So what’s common between Chicken Country Captain, Railway Mutton Curry, Dal Tadka and the Ledikeni?
Aside from the fact that each one of them belongs to a modern community (Anglo Indian mostly) and has been the creation of a chef with very limited resources (like seriously limited), it is their common ground of birth: The Dak Bungalow.
Interestingly much to the toast Dak Bungalow food is made out to be these days (courtesy food writers and chefs rediscovering them today), its beginning (and the subsequent existence) wasn’t all that grand.
In fact, many of the earlier Dak Bungalows that were set up by the British back in 1840 to accommodate their kins and brethrens during long road travel was much far from success.
And the food, as Lady Wilson writes in Letters From India, “We have to carry with us our own groceries, which comes from England or rather as far as we are concerned from the Army and Navy stores at Bombay- packed in tins. We also have our own filter, and our own supply of soda water and wine with us. We kill our own sheep, have our own cows, and make our own bread and butter.”
Interestingly, Lady Wilson wasn’t alone at giving a rather artisanal look to the sad affair. The thought was reiterated again by William Tayler. The then commissioner of Patna in his 1881 memoir famously summed up the Dak Bungalow’s food as: “...there is fowl, nothing but fowl, of every age, size and degree of toughness.”
Fascinatingly, the very reason for Dak Bungalows was for comfortable stay and palate friendly food – more of the latter – especially when the British found traveling by water to distant places an ordeal.
It all began with Lord Auckland in 1837. Eager to take first-hand account of the newly acquired colony, Auckland decided to travel from Calcutta to Simla in a budgerow with a retinue on par with that of Emperor Akbar’s wedding party.
The little battalion is said to have made of 850 camels, 250 horses, 140 elephants, 12,000 men – almost four times the Army used by Shivaji to regain half his empire. The traveling party also included a few friends, their wives and associates and a French chef by the name of St. Cloup.
The budgerow he travelled in had cabins with Venetian windows making it comfortable as it gave right amount of sunlight (sometime too much of it) and fresh air. But when it came to food, everything came spiraling down. Or as one of the members of the large travel party described – the food that came out of the cook boat, whose duties was to collect fresh produce and cook as per our taste, was rather filthy and confusing.
It is said that by the time Lord Auckland reached Simla, he decided that waterways wasn’t the ideal way to see the Empire – and neither were roads – and hence commissioned the first Dak Bungalow. Fragments of the decree read thus: “It would be a nice place to put your head to rest and belly in peace.”
Where and how the first Dak Bungalow came into being needs a lot of research – as many died a haunted death in their lifetime. But none whatsoever, as anthropologists and authors discover, befitted the style of the British.
A dark shadow of the khidmatgarh (resting houses) of the Mughals, these Dak Bungalows – given the many they had to open to make traveling across India easy - was a pathetic one man show called the khitmutgar or the manager.
This gentleman – mostly a cook from the royal kitchens of the kingdom that had annexed – had to double up as the manager, caretaker, cook, server and even housekeeping with barely a salary of Rs 13 or 25 depending on which area the Dak Bungalow was.
Unlike the aramghar of Shahjahanabad (built by Emperor Shah Jahan on the lines of a good hotel), these Dak Bungalows were bereft of any guest house like facilities. The kitchen was usually at the back of the house with no real amenities, the bed were low quality, jute woven, little better than a charpoy with mattresses filled with hay, the bedsheet (washed mostly in house) a browner shade of white or cream. The lights often didn’t work in many parts.
Lack of facility was part of the sob story; the other side was the lack of food. In spite being in and around a prosperous town or village, these guest houses were treated as person non grata by the denizens of the area. So getting food from the town or village was not an option. Result: Dak Bungalow had its own pen and cowshed – and one had to carry the rest of the food for a good meal.
Yet to the all-grim affair, the attraction of the Dak Bungalow’s remained the resourceful, ever-happy, ever-ready Managers. Lady D’Urban for whom the delicate chicken cutlet was created by one of the Dak Bungalows she stayed in during her years of illness, had written: “it’s amazing to be told that your chicken would arrive in 20 minutes, cooked the way you wanted. But don’t get the hopes high till you hear the chuck of a sudden dead chicken (a moniker that the Dak Bungalow popularized).”
Dak Bungalows clearly were places to dread because of its uncooked fare and uncomfy stay. And still they continued to flourish – perhaps the idea of being safe and among the own were the brownie points – thanks to its khidmatgars who may not cook such great chicken but were resourceful enough to get you the other good things in life for a little extra dough.
1857/8 changed that too. With kings reduced to titular heads and coffers on the mercy of the Queen, more and more khansamas found themselves out of job. Dak Bungalows even with their awful location and exhaustive JD held appeal. As one grand oldman in Lucknow puts it, “between dying of hunger and having your little place of (free) haven half a year, you would choose the latter.”
And gradually, the chicken that could wake up any moment and run from your plate came delicacies that today can be the single most highlight of a table. Like the Captain Chicken, the Caramel Custard, the Jhaalfrezi and of course the tipsy pudding!
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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