Luncheon, East of Suez

“Whisky-and-Soda and Today’s Curry, Please”


A slim, two-page menu of 1910 from Royal Hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon), Burma (Myanmar), discloses rich context that the charmingly faded type only hints it. The menu above is yet another from the extensive archive of New York Public Library.

The British ruled in Burma from 1824-1948. By 1885 Burma was a province of British India. Rice cultivation was a major part of the colonial economy. Brokerage, transport and financing developed in turn, for further details see this Wikipedia entry.

Tens of thousands of Indians of different ethnicities were in the province both to work in rice plantations and help power British administration and commerce. They helped staff the police, army, civil service, railways and numerous retail and service occupations. An important activity was selling liquor and the Parsi community were strong in that sector, having had a long history of consuming and selling alcohol in India.

(India was their second national home following an early emigration from their first land, Iran. In reviewing Parsi history I was fascinated to learn Freddie Mercury, one of the great rock figures of the post-1960s, was of Parsi origin. Parsis, followers of Zoroaster, have long been distinguished for high achievement beyond their numbers in business, science, culture, the military and more).

By 1900 it was necessary to establish a quality hotel in Rangoon to support the burgeoning economy. The famous hotel associated with the British era is the Strand, built in 1901 and a jewel in the string of hotels owned by the famous Sarkies brothers. These talented hoteliers were perhaps best known for Raffles, in Singapore.

Just above the street for which the Strand hotel was named was aptly-named Merchant Street. The Royal Hotel (pictured), managed by two Britons, opened about 1904 on Merchant Street and advertised all modern conveniences including an elevator.

The Strand was – and is, it continues as a luxury haunt – a few paces from the wharves. The Sarkies always knew the importance of being near the water. But the Royal advertised its establishment was only “five minutes” away.

The menu shown, from 1910, is redolent of expatriate and peripatetic life in the days of the British Raj. Plain as the document seems romance inhabits every corner, every line.

British business acumen was evident in the form of the menu template, obliging supplied by White Horse Scotch whisky.

The Mackies, a Scots uncle and nephew duo who also owned a few distilleries, created the brand in the close of the Victorian era. We find the whisky notes of interest to try to glean the tastes and savours of a revolved era, an object of many of our quests.

The “higher alcohol” mentioned is clearly the grain whisky component – the neutral spirit (more or less) in aged form that with Lagavulin and other malts formed a blend. This, in our view, is putting a kind of spin on substituting grain whisky for malt whisky but the menu tells us the grain whisky aided digestion.

Perhaps the alcohol notes of the neutral spirit did just that by cutting the rich foods offered on the menu. To a skilled marketer that was so, anyway. Let’s recall: whisky of any repute, whatever the type, whatever the era, is co-extensive with effective marketing, a verity distillers can go broke under-estimating.

Certainly whisky in this period was almost always cut with water, contrary to today’s practice at least for esteemed brands. Scotch whisky, in its ascendancy by 1910 around the Empire, was a long drink, either plain water was used, or soda, and finally ice.

The menu makes a virtue of the water also, it brings out the fine aromas and taste you see. Of course too in hot climates its use was a practical necessity.

Whisky may have started in frigid Scots hills and damp Irish vales but it didn’t end there, far from it.

The ex-colonies never quite forgot the long drink whisky originally was. Australian rockers AC/DC called for “whisky, ice and water” in 1980’s “Have a Drink on Me”, not an inch of single malt. Canada was the same except we like ginger ale or Coke for the water or seltzer.

The food items are a Hobson-Jobson of cuisine, offering a mix of Scots, English, French, and Indian or Anglo-Indian dishes. Scots mutton soup was on offer. And chicken pan rolls, possibly Parsi in origin, the Royal’s nomenclature reaching for status with the French poulet. These rolls are a crepe filled with sweet or savoury, they look like a Jewish blintz and are still well-known in the Indian kitchen.

The “ball curry” is minced meat balls in a curry sauce served with rice – it’s a staple of the Anglo-Indian cuisine.* Blanquette of veal is rather French although long known in England as well.

Sadly no drinks menu accompanied the menu in question, if anyone finds it, let me know.

Note re images: the first two images above were sourced from the New York Public Public Library at the link provided in the text. The second was sourced from Pinterest, here, and the third from Wikipedia, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the authorized owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Anglo-Indian means here the specific ethnic group of that name, descendants of the marriages of Britons and Indians who evolved a distinctive culture including for foodways. Independence in 1948 resulted in an exodus as many spoke English only and worked in administrative and other jobs that would become de-Anglicised with time. Many came to Canada, in fact.





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