The gorgeous painting ( cover image ) was done by the artist, Dr. Sanjeev Handique as a little boy in 1979 of a bungalow in Digboi. Both he and Kashmiri Nath, who has contributed the article and photographs grew up in this quaint charming old town in Tinsukia district of Assam.
When Assamese Cuisine is mentioned it usually represents the native and indigenous food overlooking the Planter’s Cuisine. Interwoven into the wide tapestry of culinary legacy, is a cuisine which was brought to Assam, by the British Tea Planters some 200 years back. In 1826, Robert Bruce discovered Tea ( Camellia Assamica )in the region through the Singhpo tribe headman in Upper Assam. The Singpho tribe were already well aware of the properties and benefits of this native plant. They were consuming it way before the British were made aware of it in China. They still continue to produce the tea in the traditional manner, smoking, drying, and preserving it in bamboo hollows and producing tea coins.
The British set up the first Tea Estate in 1830 in Chabua, and Assam became the largest producer of tea in the world. The first batch of tea – 350lbs of tea, which was hand rolled and dried over slow fire, packed in chests- travelled over the Brahmaputra to Kolkata and finally arrived in London through ship to be auctioned at a princely amount of 35 Shilling! Oil, timber and coal were other natural resources discovered in the region.The oldest oil refinery still functioning outside of America is in Digboi nestled in Upper Assam, surrounded by the tea estates and forests.
Assam was transformed – it developed a new industry that gave rise to a flourishing socio economic growth, it witnessed the arrival of British planters from England and Scotland, and labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Orissa. This led to a confluence of culture, food and habits that evolved into the new Assam.
Food played a pivotal role in the life of a Planter’s lifestyle. When the British set up the plantations and refineries in India, their social lives revolved around the clubs. The social lives of the planters and Officers of the Oil town was intertwined, they would regularly play sports like golf and tennis together, organizing sports events, followed by social evenings and obviously food again played a major role here.
The bungalows designed during this time were comfortable and large, built mostly on silts, with high ceilings to keep the houses cool in the hot and humid climate. The houses were set with beautiful flower and vegetable gardens. The lifestyle was lavish with a retinue of household staff from cooks, to bearers, and gardeners. Work was tough and long, both physically and mentally demanding. There were certain ‘dastoors’, unwritten rules and conventions that guided the life in the tea plantations. Most gardens had to be self-sufficient in their day to day living.
The kitchens were located a little away from the main house and connected with a covered passage. There was a pantry attached to the dining room for the convenience of the bearer to serve the food. Meals in the garden were almost ritualistic and served on set times, with tables laid properly with serviettes and flatware.
The British wives trained the local cooks and adapted their traditional dishes to suit the availability of local products, the legacy continued much after they left the plantations. Breakfast being the biggest meal, a traditional English breakfast, comprising of toasts, eggs, baked beans, cold cuts, and fruits. Bread was baked at home and I remember waking up to aroma of freshly baked breads every morning. Seasonal fruits and berries were turned into preserves and jams and nothing was wasted. The cooks, were experts at turning out the lightest of soufflés by hand whipping the egg whites. They baked the best cakes, without the aid of any fancy kitchen equipment, decorating them with buttercream and royal icing for birthdays and special occasions.
The most sought after chefs, were the Mog Cooks. They were inherently exceptional cooks of Burmese descent who were able to understand the European recipes and adapt them with a touch of their own. The Mog Cooks and the British ladies, together, had produced a unique cuisine, stamping their mark in the culinary history. It is interesting to see how ingredients were compromised due to lack of availability yet an equally delicious dish was created. For example, the soufflé recipe they created does not have any whipped cream yet it is an outstanding dessert. Unfortunately, they departed along with the British from the plantations and very little of the British Raj food culture exists today.
The tea trolley being wheeled into the ‘ Jali Kamra’, deep covered veranda, with crisp tea napkins and tea in tea pots with tea-cozies. Cakes, éclairs, sandwiches, puffs, pies, and of course fresh tea was savoured. Club gatherings would be followed by an elaborate spread of cakes, treats and savouries which included cutlets, and chops served with the creamiest of house-made egg mayonnaise. Dinners in turn would be hosted once a month in the clubs and by the ladies in their bungalows. The buffet spread would always be to outshine one another in a friendly camaraderie manner. Planter’s goulash, roast chicken, pork roast were staples on the menu. Swiss rolls jam roly-poly, creamy caramel custards, would vie for attention on the dessert table. Cold chicken salad for hot summer days, wobbly jellies, meringues, trifles puddings, bread and butter puddings, perfectly cut delicate sandwiches, crisp potato fries, the beloved Shepherd’s Pie, and flaky vol –au – vents made with suet, it’s a wonder how they adapted classic traditional dishes so far from home with scant ingredients.
