From meat to scotch eggs, French toast to cobbler and boozy hot chocolate, how this dram added drama to most dishes in the Club and beyond.  

By Madhulika Dash; Illustration: Dribble and stock images  

Let’s face it; rum (Old Monk and its sweet brothers) may not score as much for a good bartender these days – only a few know how to work that distinctive sweet on sweet note that these desi, made during colonial times tippler are known for), when it comes to the kitchen, the good old soldier’s dram earns all its brownie points. From making a decadent cake to a boozy trifle pudding, the best of the punch or even adding its good notes to a traditional regimental style French toast or a fantastic scotch egg or two. In fact, as much as the Italian and French Chefs swear by their vinos, in India most chefs have a love for the full-bodied rum. And by that I don’t mean those who have worked with it extensively back in the early days of hotel business where the protocols of dining matched those of the high end places created by the British or the regimental cooks for whom rum was a decent option to molasses as sugar was an expensive commodity that had to be sparingly used but also seasoned chefs today who use the dram for its complex matrix of flavours like Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) for whom having a bottle of rum is akin to having a tastemaker that almost equals the magic of sake.  

The thing about rum, says Chef Dewan, “is that while it is an alcohol and works mostly like an alcohol, it also has this layer of sweetness that adds a distinct layer of flavour. And given that it is a full-bodied dram, it often akin to port wine’s magic in a good sangria. In fact, depending upon how you have used the rum – flambeed or as part of their marination – the sweetness and rummy-ness differs. While the flambee is the most prominent way of appreciating the different complex notes of the rum, especially the oversweet one that we all are fond of, rum works equally well in giving these deep pronounced notes when meat and fruits are marinated in it. Take for instance, the rum ball or cake where the use of rum in the cream gives that bitter-sweet deliciousness that makes it such a wonderful treat; likewise, the case when you add it to mutton curry. The last bit of smokey sweet layer that comes is the rum doing its work. Rest the curry for a while and rum incorporates and turns the curry even more flavoursome.”

An example of how good rum behaves when played right is Chef Sharad famous Rum ki Raan that he created after attending a seminar on Alcohol in Food. Talking about what inspired him to revive the tradition of using alcohol in food, a tradition, says the culinary anthropologist, “dates to the beginning of the civilisation when the Sunri tribes made spirits (distilled and otherwise) not just for pleasure or medicine but also as a tastemaker was the rather myopic view that many have of this once prized flavourant.” History in fact is replete with instances that talk about how different kind of alcohol were used to add texture, taste and even a layer of nutrient goodness to a dish. Take the case of Goan sanna that get their taste from toddy. However, rum, at least the modern-day version we all love as part of the Cuban Libre, and its use in cooking came much later when regimental cooks began using it as a tastemaking spice – and in some cases as an alternative to sugar and tenderiser. The reason for this was two: One, since rum was made from sugarcane it retained some of the flavour notes and sweetness of the crop and thus even in its malted fermented state could be a potential gamechanger in the kitchen; and two, being cheaper it was readily available. In fact, a quarter and half rum was a daily ratio of much of the soldiers across all forms of military. In India though it was a tradition that was instituted by the British, who maintained a rum diary too whereby every soldier and junior officer would get their quota of alcohol which back then was rum. Rum in fact was a great equaliser in the armed forces during Barakhana where no matter your rank you had to have rum only – and if you did not have the rum quota would be passed on to the cooks who would use it to create their signature style dishes that ranged from a boozy rum cake to flambeed pudding to rum marinated roast meat and mutton curry and even that bitter sweetness in cobblers and trifle pudding. Rum for a long time remained the “secret” ingredient to much of the dishes including the hot chocolate that was made by the second-grade chocolate powder and shaves that would arrive as part of the ration in British Army.  

The best format however was in the use of meat, especially when making scotch eggs and a swig or two on the French toast where a mix of rum and brandy would often be the alternative to maple syrup. Of course, the best use of rum in regimental kitchen were often to make most food that came in a tin, edible and pleasurable. And this included the sand dust like coffee and the dust-like malt powder as well. The tradition of adding rum while continued post-independence, today the use of rum is mostly for meat and a few English desserts like the trifle, sweet bun pie and of course the cobbler given that these Tudor specials were adopted with the dash of rum in it. But for the likes of Chef Dewan however, rum – the darkest of spirit – continues to be a fascination even today. And the reason is its multi-faceted notes that can be mollycoddled into creating such amazing flavour foreplay.  

And the dish which brought home this point was the Raan. Recalls the Regional Director, “It was after the seminar once I was back in the kitchen that I began working with rum, the dark one we like. I soaked six raans in dark rum and slow grilled each to understand how the marination time changed. It took me two whole days to realise how to create the dish that used rum much like the first fleet of regimental cooks.  While the raan was soaked in rum, the same liquid was reduced further to create this sweet, sticky, rich basting sauce. The result was this rich smoky, sweet (molasses-like) mouthfeel with an underline nutty flavour which paired well with the spices, especially the chillies. In fact, the two days of marination had given the raan the same aromatic brilliance that makes the Cuba Libre such a popular cocktail.”

The raans that, continues Chef Dewan, “had minimum soak time were used in a curry where the sauce was used to finish the mutton dish. The result was this layer of smoke-sweetness with a rich gravy and aroma that we often associate with a kosha manghso well done. In this case however I was able to create the same velvety mouthfeel in a thin gravy.” Does this mean rum could be the key to good mutton and other dishes? While there is a certain truth in that, concludes Chef Dewan, “one needs to familiar oneself with how alcohol behaves with different techniques. Like in flambee it only remains on the top with a fleeting semblance of it while the rest burns out, for curries and cakes rum works best as a marination. For drinks however, rum should be the one that is last to go to give that distinct sweetness and then that heady kick. Try cooking it and rum too, no matter how sweet, can transform from great to gunk in a matter of minutes.”

Which brings us to the question of how does one use rum to start with? The best way to start using rum is as a marination, says Chef Dewan, “since the ingredient will only take some of it for a small time. Marinate fruits, peels and raisins that can be done for a short time of two three days or a week before being used in baking. The other is deglazing where the left-over juice and spice can be deglazed using a light rum and then added to meat. Flambé on pudding is a good option, especially the plum cake that already has the base notes to compliment the burnt rum. Then progress to pan flambé with fast cooking dishes like caramelising bananas, apples, pineapples, berries or for stir fries where all the flavours remain in the sauce, and it gives a different and unexpected aroma. Once comfortable, rum could turn your best friend when it comes to sauces, marination, infusion and glazes – each of which have the potential to up the ante of a dish.”