The Taj and The Raj
Not Much Chop?
Raju’s very keen on taking me to the Taj Mahal. We’ll have to get the tourist train! Will we? I’d much rather go on an ordinary train but apparently you can’t—anyway, he’s not suggesting it. So I just keep stumm. We’ll have to get up early. Okay, got that.
We get up early. Nevertheless the Delhi station is pretty busy. The train’s very comfortable. We meet a pleasant young Indian couple from Gujurat. Dunno why they’re deferring to him—just manners? Because he’s a Brahman? Trailing round the tourist sites with a Caucasian girlfriend isn’t very Brahman-like, though, is it?
The journey is occupied almost entirely by meeting these nice young people and eating breakfast. I don’t actually want an omelette but I have to have one, apparently, so I don’t object. It’s the most horrible omelette I ever experienced: it’s full of thinly sliced raw onion! Ugh!
It’s not just the Taj, it’s these other places as well, a fort first, but first before that it’s this shop. Undoubtedly run by the taxi-driver’s brother-in-law, but Raju agrees we have to go. So we go. I don’t buy anything, because he’s appointed himself in charge of the money and in any case it’s all dreck. Nasty little badly-carved pieces of alabaster. Left to itself the alabaster would be quite nice, but—Mm. So now we can go to the first place!
More driving around the very flat plain…
Yep, it’s a fort, all right. Huge! Very like the Red Fort in Delhi, but this one’s got this and that and women’s quarters and in this the owner would have received… It’s so huge and complex that it’s hard to take it all in. There are several large buildings set within a giant interior courtyard. And branching off is this and that…
The Agra Red Fort’s Delhi Gate, 1814-15
It’s a really wonderful place but unfortunately that damned onion omelette is giving me such awful indigestion that it’s hard to appreciate it. Poor Raju can’t understand why I’m not more merry and bright.
More driving—no, that isn’t the Taj…
We eventually get to it. It is lovely, so very pretty, very suitable as a memorial to a pretty, much-loved wife. But it’s quite an unreal feeling, looking at a famous monument that you’ve seen loads of pictures of. We approach—
Agra, Taj Mahal, between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress)
My God! I know they’re having a water shortage round Delhi and presumably the whole of the area, but only one of these beautiful Mughal-designed long oblong pools has got water in it! The other has only got dirt and a few dead leaves. Never been so disappointed in my life? You betcha! And disgusted. Why don’t they make more of an effort to look after their wonderful monuments?
Closer. A guide points out the lovely flower mosaics. Too much to take in, really, but I take a few snaps—I’m a hopeless photographer, always end up with 15 pics of something that struck me at the time and none of the important views.
We have to go down to the tomb—horrid little dark steps, very narrow, and no-one warns me that the lintel is so low you need to—OW, my head!—duck. Blimey, that hurts!
Yes, well, what with the sore head and the fact that approaching so close strikes me as a kind of sacrilege, I’d rather not have gone down those damned steps, thanks. Trying to do the right thing, Katy—why? You know you’re bad at it!
Somehow we end up on the surround, looking over the wide spread of the river, very, very low, more mudbanks than water—they’re having a water shortage, all right. Lovely view, though, with the sun sinking and that milky, pearly sheen in the sky…
Looking across the river from the Taj Mahal to the Red Fort of Agra.
This modern photo from Wikimedia Commons, by a photographer who has generously put it in the public domain, shows the view we saw.
So, was it a wonderful experience?
A bit like the curate’s egg, really: excellent, in parts. Yes, I’m very glad I saw Mumtaz’s lovely monument and heard her story. The Taj Mahal is so beautiful that not only do you get that unreal feeling, the finish is so completely perfect that ignoramuses like me fail to take in the quality of the exquisite mosaic work.
Below: These lovely watercolours by an unknown artist, circa 1820, from the Honolulu Museum of Art, show two details of the inlay at the Taj Mahal, and give you a very good idea of the quality of the work. It’s as delicate as this, but in stone!
That was back in the 1970s. Decades later I’ve learned a little bit more about Mughal art and seen an art museum’s pieces of mosaic that probably should never have left India, and now I can appreciate that I saw the best: the art of the Mughal mosaic at its pinnacle. But at the time, on a purely emotional level, the stronger, more robust lines of Agra’s Red Fort appealed more. So did the Red Fort in Delhi, which I adored.
Talking of eggs, though not curates— Sometimes I’m sure I can still taste that bloody omelette, decades on! What the Hell gave the owners of that up-market and expensive tourist train the idea that an English omelette—it was featured as an English breakfast—included raw onion??
Cross-Cultural Culinary Exchange
I think it was an example of what I can only categorise as cross-cultural exchange in cookery. It’s a double, or if you like, two-way process: a foreign dish is adopted, then the country of adoption adds something of its own. Omelettes would have been introduced to India in the days of the British Raj, but it’s Indian cookery rather than English which tends to see onions as indispensable in a main dish. Never mind if the result is foul! The Indian cooks who prepared it in the days of the Raj would never have eaten such food.
I have found one English recipe for an omelette with onion in a fairly early cookery book: A.G. Payne’s Cassell's Vegetarian Cookery (London, Melbourne, Cassell, 1891). It’s rather an also-ran, an addition to his basic recipes, referring you back two steps for the basic instructions:
Omelet With Onion.
Proceed exactly as in the above recipe [“Omelet with Fine Herbs”]:
Chop up a dessertspoonful of parsley, only adding to the chopped parsley a piece of onion or shallot about as big as the top of the thumb down to the first joint, also very finely chopped. When onion is used in making an omelet a little extra pepper should be added.
