Battle of Plassey. 27th June 1757. As every school child used to know. Robert Clive (aka Clive of India) biffs the Nabob of Bengal, and his French backers. Result: the effective end of French influence in India. We give the Indians cricket and beer. They give us kedgeree, Bombay duck, Mulligatawny soup, chutneys, gymkhanas, puttees and all the rest. Not really a fair exchange.
However, that is not the point of my enquiry. Have you ever thought of what the consequences for European gastronomy might have been had we lost, and we got booted out of India, and the French been cocks of the walk?
For a start those ‘Taj Mahals’ and ‘Stars of India’ that have brought gastronomic colour to the dark streets of the Readings and Basingstokes and Fort Williams of this country for a generation or more, wouldn’t be there. They’d be Le Taj Mahal and L’Etoile d’Inde of Montelimar, Clermont-Ferrand and Arras.
I suspect that most English travelers, who go to France for what, in effect, are eating holidays, head straight for their favorite curry house as soon as get back to base. It’s something to do with being greedy, of course, but it’s also something to do with a complete change of bowling, or, rather, change back to bowling that is familiarly unfamiliar and the wholly different associations that a bowl of curry conjures up.
These days we’re encouraged to look for regional emphasis and ethnic authenticity (about as reliable in the UK as ‘authentic’ performances of period music). This is quite a new thing. In the days when India was part of the Empire, the Indian meal you got in London was a very basic affair, a simulacrum of the meals the servants would run up in Poona or Bangalore under the eagle eye of the culinarily conservative memsahib. But just suppose the memsahib had learned her culinary onions in Dijon rather than Cheltenham, had in fact been a femmesahib, what might she have coaxed out the kitchen?
Wherever the French did build their Empire, they seem to have assimilated rather more readily than we did. There is a lot of North Africa and Vietnamese food in France, most of it pretty unspoilt, if that is the mot juste. But India would have been a bigger mouthful to swallow. There are Indian restaurants in France. The odd one or two actually make honorary appearances in the Guide Michelin, but they no more represent the great traditions of Indian cooking than do the vast majority of Chinese or Thai restaurants in Britain.
No doubt the scholar cooks of ‘Petits Propos Culinaire’ could dig out what the employees of the French East India Company actually did eat in its day. They seem to have been based mainly in the South, where curries tend to be of the more furious variety. The French, nowadays, choose to regard out fondness for the nuclear-hot curry as just another manifestation of our gastronomic barbarism. Madame de St-Ange, the French Mrs Beeton, wrote that ‘le curry est un plat emporte par les Anglais, grands amateurs de mets exceptionnellement epices’. So if the British found a taste for searing hot curries, the French would surely have cultivated something else.
It’s safe to assume, for example that whatever they ate, they would have drunk wine, not beer, with it. Instead of India Pale Ale brewed to stand the long voyage round the Cape from London and Burton on Trent, wines would have had be made sufficiently sturdy to survive the same journey, and that actually got better as it was tossed around on the billows. Perhaps the need to find food that matched wine might have brought about subtle changes on the curry culture, itself. Perhaps it had, but the secret died on the battlefield of Wandewash.
Of course, there is a dish you used to come across quite commonly in France, Poulet a l’indienne, chicken in a bland veloute sauce, containing the most fugitive hint, the merest whiff , of curry powder, like vermouth in a proper martini. It certainly does not overpower a glass of wine, but it’s hard t imagine such a dish being eaten in India with relish.
That seems about all we have to go on at the moment. The superstars of contemporary cuisine, who gave drawn so deeply on the inspiration of Japan and China, have largely ignored India’s equally diverse and splendid culinary culture. Perhaps it’s just a bit too earthy and full of distinctive flavours for the high disciplines of haute cuisine. But had the Battle of Plassey gone the other way, it might have been so much more.
I remember an old friend reminiscing about a trip he had made to Michel Guerard’s establishment at Eugenie les Bain some years ago. He said that when you take your aperitif in the cool green shade of the terrace, it came with a plate of tiny amuse bouches, looking uncommonly like the plaster food in a toy butcher’s shop. On one visit there, among the goodies was a round thing, thin as paper. It was quite small and herby fragments were embedded in it in a regular circle. ‘Like a discretely floral dinner plate’ as he put it. ‘Of course,’ he added, ‘it was an authentic provincial French poppadum’.