Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A Christmas Pudding From Katherine

A Christmas Pudding From Katherine
Or, Through the Looking-Glass

No, it’s not a person, and not a spelling of my name. Katherine is a town in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Christmas of the pudding from Katherine was almost an out-of-body experience.

    It happened the second year I was in South Australia, 1989, and as it’s fast receding into the past I think it’ll qualify for “What We Ate”. I was lucky enough to have landed a year’s lecturing at an Adelaide tertiary institution, and a very kind, earnest lady on the staff invited me warmly to Christmas dinner with her family. To be honest I didn’t much want to go: I barely knew her, I had nothing in common with her, and I was very sure that as usual with such typical social get-togethers, I’d only be a fish out of water—but then, her feelings would be hurt if I turned her down: the more so as she’d winkled it out of me that I didn’t know anybody in Adelaide and would be alone for Christmas.
    Some people do like being on their own, not all of humanity is cut from the same cloth, but…  I gave in, and accepted with what I hope looked like true gratitude. On one level I was grateful: it was very, very kind of her.
    As promised, it was just a family affair: my colleague and her husband, their two kids, who’d have been in their early teens, and a youngish couple who were in-laws (at this distance in time I’m not sure, but I think her brother and his wife), who’d driven down from Katherine.
    We ate around 2.30 of a steaming Adelaide summer’s day: it was overcast, very humid for South Australia, and hitting 36 degrees Celsius. Not over-hot for Adelaide: it can hit 43. We were in the sitting-room, the only room with “reverse cycle” air conditioning. It wasn’t a large room: the house was in an older, more traditional style, not one of the modem monstrosities with giant open-plan living-dining-kitchen areas. (The whole complex history of their aircon, the disaster when the kids got pneumonia from sleeping in front of the moveable water-cooled apparatus all night, and etcetera was explained to me in great detail. Not all of it made sense to a New Zealander, but they didn’t notice.) With seven large bodies in the room, and the oven on in the adjoining kitchen, the air conditioner wasn’t quite cutting it: it was just slightly too muggy to be comfortable.
    Well, what would you have served under such circs? I’d have given it away and done at the most cold chicken, a couple of salads, and ice cream.
    Nope: nothing like it. It was, I was subsequently to discover, a completely typical Australian Christmas dinner. The main course was the full, no-holds-barred, roast turkey with roast potatoes and gravy and etceteras. And yes, it is still traditional in the Australia of the 21st century, the TV foodie gurus have assured me of that.

Stunned by a Prawn
By the time we reached that course, however, I was already stunned, so much so that I just felt dazed for the rest of the afternoon. The first course, no kidding, was avocados with seafood, the latter a mixture of prawns and chunks of crayfish. In midsummer? Oh, yeah. Christmas is the huge, I mean HUGE, season for prawns and crayfish, down here through the looking-glass. Already in November the media, both national and local, will have started reporting anxiously on the probable prices per kilo of these delicacies, and the probable size of the catch… Yep.

Oh, to be in Paris, now that December’s here…
I kept thinking—dazedly, yes—of what my friends in Paris would have said about seafood in any summer, let alone a swingeingly humid 35-plus day like that. Ten fits? At least. The lovely fish shop directly over the road from my scungy one-room “studio” apartment in the dix-neuvième closed down entirely for the summer months. With the autumn it opened again, still smelling of nothing but the sea, and as the leaves fell, it began selling shellfish again. I tried moules the way Gégé had once shown me, raw, with nothing but a squeeze of lemon juice, like oysters.* They have to flinch when the lemon juice hits them: it shows they’re alive. Delicious!

Back to the Pudding from Katherine
The shocks weren’t over after we’d got through the first two courses, by no means. Those rellies from Katherine had brought the pudding all the way down to Adelaide with them. Not a short drive, no. The driving distance is 2,714 kilometres.
    Yes, it was a traditional English “plum pudding.” Large, full of dried fruit, steamed, soaked in brandy and/or whisky, you goddit. Served hot, of course.
    Mad? Now hear this. The woman had made it weeks earlier and, so as it would mature properly and not go off, hung it up in the sitting-room with the air conditioning on. To counteract the Northern Territory climate, which, surprisingly enough, bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of England as autumn declines into winter.
    Mad? That’s mad.

No, I haven’t lost it, I’m not recommending you make a great steamy HOT Christmas pudding in the middle of an Antipodean summer, or even heat one up to serve steaming hot. If you live Downunder, why not be sensible, wait till winter, and have what my American friend Susan S. used to call “Christmas In July”?
    I won’t suggest a favourite recipe, I’ve never made a Christmas pudding yet and don’t intend to start now. Besides, those who make ’em doubtless have their own recipe, much the best. But just for interest’s sake, here is THE classic Christmas pud from Isabella Beeton. It is pretty much what we had that steamy hot Christmas, nigh on 30 years back. Not only that, it’s also very like the classic Christmas pudding my old school friend Susan C. and I had, when we spent a real winter Christmas with her aunties and grandma in Dallas, way back in 1966/67. You don’t think Christmas in Texas can be cold? Wrong. It was freezing weather and we actually had a few flakes of snow. It was a wonderful pudding, and the hard sauce one of the aunties made to go with it was miraculous. So full of brandy that it near to knocked you out! If the Adelaide Christmas was the most incongruous, not to say surreal, the Dallas one was certainly the most enjoyable of my life.

