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Curries And Bugles And Microwaves : Looking Back: Jennifer Brennan On The Colonial Food Of India's British Raj.

October 11, 1990|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

"My family were pretty much adventurers and hell-raisers," says Jennifer Brennan. She is no exception. She has lived in (" lived in ," she emphasizes, "I mean actually set up housekeeping in") 14 countries. These include Japan (her present home), Thailand, Vietnam (where she lived with two young sons in 1968), and Saudi Arabia. "Can you imagine what it was like trying to test recipes there? It was impossible; half of the ingredients I couldn't get. For one thing we couldn't have any pork products."

But the place that holds her heart is India, where she spent the first eight years of her life. "Nothing ever takes the place of the first country," says Brennan. "there is always a part of you that is there."

Brennan's family is straight out of "The Jewel in the Crown." Both her mother and her grandmother were born in Calcutta. "My family," she says simply, "was very natural in India." But the life that Brennan writes about in her new book, "Curries and Bugles--A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj" (HarperCollins, $25), is a far richer one than that portrayed in most of the novels about colonial life in India.

"You want to tell at least some of it the way it really was," says Brennan. "At first the English drank a lot and ate immoderately, in a climate that didn't support that, and reading the early books I'm amazed they managed to survive at all." By the third generation, however, the English had figured out how to live--and live well--in India. They traveled constantly, in the first-class splendor of luxurious trains; they spent the hot summer months in the cool, high mountains; they rode hard and ate well, and when they played tennis they drank gallons of nimboo pani (limeade). "They had a lot of fun," says Brennan. She gets a dreamy look and begins to reminisce. "My father was an excellent piano player--he played swing--and when he went on tour he'd get his piano carried with him. Before he met my mother he and some other pianists had a group. They called themselves The Filthy Four. They'd start playing a number and then they'd all get up and switch pianos without missing a beat. Things like that--they played and they had fun and they raised hell . . . . .

"One of my earliest memories was during the war; my father and mother were entertaining the troops. There was my father, sitting down in a dinner jacket playing a grand piano and my mother, in black velvet with diamond drop earrings leaning against it singing 'Begin the Beguine.' I thought they were the two most sophisticated, elegant people ever. I was so proud of them.

"It was," says Brennan simply, "very hard when we had to leave. I was going to an England I didn't know. We all missed India bitterly."

The family did not stay very long in England. Her father was sent to Cyprus and to Egypt, and when he was killed, her mother moved the family to Bangkok. But wherever they were, they cooked Indian food. "We are all passionate cooks, and in our family, if somebody's not feeling well, he'll always go in and cook a curry."

This turned out to be very convenient when Brennan sat down to write this book. "It was quite different from my first book," she says. Brennan's first book, "The Original Thai Cookbook," was a lucky accident. "In 1970, when I came here, I went looking for Thai food. Thai food is addictive. Indian food has that quality too. There wasn't any, so I started cooking my own.

"Then people started saying, 'Why don't you give classes?,' so I developed recipes for the students. I had to figure out each recipe from scratch. But this time, I had a wealth of family recipes on which to draw. My aunts all had notebooks filled with recipes and old cookbooks that they'd been cooking from for years."

The recipes themselves are one of the great pleasures of the book. Part English, part Indian, this is food quite unlike any you find in ordinary Indian cookbooks. The English were drawn to all the riches of the country, and you find dishes filled with apricots, with spices, with cream and nuts. They are the sort of recipes that sound so seductive when reading them that you find yourself drawn inexorably towards the kitchen, and as you start to cook you suddenly see that you are not alone: The perfume of the spices has seduced everybody in the house.

Brennan understands this. "One time I was on a plane that stopped in Karachi and we had to deplane. I got off the aircraft, and I was in the hall and I could smell the smells and tears were coming to my eyes. I started to cry. It was incredible. I hadn't been in India since I was 8, but it was home."

"In 1943 we undertook a marathon journey (by train) down the entire length of India. The appetite, sharpened by the clean, bracing air of the hills, would demand something very satisfying --like this dry chicken curry."

BHUNA CHICKEN

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 bunch cilantro leaves, washed and finely chopped

1 inch ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

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