A Kitchen in Nineteenth-Century Madras

The following case study is by India-based architect and food designer Akash Muralidharan. Akash is a researcher and designer at The Center for Genomic Gastronomy, and one of his most recent projects, entitled “Cook and See,” sees him take up a commitment to recover India’s historical culinary practices. Why, he asks, have certain vegetables lost their central roles in Indian cooking? As one way into finding the answer, he turns to traditional cookbooks and steps into the kitchen. More information on Akash’s project can be found on his website, and visual documentation is available on his Instagram page.

Below, Akash explores what the Gwillim sisters’ letters can reveal about the kitchens of nineteenth-century India.

The letters of the Gwillim sisters give us a glimpse of the cooking practices during the early 19th century. They help us trace long forgotten ingredients and traditions. The wonderful aspect of these letters is that they not only carry a gist of the culinary landscape of Madras but also tell us in detail about specific vegetables: how they are cooked, their qualities in comparison to foods with which the sisters are familiar, and more. 

These beans are some of them shelled and boiled as broad beans and are not bad––others are used as we use ours, but they are as broad as two fingers. But […] they cut them as small, and they are so much alike that I eat them several times without knowing, nor should I have known if I had not been told. But I thought them drier, more mealy…

Mary Symonds to her mother, Esther Symonds, October 14, 1801

Indian broad beans are unique. They are long, flat, and slightly curved. The outer shell is green, smooth, and soft; when opened, the pods reveal oval-shaped seeds that are lighter in colour. The name for this plant differs by region: local terms include Avarai, Avarakkai, Sem, and Sheem. Indian broad beans are consumed when they are young and tender, before the inner seeds are fully grown. They are aromatic, sweet, and crispy. They are best suited for curries and stir-fries, but not close to the freshness and crispiness that they bring to a salad. 

The best part about these beans is their versatility, how well they sit in any dish ranging from soups, salads to main courses and desserts. The Indian broad beans have been grown and eaten in the country for more than 1000 years. It is interesting to see how the beans were looked at and adapted from a non-native perspective through the letters of the Gwillim sisters––the letters tell us that the sisters seem to have enjoyed Indian broad beans as a regular part of their meals. 

I want to tell you of a curious fruit which I forgot before; it is called a rose apple by the Europeans. It is the size and colour of an apricot, but it has an eye like a medlar of a delicate green. The texture is exactly [that of] an apricot, and, when you break it open, it is loose from the kernel as the apricot is when overripe. The taste is exactly roses and sugar, most elegantly mixed and not too sweet. The kernel is green (with a very thin brown shell) and tastes the same as the green part of a rose bud––it has just that astringency, and the crispness of it.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her mother, Esther Symonds, January 23, 1802

In this instance, the sisters’ letters introduce us to a fruit that has since been nearly forgotten. The Rose Apple was a delicacy in the 1800s, but it is nowhere to be seen in recent years. Known as Jam pazham in Tamil (the local language), it has now become a rare delicacy. These letters, luckily, reinforce our knowledge of these fruits and bring to light some of the forgotten foods of South India.

The apricot-like rose apple. Source.

On a similar note, several vegetables that were once a part of the diverse culinary treasure of the country are being slowly forgotten or excluded from kitchens. Once lost, these vegetables and the cooking practices built around them cannot be retrieved. We do not know how many we have lost yet, but it’s not too late to start tracing these vegetables and their associated culinary knowledge.    

The “Cook and See” challenge thus attempts to trace India’s lost vegetables and determine the reasons behind their disappearance. It is an extremely challenging task to go back in time to find more about vegetables that existed centuries ago. This is where cookbooks like Samaithu Par and Hindu Pakasastra, as well as the Gwillim sisters’ letters, come into play. Samaithu Par, a Tamil cookbook written in the 1950s, not only offers recipes but also become a repository of information for future generations to understand the history of the region’s culinary landscape.

Far before these cookbooks, the Gwillims’ letters provide further evidence of the historical cuisine of India and of the existence of certain vegetables; the sisters’ efforts document the cooking practices that they encountered, the native vegetables and their tastes, the vegetables that the colonisers brought with them, and more.

The answers to our future lie in the past, in knowing the path we have taken so far to reach where we are. We have a lot to learn from the mistakes we have made, the breakthroughs we have had, and just knowing how we have evolved through history to reach this point. It would definitely help us reshape our futures to be more sustainable by shifting the ways in which we connect with food right now.  

By Akash Muralidharan