(Very Good.)
1328. INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of raisins, 1/2 lb. of currants, 1/2 lb. of mixed peel, 3/4 lb. of bread crumbs, 3/4 lb. of suet, 8 eggs, 1 wineglassful of brandy.
Mode.—Stone and cut the raisins in halves, but do not chop them; wash, pick, and dry the currants, and mince the suet finely; cut the candied peel into thin slices, and grate down the bread into fine crumbs. When all these dry ingredients are prepared, mix them well together; then moisten the mixture with the eggs, which should be well beaten, and the brandy; stir well, that everything may be very thoroughly blended, and "press" the pudding into a buttered mould; tie it down tightly with a floured cloth, and boil for 5 or 6 hours. It may be boiled in a cloth without a mould, and will require the same time allowed for cooking. As Christmas puddings are usually made a few days before they are required for table, when the pudding is taken out of the pot, hang it up immediately, and put a plate or saucer underneath to catch the water that may drain from it. The day it is to be eaten, plunge it into boiling water, and keep it boiling for at least 2 hours; then turn it out of the mould, and serve with brandy-sauce. On Christmas-day a sprig of holly is usually placed in the middle of the pudding, and about a wineglassful of brandy poured round it, which, at the moment of serving, is lighted, and the pudding thus brought to table encircled in flame.
    Time.—5 or 6 hours the first time of boiling; 2 hours the day it is to be served.   Average cost, 4s.  Sufficient for a quart mould for 7 or 8 persons.   Seasonable on the 25th of December, and on various festive occasions till March.
    Note.—Five or six of these puddings should be made at one time, as they will keep good for many weeks, and in cases where unexpected guests arrive, will be found an acceptable, and, as it only requires warming through, a quickly-prepared dish. Moulds of every shape and size are manufactured for these puddings, and may be purchased of Messrs. R. & J. Slack, 336, Strand.
(Isabella Beeton. The Book of Household Management. [London], S.O. Beeton, 1861.)

An Alternative from the Fridge
As an alternative to knocking yourself out with exhaustion and heatstroke on Christmas Day, why not choose a cold pudding? By the pudding course most people only have room for something light, anyway. When we were kids in New Zealand in the 1950s and early 1960s it was always homemade ice cream, usually with a packet jelly, often Mum’s special “fluffy jelly”. Christmastime in Auckland is nothing like as hot as in Adelaide, but it is usually very warm, and humid with it. We got our very first fridge when I was about six, when we moved to our first permanent Auckland house. (I think in early 1951; Dad and Uncle Ray had to build it first, in between dropping heavy lumps of wood on my little brother’s foot, so it probably took about a year.) So Mum was able to make ice cream quite often. I don’t think it had much in it besides whole milk and sugar; it was more like a milk sorbet, it was so light. No cream: cream was sinful and expensive. The fridge was bench height and its freezing compartment was very small; its one metal tray, used for ice blocks as well as ice cream, was about 10 cm wide by 25 long, and only about 4 cm deep.

Cold and Jellied
Before domestic refrigerators came into general use, cold puddings had to be left in a cool place to set. Jellies were always somewhat precarious in the very hot weather. Cold puddings were often variations on the blancmange, made with cornflour; it’s hard to make a cornflour mixture that doesn’t set when cold.
    Not all Antipodean housewives were brainwashed into conforming slavishly to the norms of the colonising power from the other side of the world, even back in the 1950s. You do find some mid-20th-century recipes for cold Christmas desserts, though they’re certainly in the minority. I wouldn’t say they’re all palatable, but they deserve an A for effort! Not to say, for just plain common sense.
    This example is a chocolate-flavoured milk jelly, with dried fruit added to make it Christmassy. The writer doesn’t say it should go in the fridge, so it probably dates back to an earlier edition of the recipe book, which was a perennial favourite in Australia for decades.

A Cold Christmas Pudding
Three dessertspoonful Davis Gelatine, 1 1/2 squares of chocolate or three tablespoonsful cocoa, 1 1/2 pints milk, one cupful raisins, one cupful sugar, one-half cupful chopped lemon peel and nuts, one half cupful currants, one-half cupful dates or figs, one-half teaspoonful vanilla, pinch salt.
Place milk, chocolate or cocoa, and gelatine in saucepan over the fire and stir until dissolved, but do not boil. Now add sugar and salt and after further stirring remove to a cool place. When the mixture begins to thicken add essence, fruit and nuts. Turn into a mould which has been rinsed in cold water and place aside to set. When required decorate with holly and serve with whipped cream or custard. Be sure and wash the dried fruit thoroughly and allow to soak a while before mixing. This is an ideal pudding for ocasions [sic] quite apart from Christmas.
(Green and Gold Cookery Book: Containing Many Good and Proved Recipes. 15th ed. (rev.), Adelaide, R.M. Osborne, [1949?])

    The idea must have appealed to the sweating housewives of South Australia. The selected pudding for December 25 in the South Australian Country Women’s Association’s Calendar of Puddings, 5th ed., circa 1952, is “Jellied Plum Pudding”, virtually identical. Thirteen contributors sent in this same recipe!

Not Only Cold, But Beaten
Channel-hopping the other day I caught five minutes of an Aussie cookery programme in which the two insane gurus, one female, one male, it ain’t sex-linked these days, solemnly whipped (started whipping) some separated eggs with hand-held wire whisks. The sort of whisk that Alexis Soyer, Escoffier et al. would have recognised, yep. We weren’t privileged to see the entire whipping process, and no wonder. It takes ages, and requires wrists of steel, arm muscles like a Schwarzenegger, and hips that don’t mind standing on a hard kitchen floor forever. Back around 1950 when the rotary eggbeater really took off Downunder, home cooks must have thought, with sighs of relief, that they could throw away that stupid old whisk forever. This tremendous innovation well-nigh revolutionised the family pudding, certainly in Australasia; and in combination with the refrigerator, cold whipped puddings came into their own.

