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FROM THE PLANTER’S TABLE – COLONIAL CUISINE OF ASSAM

By June 15, 2020 June 17th, 2020 58 Comments

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.

A tea estate, Assam.

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.

Morning briefing with the tea pluckers inside a tea estate, Assam.

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.

A club high tea spread in Upper Assam. Image courtesy Tanu Mishra.

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. 

A tea bungalow built during the British era, Assam.

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.

Table set for dinner in a plantation home.

 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. 

A view of a tea estate at sunset, Assam.

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.

Tea time , Dining room in a bungalow. Image courtesy Tanu Mitra.

 “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

 

 

58 Comments

  • Sujata Ghosh says:

    I lived in Assam a, Meghalaya and Arunachal from 1976-1978.Studied in Loreto Shillong.Have such fond memories .Dad was in the IAS so he was posted there Enjoyed those years and still remember our short but delightful stay.

  • Nibedita Barua says:

    Thanks for sharing the post. Enjoyable read with beautiful paintings. Bringing back happy memories of our years in “Tea”

  • Anusua Surtu says:

    Ricky – Kashmiri
    You have made me so nostalgic – you have captured the essence of tea life brilliantly.
    Though I must say it has evoked a poignant sadness of an era gone by.
    The history of tea in Assam was very interesting to me since I had no idea.
    Thank you so much for revoking these memories and taking me back in time.

  • Anusua Surty says:

    Ricky – Kashmiri
    You have made me so nostalgic – you have captured the essence of tea life brilliantly.
    Though I must say it has evoked a poignant sadness of an era gone by.
    The history of tea in Assam was very interesting to me since I had no idea.
    Thank you so much for revoking these memories and taking me back in time.

  • What a wonderful read . I can almost feel myself sitting there …enjoying myself thoroughly surrounded by genteel company and delicious food …… Thank you so much ?

  • Sangeeta Bardalai Baruah says:

    I grew up in the lush green tea gardens in upper Assam amidst fresh air and quiet splendour.
    My dear father late Tarun Ch Bardalai was a renound and a senior planter in the Jorehaut Tea Co Ltd.
    I can relate to every thing here…..the bunglows,tea time,club tea and everything else.
    Its beautiful n wonderfully done.

    Thank you !!!

    • julie says:

      Thank you.I grew up in Digboi and this article is special to me too. Working on a post on tea garden bungalow.

  • Lipi Baruah says:

    This article depicts all that I grew up with being born & brought up in the lush tea gardens of Assam.
    These descriptions represent everything that I cherish the most.
    We had the good fortune of having a Mog bawarchi ,who shared his recipes with my mom.
    All in all ,I was transported back in time,being a planter’s daughter,and a planter’s wife too.
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article.

  • My Anil Chand was in the Tea Gardens and I spent most of my school holidays there. Wonderful memories. As a teenager I got to assist in the hospital there too. Never will forget my experiences, the food, the people.

    Beautiful paintings

  • Kalipada Mohanta says:

    They enjoyed life in the best possible way .
    Incidentally I landed in Shillong in the year 1979 after my Masters to pursue my research career

    • julie says:

      yes they really maintained their work – life balance and made the most of life. Shillong must have been lovely in 1979

  • Anita Poyser says:

    Superb Julie??? you have done fantastically!!!!You will be an inspiration for so many other. Very proud to have been part of your childhood growing years..?congrats keep up the good work

  • Rashmi Rawal 9618251929 says:

    Hi Kashmiri…very very interesting article..I too have found memories of North East especially Meghalaya as my mother is a Khasi and every we would visit Bihar for 10 days and Meghalaya for a month every summer holidays…I grew up in Chennai ..good old Madras those days…must try your receipe of Shepard’s pie…all the best to you

  • Terrific article, Julie. As one who spent the first twenty years of his life in Digboi I relate to everything that is written. All the more, as Sanjeev and the Nath’s are well known to me from childhood.
    Pure nostalgia. Thanks!!

  • Kashmiri nath says:

    Hey Rashmi, thank you for your words of appreciation. Writing this article was cathartic, tripping down memory lane. When Julie requested me to write a piece on the culinary history of the tea plantations, the thoughts came out like a deluge. Glad you enjoyed reading through.

  • Lonu Sharma says:

    This made me so nostalgic!! Such a wonderful write up. I grew up in Jorhat in a tea family, surrounded by extended families, who were all tea planters.Your article made me long for those beautiful days, thank you!

  • Deepak Dutta says:

    Beautifully written article really enjoyed reading, reminded me of Barua cook I had in Borsapori who would come up with wonderful dishes, during the bachelors party I use to hold for the district. Wish I took interest when he use to teach me how to prepare. Thank you once again for taking me back to those wonderful time.

  • Jayanta Madhav Barua says:

    A fantastic write up . Brings home good old memories from Digboi where I have started my professional life and continued for 25 years . Tea gardens are very close to my heart being born in a Planter’s family .

  • Joyee Mahanta says:

    This was such a lovely read, Julie Ba. It left me feeling nostalgic and very hungry as well. 🙂

  • Preeti Pariat Mehta says:

    Lovely article Julie and the water colours superb. Brought back so many fond memories. On route to Shillong for my summer vacations, my brothers and I spent many wondrous days with my various uncles on the plantations and the clubs.
    Even have memories of dropping and collecting my cousin to school at the Dibgoi refinery and the sight of the eternal fire was a treat as were the weekly trips to Tinsukia for special items!
    The photo of the planters house shown here …. Is that the managers residence at Rajmai TE. The layout looks exactly the same with the porch and the guest rooms along the verandah to the right.
    My mother picked up many of the Mog bawarchi receipes which she than passed on to our cook… the aloo chops, sheperds pie, egg sandwiches, cutlets …. so those continue to grace our dining table on a weekly basis.
    Thanks for this.

