As a child, seated on a stool in his mother’s kitchen and watching her cook, Ryan Stephen would often wonder about the peculiar names of dishes he saw being rustled up. There was Pish Pash, Pepper Water, Doll Curry, among others. It was only much later in his teens, while helping in the kitchen, did he realise that the names were a bit like his own Anglo-Indian lineage — a mix of British legacy with local roots. “So Doll Curry is the anglicised pronunciation of daal and the Mulligatawny Soup is essentially a peppery, tangy rasam without the lentils. The name originates from the Tamil words mallagu and thanni, which literally translate to pepper and water, hence the name pepper water,” explains Stephen.
Mumbai-based Stephen has come across strong attempts at reviving local cuisines, but rues that the Anglo-Indian cuisine has all but vanished. Moonlighting as a chef with his pop-up venture ‘Food Stories’, he hopes to be able to put the food he grew up eating, back on the city’s culinary map.
“It’s essentially a hodgepodge because the British sahebs could not handle local Indian food. So their Indian wives or their khansamas devised methods to tone down the spices in the food they knew how to prepare,” says Stephen about the cuisine. “The story goes that an English saheb who was travelling on the train felt hungry and walked up to the pantry. The mutton curry being cooked for the local staff was too spicy for him so he added coconut milk to it. It’s what we call the Railway Mutton Curry today. And that’s how a lot of the Anglo-Indian food came to have coconut milk or yoghurt in it,” says Stephen. The Railway cutlets, with potatoes and vegetables, also have similar history. A fair bit of the cuisine also comprises leftovers. The Anglo-Indian version of the Shepherd’s Pie, for instance, he points out, is made using keema. The Pish Pash is a khichdi made using leftover rice, chicken and vegetables.
Chutneys, too, he adds, are an integral part of Anglo-Indian food. They are made using mango, apple, peach or pineapple, stewed with vinegar and spices, and allowed to sit for a few days before consumption. “But pickles and chutneys continue to be my mom’s department. Even for the pop-ups, she insists on making them. I am yet to pick up their recipe from her,” says Stephen, who sets out days in advance to begin basic preparations for the food, which is cooked simultaneously in the kitchen at the time of the pop-up.
Until two weeks ago, Stephen was working as the head of creative development at Dharma Productions — reading and greenlighting scripts for Karan Johar’s production house. To him, however, the seemingly lucrative career in media is merely a consequence of not having been able to fulfill his dream to be a chef. “I couldn’t score an admission in Dadar Catering College and later, when I did secure a position in the kitchen at a five-star property, I failed the medicals. I suffer from rheumatism and an eyesight issue that disqualified me from the job,” recounts the 46-year-old.
While Stephen did move on post the heartbreak, he refused to abandon his culinary skills, continuing to dream of being a chef some day. A few months ago, he decided that a career in media and one in the kitchen need not be mutually exclusive, and set out to launch ‘Food Stories’ along with Priyanka Bangia, now his partner. He adds that while his pop-ups will experiment with a wide variety of cuisines — including food from Kerala since his dad was a Malayali — he will focus a fair bit on his maternal roots. And while meat is an integral part of the cuisine, he does vegetarian versions of the dishes too.
The next pop-up, scheduled today, is thus titled ‘An Anglo Boy’s Childhood on a Plate’. Glancing through the six-course menu, he points out that most of the dishes are his childhood favourites and staples. “Buff pepper water — rasam meets buffalo stock — with dry doll and Buff Fry, served with rice, has been my ultimate comfort meal. It’s quite peculiar to Anglo-Indian cuisine as is the Country Captain Chicken, which originated from the kitchens of the Indian staffers on the ships when that was the key mode of transport for trade and travel during the Raj,” he says.
Stephen, however, says that since the dishes came about as a means to personalise the meals for the British officers, there are multiple recipes for each of them, and vary from home to home and city to city. But there is one ingredient that remains staple to the cuisine — the curry powder. “Like the East Indians have the bottled masala and the Goans have their Recheado, each Anglo-Indian kitchen will have the curry masala. It’s a spice mix made using dried red chillies, coriander and cumin seeds, garam masala, cinnamon, pepper, fennel and fenugreek seeds, poppy and sesame seeds. It goes into almost all the dishes and gives it a uniquely Anglo-Indian touch,” says Stephen.