The Proof of the Pudding…
Examples abound in the cookbooks of the Fifties. They have all sorts of names, but they can all be classed as variations on the mousse. Lightness is most often achieved with beaten whites of egg. And you use your miraculous rotary beater to beat the air into your pudding:

Marshmallow Dessert
For MARCH 20
3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 pint water, pinch salt, 1 dessertspoon gelatine, flavouring. Heat all together, but do not boil. When sugar and gelatine dissolve, allow to cool. Whip whites of 2 or 3 eggs very stiffly and add to cool mixture. Beat all together with rotary beater till light and frothy.
Set in cold place. Before serving, cover top with a fruit salad mixture or any fruit in season. Decorate with whipped cream.
–MRS. B. K. JENKINS (Snowtown).
(Calendar of Puddings: A Pudding a Day for the Whole Year. [5th ed.], [Adelaide, S. Aust.], South Australian Country Women's Association, [1952?])

Such puddings were popular on both sides of the Tasman. The following New Zealand recipe is the closest I’ve found to Mum’s “fluffy jelly”, which made its appearance on our tea table for many years. As you can see, the concept resembles a “Spanish cream.” However, the miraculous aspect of Mum’s fluffy jelly was that the layers always separated themselves out. I thought it had something to do with the temperature of the base mixture, but in “Oban Summer Pudding” (Calendar of Puddings, for Feb. 2nd), Mrs. W. Wien-Smith and Mrs. G.H.A. Mahood advise: “Whisk the whites of eggs stiffly, and then beat all ingredients together thoroughly, otherwise the gelatine will sink to the bottom.”

Special Jelly [aka “Fluffy Jelly”]
1 packet Edmonds Jelly Crystals;  3/4 breakfastcup Milk
1/2 breakfastcup Hot Water;  Whites of 2 Eggs
1/2 breakfastcup Cold Water
Dissolve jelly crystals in hot water; add cold water then milk. Fold in the stiffly-beaten egg whites. Set in a wet mould.
(Edmonds Cookery Book. De luxe ed., [Christchurch, N.Z.], T.J. Edmonds Ltd., 1955 (1968 printing) (First published as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book, 1908))

    Easy-peasy! You can ignore the further instructions in the book about serving with a custard made from the yolks: this custom dates back to an earlier era (as does the book) and in fact was just about dead by the mid-Fifties. I think Mum usually used the yolks up in the pudding, beating them with the milk.

To Rotary or Not?
Although rotary eggbeaters (aka egg beaters) were invented way back in the 19th century and the domestic models took off really early in the United States, they don’t seem to have become popular in Britain:

There’s less evidence of rotary beaters getting a firm grip in Victorian Britain, although some people certainly used them. With no well-known brand like Dover [as in the U.S.], they were advertised as “one-minute” or “ten-second” beaters, or with fanciful names like Biatrope or Archimedian. Advice on cooking and equipping kitchens mostly assumed an ordinary wire whisk would be just fine.
(Early Rotary Egg Beaters, Home Things Past)

    I think Australia and New Zealand must have followed, as with most things culinary, in the footsteps of the “mother country” (a phrase still current when I was a kid in the 1950s). References to the rotary eggbeater in Australia date the tool from around the 1930s. This was when Propert Productions started selling its “Swift Whip”. There are still examples around today, and it has become a collectable.

    In the 1950s Propert’s rotary eggbeaters really took off in Australasia, becoming fantastically popular:

“Propert became a household name when it started making all manner of kitchen implements … By far the most successful product was a ball-driven egg beater, trademarked as the Ezy Whisk.
    “In the days before electric beaters, the Ezy Whisk was the market-leader and exported world-wide. Adverts in the 1950s boasted they’d even been endorsed by royalty. Apparently Queen Mary was most impressed when she was shown an Ezy Whisk while visiting London Expo one year. … For ordinary Australians without electric appliances or domestic help, the Ezy Whisk was an indispensable kitchen aid. Charles Propert and his son Bertram manufactured more than a quarter of a million egg beaters a year in the early 1950s, reason why so many are still around and used even today.”
Rod Bruem. “The Amazing Propert Family – Caravan Inventors”, Time To Roam, May 6, 2017) https://www.timetoroam.com.au/the-amazing-properts/

    This article indicates that the new model was the “Ezy Whisk” but I haven’t been able to find any other references to that name. The “Swift Whip” was still being advertised in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1959:

    Cookery snobbery remained rampant, of course, and it was only real people—the sort who used the Green and Gold Cookery Book and The Golden Wattle Cookery Book in Australia and the Edmonds Cookery Book in New Zealand for generations—who happily discarded the chef’s wire whisk in favour of the truly efficient rotary eggbeater (and later of course, used the electric beater, blender and food processor). Don’t take my word for its being more efficient: it’s been tested. No, it wasn’t in a “test kitchen,” aka sterile laboratory, but it was a real person doing the test. She writes:

“The set included four different styles of wire whisks and rotary egg beaters, dated from about 1870 to 1940. In this group of kitchen tools, I could see the progression of time: how science and mechanics sought to make a laborious task simple and succinct.” They ranged from an early whisk through to a rotary eggbeater.

