Food History

The Unlikely Resilience of the Calcutta Chop

Colonial British Clubs were meant to exclude the customs and cuisine of Indian people, but instead, they inadvertently helped popularize a home cooking staple.

September 26, 2021
Photo by HAARALA HAMILTON

The Bengali chop might be the perfect metaphor for the British colonial era. The British forged an Empire that sought to impress its culture upon India, but was so heavily influenced by the colonized that a hybrid new form emerged. The chop traveled from English kitchens to Indian ones gathering spice, egg wash, mince, breadcrumbs, and chickpea flour until it had only the faintest resonance with its original. Along the way, it paused at that most British of institutions—the Club—which was crucial in disseminating it through Bengal.

Once the British subjugated India, they began prospecting for a simulacrum of home for the "preponderance of single British men, or married men living singly in India, especially in the early decades of colonial rule," writes Mrinalini Sinha in her essay, “Britishness, Clubbability, and the Colonial Public Sphere.” Clubs fulfilled this purpose splendidly, banding together to form a community. Unsurprisingly, these mirror kingdoms of Britishness functioned on exclusion and racial homogeneity. Club members—largely upper class, male, white European colonials—cupped the power of the country firmly in their hands; it was at these old seats of power that deals were brokered, policy was decided, and social connections were started or scuppered.

The food in these clubs reflected the same yearnings for England that brought members together in the first place. In the rarefied environs of Mumbai's Byculla Club, the first residential club of the city, the meals could have been transported directly from a London dining table. In 1843, the menu included beefsteak, veal or fowl cutlets, and mutton chops; with a vegetable, cheese, bread and butter, and pickles. You could choose their desired protein and have the full meal for the princely sum of 12 annas (under one rupee, or one cent in modern U.S. currency). Yet, it was impossible to completely shut out the reality of the place. Clubs were bastions of exclusivity, but they were not impregnable.

One method of intrusion came through the staff, who were both European and Indian. The Cosmopolitan Club in Madras hired "both a Brahman and a sudra (low caste) cook ...Those who observed strict(er) caste practices would have required a cook from the appropriate caste background; a Brahmin club member would not have been able to dine on cuisine prepared by a sudra chef, as the latter was from a lower caste...issues of caste distinction and vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism had crept into club life," says Benjamin Cohen in “In The Club: Associational Life in Colonial South Asia.”

Meanwhile, especially in the early years, the more exclusive looked to France’s haute cuisine for their chefs. “The Byculla Club employed French chefs from the 1850s,” writes Cohen, while the Madras Club recruited theirs from Pondicherry and Hyderabad, “and at one point went so far as to recruit a suitable chef from England—one Maltby, formerly of the Reform Club in London (1836).

The other of course was food. In addition to the roast dinners, these clubs also offered popular options for rice and curry, cold tiffin, and one vegetable . Even in the exclusive Byculla Club, sealed as hermetic as a tomb, hairline cracks allowed in the culture of the country the clubs sought to shut out.

These culinary invasions unfolded throughout the country. For instance, the Ootacamund Club in Ooty, and the Madras Club catalyzed their menu to include local fare like curries of various types and hybrid “Anglo-Indian” dishes such as mulligatawny. In fact, the Elysian Madras Club curry drew no less than Prince Albert, who is said to have visited the club on his 1877 Indian tour, animated solely by a desire to taste the dish. Similarly, the Bengal Club in Kolkata grew famous for its spiced omelettes, latticed with onions and chili, where "four cooks were employed to make nothing but omelettes all day long," writes David Burton in The Raj at Table. And Cohen itemizes a English-Hindi-French menu served in 1889 at the Calcutta Tent Club, famous for its pig sticking: Filets de becassines a la achacha jheel. Soor ka bacha a la premiere pointe. Pouding de semoule a la thik band-o-bast etc. (Presumably, snipe as starter, piglet for mains, and a semolina pudding for sweet.)

