At the stroke of the midnight hour on August 14, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the newborn nation’s first Prime Minister, delivered his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech in Parliament, while in other parts of the country, other speeches — and music, dance and sweets — marked the momentous occasion. At the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Bombay, where the last viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten would make his farewell address two days later, celebrations had begun earlier in the evening. Dosabhai Framji Karaka, a newspaper editor and former sheriff of the city, gave a speech, which was followed by Indian dance performances by two of the famous Vajifdar Sisters of Bombay, Shirin and Khurshed.
Also performing on the night were Bombay jazz legends Mickey Correa, who led the orchestra at the Taj till 1960, and trumpeter Chic Chocolate. The highlight, however, was a three-course dinner. As India readies to celebrate 70 years of Independence, the Taj Group has dug up the menu of that night from its archives and is serving it every night till August 15 at key hotels around the country.
In the ‘40s, French food dominated haute cuisine in India, and the menu prepared for the Independence Day celebrations departed only slightly from the norms that prevailed in the kitchens of the Taj Palace. Beginning with a soup — Consommé à l’Indienne or Velouté d’Amandes — the menu served a starter course called Delices à l’Hindustan, followed by a choice of a fish (Paupiette de Saumon Joinville) or chicken (Poulard Soufflé Independence) as the main course, wrapped up with a peach dessert called Vacherin de Pêche Libération.
According to Amit Chowdhury, Executive Chef of the Taj Mahal Palace, the dishes that formed the menu would have been selected based on the availability of produce, and the adaptability of ingredients to a menu that sought to honour the occasion while still retaining the French touch. He says, “In August 1947, the world was still emerging from the aftermath of World War II and rationing was a reality.
Chefs at the hotel would have had to work within these limitations to ensure that they could get the quantity of ingredients. Perhaps this may have led them to choose what was more commonly available from home-grown ingredients at the time.” The rationing of produce is also mostly likely to be the reason for the celebratory dinner being a la carte, instead of a buffet, with diners having to choose course combinations instead of feasting on each option on the menu.
While there are no records of who planned the Independence Dinner menu, Chowdhury believes that the most likely person would have been the Goa-born culinary master, Miguel Arcanjo Mascarenhas. Chowdhury says, “For the first 40 years of its existence, the kitchens of the Taj were dominated by a succession of French chefs, just as its dining rooms were commanded by Italian, French, and occasionally English maîtres d’hôtel. The man who first challenged this European monopoly was Mascarenhas, known to staff and guests alike for over half a century as ‘Masci’.”
The Goan came to Taj in 1919 as a 15-year-old kitchen boy, and began his climb up the ladder, by cutting and cleaning chicken carcasses. Extended apprenticeships in the salads department and in the fish, meat and sauces departments followed, with Mascarenhas picking up any and every skill he could. He became the executive chef of the Taj in 1945.
The 70-year-old menu has been recreated by Chowdhury who says that because of the lack of descriptions and records, many of the actual contents had to be figured out through educated guesswork. “Partition refugees had not yet brought the tandoor to India, so the succulent kebabs, chicken butter masala, or makhani gravy, were not yet part of Mumbai’s culinary heritage,” he says. So while the Delices à l’Hindustan could very well have been kebabs, they wouldn’t have been cooked in the tandoor and would, instead have been more like what we call ‘tikkis’.
“The internationalist culinary tradition at the time, with a particular penchant for French flavours, was starting to be interpreted in an Indian way, through Indian ingredients such as the ubiquitous masala. Consommé à l’Indienne used the authentic French clear soup recipe with added spices,” he says.