    She tested the set: “I separated an egg and let the white warm to room temperature in a deep mixing bowl. I grabbed my wire whisk [top] and whipped for what felt like an eternity—but, in fact, it was only 6 minutes and 48 seconds (though my arm wanted to fall off and die after about 30 seconds). As I whisked and whisked, I thought of countless great-great-great grandmas with bad-ass arms after hours of whisking. … The shiny, patented, 1936 Super Center Drive Beater [the rotary beater, bottom] was a different story: the super smooth rotation gave me a creamy meringue in the least amount of time: 1 minute, 17 seconds. My last step was to compare these whisks to my modern, electrified, upright mixer: it took over two minutes to beat an egg into a meringue, and left some unbeaten white clinging to the bottom of the bowl—which means that a beater patented over 70 years ago was more efficient than my modern mixer, both in terms of how quickly it made meringue, and quality of the final product. What does that mean? Should the rotary whisk be reinstated into our kitchen armory as a means of producing a faster, finer meringue?”
(Sarah Lohman. “The Magic Whisk”, Sep 11, 2012,

    I’d vote for that, Sarah!
    Interestingly, the second implement from the top in her picture, which she explains was identified by an expert as a “sauce whisk”, dated 1920 or later, is a dead ringer for the egg whisk that Mum used In New Zealand in the 1950s before she had a rotary beater! I’d forgotten all about it until I saw the picture. So double thanks, Sarah.
    The pictures I found, including the Australian “Swift Whip” examples, were similar to Mum’s New Zealand rotary beater, but not quite the same. I began to think I'd imagined hers, when I couldn’t find a picture to match it, but my brother remembers it, too. He writes that it had: “two intermeshing wire beaters and a big wheel with a hand crank off to the side. The wheel had about 4mm bumps on as gear teeth which meshed with small cogs on the beaters, thus turning them fast in opposite directions.”
    I had to think about this techo description, but I finally got it (looking hard at the pics in close-up). That was it, yes!

Yep, you can become completely bonkers with over-use of the rotary eggbeater, devising more and more novel notions for the dessert course. This incredible effort is so deliriously dotty that I have to pass it on. I’ll give you a hint; it has no watermelon in it:

Water Melon Delight
For FEB. 22
Make 1 pint of red jelly, and when half set fold in 2 stiffly beaten egg whites and the pulp of 3 passion fruit. Whisk together. Pour into large bowl and allow to set. Make 1 pint of thick custard (with custard powder), and when cold spread over red jelly. Make 1 pint of green jelly. When nearly set, pour over custard. Chill and cut into wedge-shaped pieces. Serve with cream or ice cream.
--MRS. C. P. STEER (Clarendon).
(Calendar of Puddings: A Pudding a Day for the Whole Year. [5th ed.], [Adelaide, S. Aust.], South Australian Country Women's Association, [1952?])

    Get it? The green jelly’s the watermelon skin, the passionfruit make the seeds and the custard makes the rind!
    Too much use of thy rotary eggbeater hath made thee mad, Mrs Steer.

The Apotheosis
Of course the apotheosis of the rotary period in Australasia was the “pavlova”.

    Horrible controversy over who named it first, the New Zealanders or the Australians, supposedly during, or perhaps just after, a tour of New Zealand and Australia by the ballerina Anna Pavlova in the 1920s—but who cares? It’s still terrifically popular today; possibly even more so, as using an electric beater to make the meringue base requires no effort at all.
    Here’s how they made it in the 1950s with their rotary beaters, though I’m not claiming this is the best recipe. Merely a fairly early Australian one, using the name by which we still know the dessert today:

Pavlova Dessert
For JAN 1
4 egg whites, 8 ozs. castor sugar, 2 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice, 1 dessertspoon cornflour.
Beat egg whites until very stiff and frothy, add sugar gradually, and whisk again till stiff. Fold in sifted cornflour. Add vinegar and stir lightly. Grease and dredge with cornflour (lightly) an 8-in. sandwich tin. (Alternatively, line with wet paper.) Fill with the mixture, arranging it with a slight hollow to take the filling when cooked. Bake in a very slow oven (250 deg.) until cooked through, but not coloured - 1 1/4 to 2 hours. When cold, spread with a fruit salad mixture, including pineapple. Decorate with whipped cream or ice cream.
—MRS. W. H. POSSINGHAM (Naracoorte), MRS. R. L. HALL (Iron Knob), and MRS. E. S. JOHNSON (Murray Bridge).
(Calendar of Puddings: A Pudding a Day for the Whole Year. [5th ed.], [Adelaide, S. Aust.], South Australian Country Women's Association, [1952?])

    If you insist on martyring yourself by turning the oven on at Christmas, go ahead and make one. Good luck with the two hours. Or, as we’re in the 21st century, you could just buy the base, ready-made, and liberate yourself from the Australasian martyred mum syndrome.
    Whichever, I’m sure it won’t be as good as the ones our Aunty Molly used to make for tea on Christmas Day, back in the Fifties and Sixties. The base nigh on four inches tall, crisp on the outside, pure white fluff on the inside, sweet but not too sweet, with real unadulterated EnZed whipped cream on top of it… A dream of a pudding!


