as it's dilapidated state attests. It is falling apart, but, as I have commented before, there are no scribblings to be seen here. That said this section of the book - towards the end - has presumably not been used as much as it is in rather better condition than the earlier pages. I don't know why because there are several recipes such as tandoori fish that would be very popular in our house. Maybe it's because I have lots of other Indian cookbooks, and so I turned to them when I wanted Indian food.


I bought the book for two reasons. One because it was Claudia Roden and I was a fan. This was published in 1981 so I had already accumulated a couple of her earlier books. The second reason though is that I have always dreamed of the perfect picnic - whatever you might think that might be. And reading her introduction to this section made me remember one very decadent experience in the Borneo jungle.


Years ago now we went on one of those 'reward' trips to Sabah - Malaysian Borneo. One day we were all flown to the other side of the island to the orangutan rehabilitation centre in the jungle. Never mind the expense of that. Indeed I don't like to think of it really. When we got there we were taken to a small clearing where tables were laid out with white linen and silver and a touch of pink I seem to remember - perhaps the napkins. Then breakfast dishes were served in silver domed dishes by native servants, who were also distributed around the circumference to keep the monkeys away. it was a slightly uncomfortable feeling of magic mixed with huge guilt at the expense of the whole thing, and the fact that so much effort was required of the staff. I suppose, to clear my conscience, the money that this must have cost would have gone to the centre which was doing wonderful work rehabilitating the orang-utans back into the wild. Decadent though and reminiscent of colonialism - both then and now. Us and them with a touch of enchantment.

I did find this painting in my search for picnics of the Raj, by the Frenchman James Tissot, and so, of course it is not at all Indian, but somehow it conveyed the idea of colonials enjoying a picnic whilst servants lurked just out of sight. Not the jungle perhaps, but one could imagine there are settings a little like this in the northern parts of India. Perhaps it's the vaguely eastern hat on the man's head. it befits Claudia Roden's words:


"Picnics as such are not part of Indian life but a relic of the Raj, an Anglo-Indian inheritance. The British introduced picnics as a form of festivity in India in the seventeenth century in the early days of the East India Company. During the Raj they gave private parties in their gardens and occasionally rode out to picnic in the cool of the morning. They made themselves comfortable under the shade of a mango tree, spreading out carpets, cushions and mattresses and hanging out mosquito nets from branch to branch. They returned in rickshaws and palanquins, happy with food and lulled to sleep by the swaying of the palanquins and the soulful chants of the bearers."

Later she quotes the words of a footman in the East India Company describing a picnic on the river with his colonel - probably in a boat something like this:


"As the boat sailed up the wide creek towards Thana, the gentlemen drank punch together while two musicians played French horns. In those quiet backwaters where an occasional dhow mooed softly over the smooth, white water and a warm sea-wind sighed over the reeds stirring the landward leaning palms and sending the white egrets flapping slowly over the terraced paddy fields, it was delightful to recline on cushions while servants filled and refilled one's glass; and the gentlemen's spirits rose and they burst into song; but after a few more rounds of punch they fell asleep ..." Macdonal


According to one site I found. the pik-nik became a thing to do in 1980s India. I don't know whether it still is. But it doesn't seem to be a good thing with masses of rubbish being left behind, drunkenness and sexual segregation. A very non-romantic view although the romanticism of that boat centred picnic in earlier time hides the exploitation that accompanied it.


Enough of politics - what about the food? Well not very tempting back then. Claudia Roden lists:


"chaudfroid, croustade, mazarin, kromesquis, game pie, snipe pudding and tapioca jelly."


However, she does say that the food of today is a different story and includes samosas, pakoras and dry vegetables as well as:


"Vindalu, the hot delicacy of southern India, is especially popular because it does not have much sauce and because the vinegar curry keeps a very long time if covered with oil in a jar. But most popular are meats roasted on spits or grilled on skewers."


Then follow recipes for grilled king prawns, Tandoori fish, Tandoori chicken, Seekh kebab and bhoti kebab - all mainstream popular dishes these days, but perhaps not quite as much back then - unless you were British. She concludes this section with a piece on yoghurt raitas for which she gives a basic recipe - 1/2 litre yoghurt, juice of half lemon, 2 crushed cloves garlic, few chopped mint leaves and finely chopped fresh green chilli. But then she does what she does so beautifully throughout the book - and originally for the time - a list of variations concluding with this:


"You can turn it into a salad by adding raw vegetables such as 1/2 cucumber, peeled and grated or finely chopped, a tomato, finely chopped, 1 onion, finely chopped or grated or 4 chopped spring onions and 1 green chilli finely chopped or minced (optional)


Wonderful book. I must plan another picnic - or at least a table in the garden - as one chapter is called.


POSTSCRIPT

Last night, once again, and probably inspired by my post on Belinda Jeffery's book, we had her Upside-down tomato and basil 'pie' and were once again wowed by how absolutely delicious - and simple - this is. Well apart from the nervous moment of turning it out. David insisted I tell you all to make it. I had no 'proper' tomatoes yesterday - well just one - so I used a couple of different kinds of cocktail tomatoes. We think it't the combination of the tomatoes with the soft cheesy 'cake' below. So much better than pizza.


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