  • Bebe(Sarwat Ahmed) says:

    It was wonderful reading about life in the tea gardens in those days,had lots of relations working in tea in different companies, remember having a great time whenever we visited them, and the lovely food prepared by the Mog cooks.We were in Tocklai so indirectly related to tea industry.How I miss those lovely days.thanks for sharing and bringing back wonderful memories.

  • Alan Lane says:

    My wife, Jackie Lane (nee O’Leary) was born in Digboi, and educated at St Agnes Convent, Haflong, and Little Flower School, Dibrugarh. Most of her siblings, and father worked for the Assam Oil Company in Digboi or OIL in Duliajan or Moran. I was born in Bombay, and a son of a tea planter who had been in tea from 1938 to 1967. I left India in 1948 but then returned to Assam from the UK and was an engineer servicing the engines in the tea factories until late 1968.

    • julie says:

      Thank you for sharing. Growing up in Digboi I remember the O’learys. regards Julie

      • Alan Lane says:

        My wife Jackie had tried to reply to you this morning but for some reason her reply did not transmit. I will see if she can try again.
        Jackie mentioned that she does not recall you in Digboi, but that maybe because she is a bit older than yourself. Perhaps you knew Jackie’s brothers, Patrick, Robert and William.

        • julie says:

          I remember William as I studied till the 5th standard at Carmel school and he was in school at the same time. Please Ask Jackie to write to me at – [email protected]

          • Alan Lane says:

            Hi Julie – The William O’Leary that you knew is the son of Jackie’s brother William now living in Perth, Australia. William (senior) was a chemist in the Assam Oil Company Laboratories in Digboi. The Jackie you knew is the daughter of Alec and Olga Morris. Olga Morris is one of my wife’s sisters also living in Perth. Her husband Alec was employed by Oil India in Duliajan, and then emigrated to Australia.

          • julie says:

            Thank you Alan for the clarification. please give my regards to William if you are in touch with him. The similarity in the names confused me. take care.

  • bangelstein says:

    A superb write-up. We never got this background info years ago.

  • Neeta thapa Saikia says:

    Wat a lovely write up which is scripted so beautifully. The charm of tea is still there but the intensity is diminishing slowly & also old dastur seems to be fading away . Such write up evokes nostalgic flavour of bygone days

  • Mitali Saikia says:

    Couldn’t have been a better way to portray the old world charm of the tea plantations! Felt nostalgic as I navigated through the beautifully curated lanes of your article .. it was like going back to that time ! We had spent 10 years in
    Doomdooma amidst the lush greenery! Thanks so much for letting us relive those precious memories!

  • Mitali Saikia says:

    Couldn’t have been a better way to portray the old world charm of the tea plantations! Felt nostalgic as I navigated through the beautifully curated lanes of your article .. it was like going back to that time ! We had spent 10 years in
    Doomdooma amidst the lush greenery! Thanks so much for letting us relive those precious memories!

  • Saroj Sharma says:

    Congratulations – a great read and a wonderful memory jog . We were in Assam 1966 to 1972 having served at Dufflaghur (North Bank), Behora, Bordubi and Moabund estates before my transfer to Darjeeling. I was given the task of modernising Rajmai, Behora and Romai Tea Estate factories in 1972/73. Your tea life descriptions depict an unforgettable era in our lives – so accurately and vividly portrayed.
    Those cooks were truly miracle workers some of whom were forgiven for occasionally dipping into the Saheb’s booze cabinet !

  • Saroj Sharma says:

    Congratulations – a great read and a wonderful memory jog . We were in Assam 1966 to 1972 having served at Dufflaghur (North Bank), Behora, Bordubi and Moabund estates before my transfer to Darjeeling. I was given the task of modernising Rajmai, Behora and Romai Tea Estate factories in 1972/73. Your tea life descriptions depict an unforgettable era in our lives – so accurately and vividly portrayed.
    Those cooks were truly miracle workers some of whom were forgiven for occasionally dipping into the Saheb’s booze cabinet !

  • Dave says:

    Dig boy Dig boy, Dig boy.
    everytime conjures up such fond memories of one visit I made as an apprentice summer trainee Market Researcher. And man, did I unearth any good usefull find? 3 charming Assamese girls all in the AOC office and the bungalow of the Big Boss. One of them had the Sweetest full red pouty lips I had ever seen. I said, I had ever seen :). And the roast pork at dinner ????? Both juicy that still leaves a sweet taste in the mouth.

    Great read. Mesmerising paintings. You make Plat hair fashionable. If natural, let them be Assam, the naturelle. See the artist in you. Keep rolling.

    Or may be, it’s my mind that readily accepts Assam, I still do not know, but am enchanted. Let it be and remain that way.

  • Danny Pariat says:

    Wonderful read Julie, brought back memories of the 33 years spent on the estates in Assam,thank you.
    I see Saroj Sharma,S.K. as we knew him has also commented – he is an old friend but have lost contact with him. Any idea if he could be contacted?
    Thanks again.

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