Thursday, 19 October 2017

Bread and Butter and Sapodillas: The Dehradun Train

Bread and Butter and Sapodillas:
The Dehradun Train

It was years before I knew what they were. Raju didn't know their English names, and he didn’t seem clear on their Indian names, either. He bought two bags of fruit and a loaf of white “English” bread, about half the diameter of the bread I knew back home in New Zealand, and we ate them for lunch on the Dehradun train, going back to Delhi. The yellow fruits weren’t so interesting: oval, about the size of a well-grown olive, shiny-skinned with a whitish, rather soapy-tasting interior. But the brown-skinned ones were Paradise on earth. Honey-sweet. We spread the meltingly soft, thick green-gold flesh on the bread.

Into the Foothills of the Himalayas
By the mid-1970s India had already come a fair way since the days of the British Raj. But taking the train up to Dehradun on our way to a hill town called Mussoorie was rather like stepping back into the past. It was already getting dark when we went to the big central station of New Delhi to catch the train. The platform was very busy, but not so much as to be frightening. Above the noise of passengers getting on and farewelling their relatives, the engine could be heard panting: a real big old black steam engine! Mmm, that steam train smell: coal smoke, but it’s not just that… Engine smell.

The days of steam in India are over now, alas. The photo above was taken at about the same time were in India, the mid-1970s. We couldn't know it, but it was the end of an era. These days Indian Railways don’t run steam trains any more, and the station at Dehradun has become quite a big interchange, with a whole bunch of routes, and there is even a rail service up to Mussoorie, all shiny and new.

    The big, grimy, gritty New Delhi platform with its engine smell is fascinating: a great mixture of costumes, most of the men in fairly shabby European clothes, but quite a few in traditional Indian gear, several different styles of turbans. Most of the women in saris or the northern-style pajama-kurta. It’s chilly, and most of them are also sensibly wearing shawls: a big heavy woollen oblong, more like a blanket, really. Draped right round the body and then one end flipped over a shoulder in a very casual-looking fashion: how on earth they stay on, I don’t know! Anything I drape over my shoulder falls off immediately. Probably something to do with their excellent posture: the shawls make them look quite stately. Most are in dark colours, there aren’t many of the bright saris that flower all over the city during the day. A clutch of heavily-robed purdah ladies, getting into a ladies-only carriage: yes, they still have them in the 1970s! I try not to stare rudely, wondering what it must feel like under that black robe, looking out from behind that narrow black lattice over the eyes...

    We were travelling Indian-style, but not technically third class—Raju told me the involved story of the name changes to the Indian railway carriage ranking system but as it didn’t make sense, it didn’t sink in. Anyway, it definitely wasn’t rich white tourist-style. As it turned out we weren’t travelling Indian-style enough. We got on, and bought cups of steaming hot, sweet and milky tea from one of the chai-wallahs on the platform: the traditional style of small, unglazed terracotta cups, used once and then thrown away. It’s a very hygienic custom, never mind if its original purpose was merely to avoid drinking from a vessel that someone impure (i.e. from a lower caste) had used.
    The train set off with a terrific lot of chuffing and puffing. I didn’t let on that I was fairly used to steam trains: Dad was a mad-keen model railroader, and his club was quids-in with the steam railway nuts in New Zealand, so we went on several of their special steam train trips when I was a kid. But the attraction of steam hadn’t palled!
    That trip north would have been enough to make it pall, though, if I hadn’t been young and fit. Me hip wouldn’t do it, now. The thing was, the compartment, which we were sharing with an Indian family who were very polite and non-intrusive but fairly obviously thought we were mad, was intended as a sleeper for those who had brought their own bedding. The Indian family all had bedrolls. We only had our jackets, plus a lightweight shawl that I’d bought downtown. Luckily it wasn’t cold on board the train, though the Delhi nights had been chilly—it was late January-early February. However, those unpadded wooden shelves we had to sleep on were hard. Very hard. I did manage to drowse but I certainly didn’t sleep. Never mind, it was a new experience, all grist to the mill!

Mountains and Monkeys
We reached Dehradun in the mild morning sunshine, and piled off the train to be greeted by a deafening cacophony: a huge tribe of monkeys in a big old tree by the station fence. Suffering David Attenboroughs! I’ve heard flocks of noisy birds, but this! Enough to fry your brain.

Dehradun, In a Picturesque Valley…
Dehradun nestles on the bottom slopes of the Himalayas, which rise suddenly and unexpectedly from the giant, endless-seeming plain. We felt the train straining up the rise to the town. In those days it was too steep for the steam trains after that, and you had to go by road to get higher. The town is 236 kilometres (147 miles) from Delhi: obviously the train wasn’t very fast, as it was an overnight trip going up, and then the best part of a day coming back.
    The history of the little settlements in the foothills of the Himalayas would have been quite different if India had never been ruled by the British. Dehradun (“Dehra Doon” or “Dehra Dun” or “Dehradoon” in British 19th-century accounts) typifies the towns settled by the British in the high hills. Well over a hundred years before we went there, it was already being used as the jumping-off point for the hill station of Mussoorie, one of the towns used by the British, especially the ladies, as an escape from the oppressive heat of the plains in the hottest summer months. Like those long-gone ladies, we were also headed up to Mussoorie.
    Here’s a mid-19th-century take on the area. The writer, Henry George Keene, was an officer of the East India Company, which at the time he describes, that of the Sepoy Rebellion or “Indian Mutiny”, 1857, ruled large parts of India and maintained huge armies there. Keene was a considerable scholar and historian who published several books and many articles on India and its history. In 1857 he was in charge of the “Dehra Dun” district.

