British Empire Books

The Memsahib's Cookbook

AuthorRhona Aitken
First Published1989
This Edition1993

"'Making do' or 'making the best of it' would have been the attitude at first-
but gradually the Memsahib's learned, over the decades, to utilise the meats, fruits and vegetables
of the country, adapting the basic recipes she would have written down for the cook to follow.
Gradually he, too, learned to adapt the recipes of the Memsahibs to his own way of cooking
and in return he taught the latter-day Memsahibs how to use spices,
spice mixtures, chutneys, and the varying produce of his country."

This book is an excellent way of recreating the days of the Raj by tantalising your tastebuds rather than any mental faculties. This book is a wonderful collection of favourite and classic Anglo-Indian dishes from the Indian sub-continent. And they are all eminently suitable to cook and eat at home or together with friends. I have used many of the recipes in this book and have always enjoyed the outcome immensely.

The book is written by Rhona Aitken who was herself a latter day Memsahib in Ceylon in the 1940's and early 1950's. Her first hand knowledge of Imperial life is augmented by the inclusion of some of her grandfather-in-law's writing. Edward Hamilton Aitken (EHA) was known as a 'humorous naturalist' and essayist. Indeed, he was widely read and admired during his day - particularly by the Anglo-Indian community in which he lived and worked. His anecdotes are not only entertaining but also illuminate some of the day to day concerns of the planter and business class making their living in India. Problems with staff, misunderstandings, wrestling with the local wildlife, enduring the weather, all of these were far more important to the day to day life of the Anglo-Indians than any high minded ideas about empire and imperialism. This book is a fun way to take a peak at the more mundane, every day existence of imperial pioneers.

The other benefit of reading this book is to see just how many of Britain's culinery dishes of today descend from these imperial contacts. The curry and the curry house have become as an important part of British culture as the pub or the fish and chip shop. This book will help the reader to understand why the British were not only exposed to but developed and modified a new line of exotic dishes and menus.

If you would like an example then why not try to follow this recipe for Mulligatawny Soup.

Review from I.A.

Rhona Aitken now gives cookery courses in Bath and at one time owned a restaurant in Wiltshire where very popular Sunday curry brunches were served, a result no doubt of her years as a memsahib in Ceylon in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Now her experience there has enabled her to give us a collection of Indian recipies, some culled from the records and memories of friends and relatives some old favourites and some not so familiar. They are all uncomplicated, simply and clearly presented, further enhanced by her eomments and explanations. Less experienced cooks, as well as experts, will suffer no qualms about "having a go". All the ingredients mentioned can now be found without difficulty on the supermarket shelf.

The Memsahib's Cookbook affords readers a fascinating glimpse into the vanished world of the British Raj, reviving our appreciation of the very real home-making difficulties the memsahibs encountered and overcame - from the heat and the insects to coping with the diversity and confusion of the many cultures, beliefs, taboos and customs of the numerous servants constituting the normal Anglo-Indian household of the time.

Placed here and there among the recipes and the author's anecdotes are some gently humorous pieces from the pen of Edward Hamilten Aitken, a famous naturalist and essayist of the period, known as EHA and the grandfather of Mrs. Aitken's husband. His keen insight into the ways of both humans and animals is very evident in his little stories and for those with any experience of the days of the British Raj, his descriptions will ring very true. Others will enjoy them for the quality of the writing and the pictures so amusingly conjured up.

For extra good measure - the icing on the cake - Mrs. Aitken has illustrated her book with her own colourful and charming watercolours. All in all, The Memsahib's Cookbook is a veritable delight, informative and interesting and very pleasing to the eye, equally at home on the coffee table as in the kitchen. It is a book to buy or beg for oneself, or to give to friends, and such good value.

Buy this book at: Amazon

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by Stephen Luscombe