We would also enjoy Indian food, but everything was served with a twist of panache. The ‘dals’ would appear in sauce boats on the table, along with the ‘pulaos’ and salads.
Christmas celebrations in the clubs were extravagant affairs with, elaborate menus and grand table décor. Jam tarts, Yule logs, mince pies and with Hog Roast and rum cakes would feature on the table. It is a pity that along with the British and the disappearance of the Mog Cooks this cuisine too has almost disappeared from the tea estates and the tea clubs. Yet, it has in many ways brought change in the eating habits of a few generations in this region who grew up in this era and assimilated it into mainstream Assamese cuisine.
“I had the good fortune to experience the last of this culture and am blessed that my path crossed with old ‘Baboorchi’, probably the last of the Mog cooks, who not only fed us some extraordinary dishes but shared his knowledge too. Today, when I look back and I wonder at his culinary excellence, something that I had taken for granted back then. He literally pushed me into writing down his recipes, all measurements in ounces and pounds, muttering he wouldn’t be around for ever. All his knowledge and expertise went away with him; his own son chose to be a tailor in the estate rather than being a cook. I like to think that his legacy lives on now through my love for cooking.” – Kashmiri Nath.
She is a chef & food consultant and blogger from Assam. She has promoted and has transformed Assamese Cuisine, served it in fine dining restaurants across India. She has served dignitaries and celebrities, and worked with the Assam Tourism on numerous occasions. She regularly contributes to food journals and is a jury member at Guwahati Food Awards. She has written the article for Curtain Call Adventures and photos used are her own and those of Tanu Mishra.
Kashmiri has graciously shared a recipe for Shepherd’s pie that she learnt from her old cook. A traditional British dish that was replicated with ease by the cooks in the tea estates.
“I grew up in the small picturesque industrial town of Digboi in upper Assam which is the birthplace of the oil industry in Asia. I had this knack for drawing and painting from early childhood. I used to amuse my uncle and his friends who were budding engineers with my accurate drawings and ability to identify cars. I must’ve been about 5 years old. He had asked me to draw a passing car . I managed to draw the car – a Fiat including the dog in the window. I of course remember nothing of this- but my late uncle used to relate this story”.
The delightful paintings are done by Dr Sanjeev Handique, Director of Radiology and Imaging GNRC Hospital, Guwahati. We asked him about how he got started in watercolours and his hobbies.
“I used to try and do paintings in oil in my earlier attempts at art. But since I first dabbled in watercolour about 20 odd years ago, I have found the medium most creatively beautiful and challenging . Some of these early watercolour paintings were portraits and obviously not very good”.
“Due to a hectic professional and family life, I couldn’t find time to indulge in my interest sincerely till very recently. A few years ago my wife had a medical condition for which we had to visit Mumbai for her treatment. It was in Mumbai, tucked away in a corner of the Four Bungalows area, I found an art shop that was well stocked. That was the beginning of a resurgence in my interest in watercolour painting. Guwahati and Assam, it’s denizens and architecture provide ample inspiration for me as subjects to paint. I try to depict them by watercolour and sometimes using an alternative technique by pen and watercolour.
The recent pandemic has made us all realise that the most essential things in life are the ones we never thought twice about. It has given me added time – as I’m sure it has to all of us to indulge in my hobbies and passions. I’ve always been a passionate cyclist – cycling for leisure, exercise, touring and commuting. This has decreased somewhat from pre lockdown times but I still find time to do short rides. My other passion which has been gardening has also been given a new boost during this time. All throughout the last couple of years or so when times have not been so rosy for us as a family, my wife and two children have given me stood by me. My wife Mitali, despite being ill herself has encouraged me to pursue my hobbies of painting, gardening and cycling at all times.
My message to my radiologist friends would be that pursue a hobby. In today’s circumstances it can work wonders as stress busters and give a sense of fulfilment and joy“.
For more paintings by Dr. Sanjeev log on to – https://www.facebook.com/sanjeev.handique
For more recipes and food images by Kashmiri log on Instagram – @kashmirinath