“Further north … was the picturesque valley of Dehra Dun, lying at the foot of what in military parlance were called ‘the hills north of Dehra.’…
    “The Dun … possesses some features of singular interest. Lying between the Himalayas and the Siwáliks, it abounds in forest, ravine and swamp; … and it forms the approach to the important European stations of Landour and Mussooree.”
(H. G. Keene (1825-1915). Fifty-Seven: Some Account of the Administration in Indian Districts During the Revolt of the Bengal Army. London, W.H. Allen, 1883. Chapter 1, p.6-7)

    Ravines, eh? You said it, Henry! I’d seen precipitous gorges in New Zealand, but the roads in the Manawatu and Akatarawa Gorges were relatively good. We didn’t stay long in Dehradun, but took a taxi up to Mussoorie. The road was shocking: very narrow, badly maintained and rubbly. The taxi driver swung us along with complete insouciance. Only a foot from the side of the car, the ravines dropped away fiercely.
    Here’s Constance Gordon Cumming’s pictorial impression of the precipitous drops in the foothills of the Himalayas, which really sums them up:

    On the opposite sides of these immense gashes the great grey stone walls, hung with dark blue-green bush, rose up unendingly. Every so often there was a glimpse of a white, evil-looking crag. I tell you what, it was the Chanson de Roland to the life! “High are the peaks, and the valleys shadowy, The rocks dark, the passes terrible:”

Halt sunt li pui, e li val tenebrus,
Les roches bises, les destreiz merveillus

Mussoorie, With Doubtful Curry
“The …  town [is] scattered over a wide extent of cliffs and ridges … [with] numerous bungalows...”  wrote H. G. Keene. I don't think it had changed much in 150 years: bungalows plus odd-looking two-storeyed structures on the main street, with horridly rickety balconies. The photo below was taken in 1875 or 76, almost exactly 100 years before we were there, and it looked just like it!

    Out of season Mussoorie was dark, huddled and unwelcoming. The hotel didn’t even have any hot water for us—Raju had to make a fuss to force them to fill a bucket for us to wash. The bucket, we had expected: it was standard in the Indian hotels. You take it into the tiled bathroom and with the dipper provided, often a recycled tin, pour the water over yourself for your shower. Not only traditional but sensible: the area round Delhi was undergoing a severe drought that year.
    The snows had retreated from the little town, but at the end of winter the skies were still dark and lowering, and the mountains were wreathed in cloud—not much view. However, we managed a bit of a trip round and about, and caught a glimpse between two nearer, lower slopes of a towering, snow-covered peak: not Everest itself, but nevertheless so high above us that it seemed unreal.

   It ought to remain in my mind as a shining memory of Mussoorie. Alas, what most stands out is that strange meat curry. I'd have been content with vegetarian food, like Raju was having, but he was anxious that I shouldn’t be deprived of meat, so he ordered it.
    Very dark brown, and very, very tough. Whatever this animal was, it sure was athletic in its time! Didn’t taste like lamb, and it wouldn’t be beef. Uh… goat? Best-case scenario. …Dog? Couldn’t be horse, the chopped-up bones in it were too small. There was no way of telling. Did I eat it? Yes, of course I did, it would have been very rude not to, not to say, hypocritical. Added to which, both Raju and the wrinkled, gap-toothed man in charge of the food stall were looking at me hopefully. No, there were no ill-effects!
    Sounds disgusting? Actually, apart from the toughness, it wasn’t bad at all. Spicy, not too hot, and quite aromatic.

The recipe below, a Kashmiri-style dish, is the closest I’ve found to the Mussoorie doubtful curry. It’s much, much nicer, however!

Kashmiri Roghan Josh
1 1/2 lb [about 680 g] mutton [or lamb];
4 oz [125 g] ghee;  1/3 pint [200 ml] plain yoghurt;
small grain [about 1/4 teaspoon] asafoetida (hing); **
3/4 teaspoon dried ginger;  2 1/4 teaspoon salt;  water;
1 1/2 teaspoon red [cayenne] pepper [or chilli powder];
1/2 teaspoon Kashmiri garam masala (below);
1/2 tablespoon shredded ginger;
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander leaves
Mix ghee, yoghurt & chopped meat together; add asafoetida, salt & dried ginger. Cook, stirring occasionally, till whole of liquid is dried up and mixture sticks to bottom of pan. [Be careful not to let it burn.]
Add 3 tablespoons water, stir till scorched spice and yoghurt mixture is dissolved, & cook again till it sticks to bottom. Repeat addition of water & cooking till dried up again.
Add same quantity of water and continue cooking. Remove from fire, add red pepper and stir till the mixture acquires the colour of the chillies. Add a little more water, stir & cook till it dries. Lastly add 1/3 pint [200 ml] water, reduce heat to very low, & simmer till tender.
Add Kashmiri garam masala, shredded ginger & chopped coriander leaves. Transfer pan (degchi) to hot ashes with live charcoal on lid, or casserole in oven for 1/2 hour.
Serve with boiled rice or chapati. (Overall time about 2 hours.)
** You can safely leave the asafoetida out, or substitute garlic powder, if you can't find any. It’s most commonly available as a powder, with an oniony flavour and a strong, unpleasant sulphur smell. Cooking nullifies the smell. Often used as a substitute for garlic in Indian cookery, it’s also considered to be a digestive, and reduces flatulence.

