Culinary curiosities of the Anglo-Indian community of Adra

As Sunday approaches, aromas of yellow rice rise from the kitchens of a small town in West Bengal. It is an aromatic rice dish, cooked in coconut milk and flavored with whole flowery spices in clarified butter. No Sunday lunch is complete without it, in the predominantly Anglo-Indian town of Adra, located in the Purulia district of West Bengal. It’s eaten quite often with Grandma’s Country Captain Chicken, a chicken curry invented by a grandmother for her favorite grandson using her own home-raised chickens.

Adra Railway Station is a major railway station which connects Asansol on the Howrah-Delhi main line, Tatanagar on the Howrah-Nagpur-Mumbai line and Kharagpur on the Kolkata-Chennai and Kolkata-Mumbai lines. Its history as a railway town is significant, as it was once home to a thriving Anglo-Indian community, many of whom held various high positions in Indian Railways until the early 1960s when the exodus began.

Although many younger members of the community have immigrated to countries such as Australia, Canada or New Zealand, they have strong ties to India. They feel a sense of connection to the land they left behind through the cultural nuances they brought with them. A predominant aspect of the Anglo-Indian culture that has traveled to these distant lands are the recipes passed down from generation to generation; recipes that remind them of their days of yore, happy memories of special Sunday and Christmas lunches.

Jackie Lobo is one of the few Anglo-Indians residing in Adra today. A competent and respected teacher, Jackie came to Adra as a teenager in 1975 and settled there. With Anglo-Indian grandparents, she grew up on a regular diet of yellow rice and curry balls, mulligatawny and stew. Scrambled eggs and parathas are a common feature on her breakfast table. It’s a simple culinary pairing that celebrates the coming together of British and Indian influences, basically what an Anglo-Indian is.

Kimberline Francis, a British-Indian millennial now based in Perth, recalls her childhood and her holidays in Adra. As a boarder, she lived away from Adra for most of her high school and college years, but returning home to Adra was always a joy-filled occasion. On her way home, a meal of her favorites awaited her – mulligatawny or pepper water, fried meat and hard dhall (the Anglo-Indian version of lentils or dal), yellow rice and devil’s chutney. For the uninitiated, pepper water comes from the Tamil ‘milagutannir’. The Anglo-Indians created their own version of it, usually adding meat like lamb to it. It quickly became a popular Sunday lunch dish, served with rice and a squeeze of lime.

Although Anglo-Indians are scattered all over the world, when it comes to tracing their roots, they always come back to India, because “without India, there would be no Anglo-Indian “. Now based in Perth, Australia, with her own family, Kimberline carries on the Anglo-Indian culinary heritage inherited from her mother and grandmother. She can make a mean roast chicken and loves cooking pepper water, fried meat and yellow rice with devil’s chutney for her two hungry boys. Do pyaaza and jalfrezi are some of the other dishes she learned from her longtime family cook who was skillfully trained by her grandmother to prepare Anglo-Indian dishes.

Around Easter, after the forty days of mourning of Lent and the long sweltering summer days, the sleepy town of Adra comes alive to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hot buns are synonymous with Easter celebrations, soft, sweet sourdough buns sprinkled with raisins and marked with a characteristic cross at the top, symbolizing the death of Christ. The Anglo-Indians are devout churchgoers and the community gathers to celebrate the Easter Vigil at the Church of the Sacred Heart, one of the oldest churches built by the British in 1819.

It is Christmas, however, which is the biggest and most important holiday for the community. Wherever they are in the world, Anglo-Indians prepare for the biggest festival, starting on the first Sunday of December. Candied mixed fruits, currants, raisins and orange peel are expertly chopped and soaked in rum for a few weeks to be used in making Christmas fruitcakes or Christmas pudding. It used to be that the Christmas pudding was a big family event. Each member of the family had to stir the Christmas pudding and make a wish. A coin or ring was sometimes added to the pudding batter and whoever got a piece of pudding with Christmas Day was considered the luckiest.

Christmas Day in Adra is celebrated with great pomp – from midnight masses to dances and visits to friends and family. Christmas was a very special time for Denise Burke, who spent many years in Adra before moving overseas. Christmas Day was usually spent with family. “The day started with mass and then all the neighbors and friends came to wish us,” she said “My family made masala green rice, chicken curry and salad for lunch and roast duck with stuffing for dinner,” she says. “After lunch we would go to a jam session, meet our friends and boyfriends, then come home for afternoon tea. Tea time was all about savoring Christmas sweets like culs culs, rose biscuits and cakes,” she adds.

Popular dishes on the Anglo-Indian Christmas table include baked dishes like shepherd’s pie, steamed meatloaf or chicken casserole. Among the meats, beef steaks with peppercorns, mutton chops or roast beef in sauce, and special nana roast duck. Mashed potatoes, grilled tomatoes or a mixture of baked vegetables are accompaniments. Crème caramel or a drunken trifle pudding are favorite desserts.

Christmas is celebrated until at least the first week of January and the 31st night is a highly anticipated event. For more than 100 years, Anglo-Indian families have gathered at the South Eastern Institute for the New Year’s dance. People from nearby places like Asansol, Dhanbad, Jamshedpur and Kharagpur come to Adra for this night of fun and revelry.

Beyond the Anglo-Indian cuisine, Adra’s younger population today likes to frequent some of the Bengali tea stalls that have popped up around Adra, for a quick snack. Anda chop, chingri chop or mughlai paratha are popular in these places.

Today there are approximately 30,000 Anglo-Indians in West Bengal; most in Kolkata, and a few in areas like Adra, among others. The previous generation hung up their boots after living busy lives and are now happily retired to this peaceful town, albeit with a tinge of melancholy for times gone by.

The world may have moved on in many ways, but Adra remains, in a way, frozen in time and many Anglo-Indian traditions continue to be followed, as they were, to this day.

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