Luncheon, East of Suez

 

 

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

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

Thousands of Indians of different ethnicities lived in the province to work in the rice plantations and for British administration and commerce. They helped staff the police, army, civil service, railways, and many retail and service occupations. An important activity was selling liquor. The Parsi community was strong in that sector, with a long history of consuming and selling alcohol in India.

(India was their second national home following early emigration from their first land, Iran. In reviewing Parsi history I was interested to learn that Freddie Mercury, one of the great rock figures of the last 40 years, was of Parsi background. Parsis, followers of Zoroaster, have long been distinguished for high achievement in business, science, culture, and the military).

 

 

By 1900 a quality hotel was needed in Rangoon to support the burgeoning economy. The famous hotel associated with the era is the Strand, built in 1901. It was a jewel in the string of hotels owned by the famed Sarkies brothers. The 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. It advertised all modern conveniences including an elevator.

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

The menu shown, from 1910, reflects expatriate and peripatetic life in the British Raj. The menu template was obligingly supplied by White Horse Scotch whisky, a good business gambit no doubt.

 

 

The Mackies, a Scots uncle and nephew who owned a few distilleries, created the White Horse brand in the late Victorian era. The whisky notes are of interest to glean the tastes and savours of a past era.

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

Certainly whisky in this period was almost always cut with water, contrary to today’s practice at least for the esteemed brands. Scotch whisky in its ascendancy was a long drink: plain water, soda, or finally ice were added.

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

The former colonies never quite forgot the long drink whisky originally was there. The Australian rockers AC/DC called for “whisky, ice and water” in their 1980’s “Have a Drink on Me”, not a finger of single malt. Canada was the same except Coke or ginger ale substitutes for the water here.

The food items on the menu offer 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 sought status with the French word poulet. Pan rolls are a crêpe filled with something sweet or savoury. They look like a Jewish blintz and are well-known in the Indian kitchen to this day.

“Ball curry” is minced meat balls in a curry sauce served with rice, a staple of Anglo-Indian cuisine.* Blanquette of veal seems decidedly French although long known in England as well.

Sadly, no drinks menu accompanied the menu.

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.

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*Anglo-Indian means here the ethnic group of that name, descendants of British and Indian intermarriage. They evolved a distinctive culture including for the foodways. Independence in 1948 resulted in a large-scale exodus to Britain and the Commonwealth, spurred in that many spoke only English and held administrative jobs that became de-Anglicized in time. Many came to Canada, in fact.