Kashmiri Garam Masala
1/4 oz* black cumin seeds; 1/4 oz black pepper; 1/4 oz cloves;
1/8 of a nutmeg; 1 oz brown cardamoms; 1/4 oz cinnamon;
3 blades mace
Grind together, sieve, & store in an airtight jar.
(Mrs Balbir Singh. Indian Cookery. London, Mills & Boon, [1967])
* 1/4 ounce is about 7 1/2 grammes. You can see that the proportions are 1 each of cumin, pepper, cloves, cinnamon to 4 of cardamoms and 1/2 of nutmeg. All garam masala mixtures should be made in small quantities and used up quickly. Because of the large amount of cardamom, this is a very aromatic, sweet mixture.

    “Rogan Josh”, as it’s generally written these days, has become a favourite Indian-style dish with Westerners, and unlike Mrs Balbir Singh’s version, the modern recipes always include tomatoes. You may well have your own favourite version. Here’s the one I usually do. It’s an amalgam of several, and the result of trial and error. I find the sugar is necessary to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes.

Simple Rogan Josh
1 kilo beef stewing steak;  1 large onion;  1 tin tomatoes;
3 teaspoons ground coriander;  1 teaspoon powdered ginger;
seeds of 6-8 cardamom pods;  1 - 2 teaspoons chilli powder;
2 rounded teaspoons sugar;  1/2 cup yoghurt;
3-4 tablespoons oil; 1/2 teaspoon salt
Optional: 1/2 teaspoon cumin; 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Cut the meat into fairly large pieces, about 3 per person. Slice the onion. Squash the cardamom pods with a heavy implement until they split; remove seeds, discard pods.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy lidded pan or electric frypan on medium heat. Fry the sliced onion until golden.
3. Add the meat, several pieces at a time, with the spices except the chilli powder, and fry until meat is browned; stir gently all the time and take care not to burn the spices. Add chilli powder and tinned tomatoes. If the tomatoes are whole, break them up with a spoon. Cook for a moment, stirring.
4. Add sugar and salt; stir and lower the heat.
5. Cover and simmer gently till liquid is reduced to a thick gravy and meat is tender (about 40 minutes), adding a little water if necessary.
6. Then stir in the yoghurt* and cook uncovered on low heat until it is just warmed through.
Serves 4-6 with rice or chapattis and one or two vegetable dishes as an Indian meal.
*Adding the yoghurt at this stage prevents it from separating. However, if you prefer, add it with the sugar and salt.

Desperately Seeking Tropical Fruit
If you don’t know the name of a fruit, it’s rather hard to track it down. I’ve never seen the yummy ones since. Because it was the end of winter not all the tropical fruits were in season when I was in India, but I’ve tried quite a lot in South Australia. It’s too dry here for them, but they’re “imported” from “interstate.” That is the local usage, yes. No kidding. They’re mostly from Queensland, sometimes the Northern Territory or the northern parts of New South Wales. We don’t get all the northern tropical fruits—or possibly, as with everything else in Adelaide, you have to be in the know, nobody will actually tell you, and go to the market at the right time of year. I’m not in the know, about this or anything else. South Australians are completely parochial: the unspoken assumption always is, if they know it, everyone else (in the whole world, apparently) must know it, too. However, some of the less common tropical fruits are fairly readily available in Adelaide—the more so with the big influx of Asian tertiary students over the last few years.

    You can always get mangos in season—though I’ve just seen a foodie documentary which explained that a couple of generations back they were unknown even in a big city like Melbourne. I love mangos, they’re a favourite. Yellow pawpaws (papaya to some), are also a favourite of mine, but you have to be really careful to buy them absolutely ripe, otherwise they taste soapy instead of sweet. Tried the less common pink variety of pawpaw (disappointing: rather hard, not much taste, not particularly sweet).
    Pineapples are pretty much a staple, but the only decent pineapples I’ve had here were the special Woolworth’s ones, sweet and not acid. Unfortunately all the supermarkets have started selling pineapples hacked about, minus their tops, so that they start to dry out, and frequently halved as well. True, halving them lets you see how horribly green and unripe they are.

    Of the less common tropical fruits I have managed to find, custard apples stand out as my absolute favourite fruit of all time: positively dreamy. The cream-coloured flesh is very soft, sweet and creamy. That is, provided you can find a soft, ripe one that hasn’t been horribly bruised by the moronic Adelaide shop assistants.
    I’d known the tinned pink South African guavas years back: alas, you can’t get them here. The gritty texture isn’t to everyone’s taste but I adore them. I had fresh white-fleshed guavas in India, a variety of the same large, fat, true guava, but they weren’t exciting: not much taste.
    Lychees are lovely, but their scented, slimy-textured flesh doesn’t appeal to everybody. Sometimes see them here but they never look particularly fresh. I like them tinned, too, though usually too much sugar is added, but the last lot I bought here tasted as if the fruit or the tin had been rinsed with bleach, really horrible. Haven’t tried rambutans, they’re too dear and again, rather jaded-looking, but they’re said to be similar in taste.
    Ju, a Chinese friend, kindly warned me that dragon fruit (aka dragonfruit) don’t taste nearly as exciting as they look, but I wanted to try one. It was the red-skinned, white-fleshed variety, Hylocereus undatus, also called pitaya blanca or white-fleshed pitaya. (“Pitaya”, Wikipedia). Startling to look at, but sure enough, hardly any taste. Juicy and refreshing, though: the sort of fruit that’d be ideal on a hot day when you haven’t got access to a refrigerator. No doubt how they’re eaten in Mexico, where they’re grown in great quantities. (They originate in the Americas but the precise origin of Hylocereus undatus is unknown.)