Perhaps these hybrids were a portent of times to come. Members soon began to squabble with each other over loosening membership rules. Those who felt slighted grew an armada of new clubs with mixed or Indian-only clientele. Take Mumbai's Hindu Gymkhana, for one, and most famously, Willingdon Sports Club also in Mumbai, about which Maharani Gayatri Devi, writes in her memoirs—"the first really elegant club that was open to both Indians and English, and where the elite of both societies mingled on equal terms...all of Bombay's smart society went to have drinks at the Willingdon, sitting in wicker chairs out on the lawns...The waiters in their long, white tunics with green cummerbunds and turbans flitted between the tables serving drinks and delicious hot, spicy hors d'oeuvres."

When the British were eventually forced out of India after Independence, they left a string of collapsed clubs in their wake. Many of the survivors remained atrophied within a colonialist past, the movements that charged the rest of the country passing them by. For instance, even in 1959, Kolkata's Tollygunge Club refused to question scripture, voting to allow Indians only as Associate Members (this didn't play out). Kolkata’s Saturday Club and Swimming Club bolted their gates to Indians even in 1960. And as late as 2012, the members of Mumbai’s Breach Candy club were locked in a tussle over club rules that stated that only Europeans (including Indians with European passports) are eligible for trust membership. Then, as now, club members were cocooned into geographies of exclusion, barring the doors to anyone considered unclubbable.

While vestiges of place made their mark on colonial club food, their British pasts have been mummified in their menus. The Royal Bombay Yacht Club still offers a British spread that includes Melton Mowbray pie, bread and butter pudding, shepherd's pie, ginger pudding, and roast mutton. These dishes, largely forgotten by India's mainstream restaurants, now act as a repository of vanished culinary history. Theirs is a menu that couples nostalgia with a globalized, contemporary world—steak and kidney pie appears alongside with chili cheese toast and dhansak. Similarly, Mumbai's Cricket Club of India has loosened its menu to embrace a mosaic of cuisines, including what is arguably the most famous section, Chinese. Here in its kitchens, restaurateur Nelson Wang invented one of India's most famous dishes, the chicken Manchurian—a culinary cross-weaving that cloaks Chinese food with Indian spices and techniques. Similarly, Willingdon will forever be tied to eggs Kejriwal, named for a vegetarian member who asked the club's waitstaff to sneak in an egg into his chili cheese toast.

Cohen writes, "Where clubs once had a single dining room for members, many now boast two or three dining areas, one specializing in Chinese foods, another in Punjabi fare, and a third, the more traditional 'butler' cuisine." These are changes that were likely mirrored by the surge in multicuisine restaurants across India when food processing companies started making deeper inroads into India, followed by liberalization in the 1990s, when the country's economy opened up to the world.

One of the places these culinary shapeshifters took firm root in was Bengal—so resilient were they that not only have these dishes remained immured in clubs today, they have also fanned across Bengali home kitchens. The fish fry, the fish finger, the chop, and the cutlet, among other subdued British dishes were infused with spice, fried rather than baked (thanks maybe to unreliable ovens), and renamed. "Two other misnomers resulting from the colonial experience—the chop and the cutlet—were also part of the festive meals in the old days; and, as children, my cousins and I loved them,” says renowned food historian, Chitrita Banerji, in her book Eating India: Exploring the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices.

Clubs were essential to the popularity of these dishes and more; food always leaks through the cracks. A deep irony that these institutions, intended at their inception as pockets of insulation, began to reflect the porousness of food cultures: the croquet and the chop and the cutlet once symbolic of Empire, were soon colonized by Indian spices and techniques, and are now pillars of Bengali cuisine.

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Meher Mirza

Written by: Meher Mirza

4 Comments

Nishant November 4, 2021
Such a well-written piece!
 
g October 1, 2021
Lovely article!
 
OnionThief September 28, 2021
So....does anyone know what a Bengali Chop is? I'm interested, but there is no recipe on this site nor description in the article. A quick google search seems to show that it is a vegetable stuffed fritter of some kind.
 
Sharmila September 28, 2021
It's more of a concept than an exact recipe. It's roughly a croquette (breaded and fried), and can be made with a variety of ingredients. My Bengali mom makes them with tuna, vegetables, or meat, depending on what she feels like doing. The filling (?) is mixed with a spice blend, breaded in egg and breadcrumbs, and then fried. At least that's how she does it.