Omelet With Fine Herbs.
Chop up a dessertspoonful of parsley, and add a good pinch of powdered savoury herbs, add these with pepper and salt to the six beaten-up eggs in a basin. Beat up the eggs, either slightly or very thoroughly, according to whether you use two ounces of butter or four.
Proceed in every respect, in making the omelet, as directed for plain omelet.
I suppose it proves that the revolting notion was around at the period of the Raj in British cookery, and maybe that’s where the Indian cooks picked it up, after all! The only contemporary recipe I’ve found that comes close is a much nicer version, in an American book, 365 Foreign Dishes: a Foreign Dish for Every Day in the Year (Philadelphia, G.W. Jacobs & Co., ). But it uses leeks, not onion, and cooks them first. Here it is:
Boil young tender leeks in salted water; let drain. Chop to a fine mince and fry in hot butter. Add 6 well-beaten eggs, sprinkle with salt and pepper and fold into an omelet and serve on a hot dish.
Thought leeks were Welsh? Never mind, it sounds yummy!
Recipes which represent “cross-cultural exchange” abound in English (and hence Australasian) cookery, which specialises in adopting a foreign recipe and then anglicising it to such an extent that it becomes just another putrid example of bad English food. But with Indian cookery you often get the opposite effect: the Indian touch makes it better, not worse!
Take the very English food, chops (always mutton chops rather than lamb, until well into the 20th century.) Don’t let’s argue about whether there are good English recipes for them—anything is possible in an expanding universe. The Indian cooks have adapted them—or perhaps adapted the notion of chops, puts it better—to produce something really unique that a Westerner would never mistake for English. You make a finely minced or chopped spicy mixture, typically based on a meat, shape it into the desired form, and fry it.
Initially I discovered the intriguingly-named recipe “Potato Chops: Aloo Chop” in a book of Indian recipes published in 1983. I assumed that the whole idea must be a modern one, dating from well into the 20th century. But then I came across an almost identical recipe, called “Bombay Chicken Croquettes” in the American cookery book 365 Foreign Dishes, dating from 1908! There is nothing obviously Indian about this chicken recipe except the mango chutney in the sauce to explain why “Bombay” should appear in the name: so very possibly the method was already current in India (and quite possibly confined to the kitchens of the British Raj):
Bombay Chicken Croquettes.
Boil a fat hen well seasoned with salt, pepper, 1 sliced onion, 2 green peppers and 2 cloves of garlic. Remove the chicken and chop fine and mix with chopped parsley, the grated rind of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 teaspoonful of paprica and a pinch of nutmeg. Add a little chopped tarragon and chervil and 2 beaten eggs. Mix with the sauce and form into croquettes. Then dip into beaten eggs and fine bread-crumbs, and fry in deep hot lard a golden brown. Serve hot.
Garnish with fried parsley and serve tomato-sauce in a separate dish, flavored with chopped mango chutney.
It’s almost eighty years later that the idea resurfaces in The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking, by Khalid Aziz (London, Michael Joseph, 1983). (“Encyclopedia” is a misnomer: this is just a book of recipes.) He writes:
Potato Chops: Aloo Chop
“This recipe is very popular in many parts of India, particularly with the middle classes, who regard it as being a Western dish and therefore something which every well-to-do family should serve from time to time.”
It combines fried mince, mashed potatoes (“aloo”), finely chopped onions and lots of spices with tomato pureé, ending:
“Form the mixture into lamb chop or patty shapes. Beat the egg and dip each chop into the egg, coat with breadcrumbs and shallow fry in the minimum of oil for a few minutes until golden brown.”
Aloo Chop, The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking, by Khalid Aziz
True, small fried or grilled patties aren’t unusual in Indian cuisine; for example in 1973 Jack Santa Maria in Indian Vegetarian Cookery gives us a vegetarian version called “Dal Cutlets (Mongorhi),” based on lentils: “Mix all the ingredients and form into cutlets, using flour or breadcrumbs and fry in ghee till golden.”
But what is striking about “Aloo Chop” is the insistence on the “chop” shape which makes “Aloo Chop” Westernised and up-market, and the explicit recognition that it is intended to do so! The zenith of cross-cultural culinary exchange, in fact!
“Chop” in the expression “not much chop” is almost certainly Anglo-Indian, from the days of the Raj. That’s “Anglo-Indian” in the old sense, which has disappeared from 21st-century usage: “Of British birth but living or having lived long in India” (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English). “Chop” itself in such outdated Anglo-Indian adjectival expressions as “first chop”, “second chop” means “class”, i.e. “first-class,” “second-class,” from the Hindi chhāp, meaning “stamp.” The picture’s confused because “chop” was also used by the British in China, in such expressions as “chop-suey” and “chop-chop!” (meaning quickly), which according to the Concise Oxford derive from Chinese. But of course it also crops up in the English expression “chop house,” which the Concise Oxford lists under its definition of the piece of meat, as a “cheap restaurant”—that is, such places served mutton chops!
The Anglo-Indian meaning of “class” presumably produced “Not much chop,” meaning it hasn’t got much class about it, that you don’t think much of it.
Well, that onion omelette certainly wasn’t much chop! And it managed to tarnish what could have been a completely luminous day. But that’s life, eh? And I’m glad to say the memories of the Agra Red Fort and the Taj Mahal live on. Describing them properly is beyond my feeble powers, but thanks to Wikimedia Commons I found the wonderful pictures which I’ve used here, that give you a little of the feeling of the place.