This is an old, classic book that was a must have “Bible” in its day for young British women who were embarking upon married life in India as it gave a host of practical advice for how to “run house” in 1880s British-India.
So why publish it again over 120 years later? Well apart from being an historical curiosity about how things were done “way back then” it still can impart some practical hints and tips that can be equally valid, perhaps with adaptation, in these more modern times. Society has changed, of course, in the intervening years and this book should not be seen as somehow celebrating the “good old days” but one should equally not rewrite history and just learn from the past and live for the present and future.
The reader is thought to be inexperienced and thus she, as it would be a she who is the target reader, is “instructed” in all matters of managing the house and assigning duties to maids and servants as required. One does not receive gentle encouragement or suggestion but one is effectively instructed on how things are done and how they should be done.
Before one is transported back to Victorian British-India, one receives some context through a long introduction to the authors and life in general as well as a chance to familiarise matters through a comprehensive chronology of events in British-Indian society from around the time the book was originally published. Explanatory notes also provide enhanced context to references that at the time would have ordinarily needed no explanation.
It is fair to say that much of this book would have equally been found in a contemporary general guide for a young woman setting up house for the first time, however it has been specifically written and expanded upon for the differences of expatriate life at the time. A light is shined in British-Indian society with the expectations, prejudices and solutions that were the norm.
This is more than a recipe book – much more as recipes are but a part – and it even gives instructions on how to train one’s local staff to make specific British delicacies that the poor natives may never have tried before. The recipes that are presented are typical for their time and are relatively abridged, abrupt and to the point. Yet it might be an interesting exercise to take some of the less common recipes and maybe bring them back into today’s usage. Naturally some classic favourites never die, even if they have been changed by generations of cooks.
If you are happy that this is not just a cookbook or a specific introduction to British-Indian food, and retain an open mind to past historical events and such information, this will be a thrilling little book that will undoubtedly have you exclaiming and reading extracts aloud to nearby companions! A highly recommended little tome.
The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, written by Flora Annie Steel & Grace Gardiner and published by Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955014-2, 400 pages. Typical price: GBP12.99.