    At first I was flummoxed by star fruit: they’re tasteless unless you know the secret of eating them, which I discovered by chance: sprinkle a little bit of raw sugar on them and add a squeeze of lime. Very, very delicate-tasting. Hard to describe them: just off crisp, just off juicy, lightly sweet? Nah, doesn’t cut it. Try one, but make sure it’s completely yellow, don’t go near a greenish one.
    We bought pomegranates in Delhi on that trip in the 1970s—great big juicy ones, sweet but with that typical acidic flavour. Lately they’ve crept into up-market Aussie kwee-zine, scattered on anything you care to name: salads, meat, fish, desserts… My bet is that the moronic telly gurus who sprinkle them so artistically on their dishes have never actually sat down at a dinner table to eat a dish thus decorated. What do your trendy, up-market guests do with the SEEDS, telly chefs? Because you cannot eat them. They’re much harder than passionfruit seeds. Spit them out? Yeah, right.
    The other big fruity taste treat I had in Delhi was sugar cane juice. Sinful. Gorgeous. The street vendors crush shortish lengths of the ripe cane in a big mangle, believe me or believe me not! The taste of the cane—slightly earthy, with the scent of sun-dried hay—comes through. Mmm-mm!

Solved At Last! Sapodilla
Finally a knowledgeable Chinese friend who grew up in KL solved the problem for me. How she got it from my fumbling description, goodness knows. The gorgeous little brown-skinned fruit that I’d remembered for nigh on forty years, since that train ride in India, must have been sapodillas. Thank you, Jin!

    I had a feeling that I’d seen that name before, so I rushed off to check my bookshelves. Yes: Jane Grigson writes under “Sapodilla”:

“The fruit is meltingly soft, something of the size of a Chinese gooseberry, round or oval, with brown skin. The flesh is honeyed, brownish-fawn, the taste reminds people of brown sugar. The seeds set off this restrained harmony by being black and shiny, svelte and long, neatly finished with a little twist at the top and a white stripe down one edge.”
(Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1983)

    Setting aside the fact that they must have some really runty Chinese goosegogs in Blighty (kiwifruit, “kiwi” if you must), she’s pretty well spot-on. Though our sapodillas were round, not oval, and about three centimetres in diameter. That lyrical description of the seeds hits the nail on the head, too! But the flesh of the lovely fresh ones we ate was definitely greenish-gold, rather than brownish-fawn. Unlike kiwifruit, the skins are not fuzzy.

From Yucatan to Dehradun
Once you know the name of something it’s much easier to research it! The sapodilla tree is native to tropical Central America and the West Indies; some claim it originates in Yucatan. The tree provides chicle gum, the base of the first common type of chewing gum. The “sapodilla” (Manilkara zapota) has lots and lots of names and has spread all over the tropical areas of the world. Only presumably not to northern Australia, or if it has, they’re keeping very quiet about it. It fruits profusely in India, where one of its common names is chiku, presumably from the Central American names chicosapote, chicozapote. In Jamaica and some other parts of the Caribbean the fruit is called the naseberry. There’s a very readable article online at: “The Naseberry, Sapodilla or Chikoo at Silver Sands Jamaica”, which tells us:

Naseberries are picked when mature and ripened off the tree. The ripe fruit softens, and you simply break it open with the fingers to reveal a light brown to rust-coloured flesh with shiny black seeds. Some people eat the skin but I find it a bit rough. Discard the seeds and pop the juicy flesh into your mouth. It’s so sweet that the late Forbes Burnham, former Prime Minister of Guyana, once exclaimed that “only a woman is sweeter than the sapodilla”!

    Jane Grigson would have agreed with the writer: “Descourtilz must have known what he was talking about when he wrote in Flore des Antilles, that ‘an over-ripe sapodilla is melting, and has the sweet perfumes of honey, jasmin [sic], and lily of the valley’.”
    Here’s the exact quote.

Michel Etienne Descourtilz (1775-1835). Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles, ou, Histoire naturelle des plantes usuelles des colonies françaises, anglaises, espagnoles et portugaises; par M.E. Descourtilz. Peinte par J. Th. Descourtilz. Paris, Pichard, 1821-1829. Vol. 4, p.113.

    Descourtilz discerns several varieties of sapodilla, the shape of the fruits varying somewhat. We ate type 3 in India: round, without the elongated tops and pointed bottoms that others have. Wikipedia tells us (“Manilkara zapota”) that the number of seeds of the sapodilla can vary from one to six; thus the cut fruits can look quite different.
    The lovely illustrations in Descourtilz’s work are by his son, Jean-Théodore Descourtilz. “Jean-Theodore was a noted ornithological artist who published Oiseaux brillans du Brésil in Paris in 1834,” as well as illustrating his father’s work. (“Jean-Théodore Descourtilz,” Wikipedia). Below are two of his illustrations, showing different types of sapodilla.

    They’re charming, but they don’t capture the essence of the little fruit. I don’t think you could better the words of Descourtilz, Senior, who was quite a word merchant. His multivolume book is a lot more than just a scientific tome of his day, dated horribly in our eyes by its old-fashioned arrangement according to the plants’ effect: more mediaeval than modern. Dip into it if you get the chance: you’ll come across some lovely passages, of which his encomium on the humble little brown sapodilla is typical. Reading it, I experience again that journey across the wide plains of northern India, a drift of the soft jade of young crops, on the old Dehradun train:

…fondante, et offre les doux parfums du miel, du jasmin, et du muguet.