A French Meal With an Indian Accent at the Stroke of Independence

The menu for the eve of Independence also acknowledged the momentous occasion, but, in keeping with the culinary fashion of the day, was French.

On the night of August 14, 1947, Indians had come out on to the streets to celebrate the end of British colonial rule. In Bombay, vast numbers congregated outside the Gateway of India, the monument erected to welcome and commemorate the visit of George V and Queen Mary in 1911. It is from here that the last of the British soldiers would depart in 1948, bringing the curtains down on the Raj.

Across from the Gateway stands the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and inside, plans were being made for a celebratory dinner on the eve of Independence. And the elite of the city had gathered to drink, eat and watch cultural shows – jazz by Micky Correa and Chic Chocolate and an ‘Independence Ballet’ by Shirin Vajifdar.

The menu for the evening was also acknowledging the momentous occasion, but, in keeping with the culinary fashion of the day, was French! ‘Continental’ food was the rage among the upper crust and the Taj had decided to stick to it, while ‘Indianising’ the dishes a bit. A Taj associate found the menu from the night of Independence in the archives. “Indo-French cuisine was ‘du jour’ in the 1940s,” said Rakhee Lalvani, vice president of corporate communications of the hotel. It makes for interesting reading.

The opening course consists of Consomme a l’Indeanne (probably a soup with Indian spices), followed by Delices a l’Hindustan (no further clarification given), or Salmon, then Poularde Souffle Independence and then Vacheris de Peches Liberation (dessert with Peaches and meringue). Government regulations were in force at the time, so only certain combinations could be ordered and while Bombay was under strict prohibition, the Taj had a bar licence and presumably those with permits could drink.

Lord Mountbatten

Lord Mountbatten at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai.

The Vajifdar sisters, well known dancers of their time, provided the Indian touch but the jazz band that the hotel was famous for was very much in attendance, with Molly Connor singing. There were speeches too. “Dosabhai Framji Karaka also known as D. F. Karaka, an Indian newspaper editor and then owner of Current Weekly, addressed the guests with speech to mark the memorable day,” Lalvani said.

Lalvani offers up another intriguing factoid. One of the regular, long term guests at the hotel those days was Sarojini Naidu. “Sarojini Naidu became synonymous with Taj during the Independence era. A suite of rooms was kept almost permanently at her disposal at Taj. She was an important part of the historic meeting held at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai in 1916 between the Congress and the Muslim League.” Could she have been present at the event? The hotel couldn’t manage to get the guest list of the evening or the exact price the customers would have paid. But among the archival material is a photograph of Lord Mountbatten speaking to Bombay’s citizens soon after Independence.

Excited by this discovery, the hotel now plans to serve up the same menu in its hotels all over the country and in London to mark the 70th anniversary of Independence. The gaps have been filled in with a bit of research and to appeal to current tastes. The meal is priced at – Rs 1947.

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