Article

Edible History: The Great (Indian) Saga of the Military Ration

And here’s what makes an absolute treasure trove of food exploration for every kid whose had a parent in uniform


By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy Stock Images

If there is one thing, says Army brat (that’s the moniker kids with dads – and moms- in uniform earned early on in life) Zamir Khan, “that I distinctly remember of the Army Ration was the way it would arrive at home -  in a big carboard box followed by gunny bags that contained everything from cornflakes from Mohan Meakin to the rock hard chocolate, Maltova (the not-so-chocolatey cousin of Bournvita), a slab of butter, and cheese.”

In fact, Khan continues, “it was often a precursor to what we would see in our army supermarket, or the canteen as it is more popularly known as.”

Agrees Abhishek Singh. An officer in the armed forces today, he remembers the omnipresent ration box that every person in the forces got as a “exciting mixed bag of goodies and nightmares, which I would look forward to seeing every time we moved to a different city to discover the new. Abhishek and Zamir weren’t alone in their happy memories of the ration box – the original mystery box that would not just be their introduction to the changing world of packaged (processed) food – “thanks to the kit, we would be the first to test a new product in the market too”, adds Singh - but also the little wonder box from where all the kitchen innovation would happen, courtesy our moms and aunts around.  

Like the Maltova ice cream, recalls Sandeep Singh, who first ate what was described to him as a healthy chocolate treat because of an innovation done by a friend’s mother. “I wouldn’t do the mistake of comparing it to today’s version, but back then it was the closest we could come to having a second fill of icecream that had a chocolatey taste – and without being stopped, “says the restauranteur and co-owner of Ministry Of Beer (MOB) in Delhi and often finds dipping back to such childhood treat to figure what new to do with the menu.

Interestingly, Sandeep isn’t the only restaurateur to go all gooey on the mention of the famous ration box; peer Ajit Singh dedicated his restaurant to the many charms (read: dishes) created off the all-familiar box like the  Tipsy Pudding, Deviled eggs and the Creamy Corn Soup, and their creators (Anglo-Indian cooks and homemakers) – even the jelly custard and cobbler on special request. The beauty of the ration box, says brand specialist (and history buff) Pawan Hora, “is that while it was created to look after the soldiers after Napoleon is said to have done the first after famously announcing that “an army marches on its stomach”, over the years, it has laid the foundation of a legacy cuisine most of us today address as the ‘army food’ created from the ingenuity of the Anglo Indian cooks (who made the food that went from Army Officer Messers to Gymkhanas and entered hotels too); and later homemakers, who designed the feast that occupies a major slice of the colonial treats like custard, pudding, cakes and even a variety of sups and stew.”

A chunk which, elaborates Khan, “is often referred to the Original Continental Food that we were introduced to. Fascinatingly, the ration box didn’t only get us what was served in the unit inside a cantonment, its branches was found even in the original railway food served in the first class – recall the coleslaw cold sandwich, the egg benedict, the hotdog, the sweet buns, and even the mutton curry (not to be confused with the Railway Mutton Curry) was part of the  creations that began in the Dak Bangalows around the early 19th centuries when British ladies would make the treacherous journey from Britain to remote corners to meet their husband and cooked a meal.”

Story has it that most British wives while travelling to India were given an addendum set of the ration for six months that had everything from dry fruits to cold cuts, lard and even flour and rows of canned tin fruits and foods that they would use along with the meagre resources of the Dak Bungalow to recreate some of the favourite dishes from back home. Of course, all that changed once the rule shifted to the Crown and cantonments were created. Then, the wives trained the Anglo Indian cooks to create some of the dishes and innovate the rest. What didn’t change though was the ration box, which had gone more elaborate for the officers while remained functional (and boring for the soldiers). In fact, it was one of the things that was tweaked for the better post the 1857 War of Independence and made more conducive to the soldiers and their palate. Incidentally, it wasn’t the only thing that changed about the ration boxes –easily the most accurately designed food box based on nutritional science and military acumen – which began to gradually become a showcase of how the colonial ruler’s adaptability of our food. So what began as a simple grain, bread, wine, dry meat and few slabs of lard or butter with legumes took on a lavish tale of having dry fruits, chocolate, cocoa, toffee, biscuits, eggs coffee and tea and even had a segment for produces, milk and milk products and fruits. In fact, by the time both the World Wars happened and ended, the single tone ration given across was divided into categories with the D-ration becoming a standard with soldiers during emergencies and family rations that had the soldier/officer portion, wife accounted for a further half and children, half of that half, during peace time. The calculation, says Singh, “while still is hard to deconstruct, it worked well to take care of a family of two and two.” And this was the ration that most army homemakers were given to create a volley of interesting things, with, says Hora, “one or two new things appearing once a while. Like the soya chunks, cheese, cheese cubes and a variety of malt drinks and cornflakes.”

 

It was a homemaker’s ingenuity that while turned the extra bread – almost four big ones came for a week, recalls Monalisa Kar – into bread pudding and croutons for the soup and cutlets; to making mixture from the extra soft cornflakes and the famous soya cutlets when the nuggets began appearing in a big gunny bag. From the weekly supply of eggs and dairy came the puddings – the fruit custard, Russian salad, the corn soup and chocolate cakes and stuffed sweet buns. In fact, adds Kar, “one of the family standard fare was the chocolate cake served with a helping of refreshed tinned fruits, quenelle of cold custard and clotted cream. Another favourite was the number of banana cake style tea cakes that would be made to finish the tins of canned fruit.” However, not all the dishes came out to be favourites. One such almost nightmarish work was the cheese paratha, recalls Khan, “it was the time when Verka had come with these roundels of cheese that was part of our ration. The brilliance of this shaped like a mine box was that while it needed no refrigeration, and could grate brilliantly, it needed really high temperatures to melt, and then hardened instantly turning our parathas into frisbees. And I am not getting into the taste part.” Likewise, says Sandeep, “was the case of jelly. While the initial Bird mono flavours are stunning the latter just took the jiggly joy off this instant pudding.”

And yet, when it comes to memories, nothing quite brings it alive than the box – a concept that was originally designed to be functional way to feed armies.