The year was 1833. Bombay, a city developing as an announcement of the Empire’s wealth was attracting officers, British high society and anyone looking to climb up the social ladder. While Madras and Calcutta already had Clubs that served as stomping grounds for the rich and influential, Bombay at the time had none. And so, when Byculla Club, the first residential club for British officers in the city opened, it became “the scene of many brilliant balls and bumpering suppers,” where members often sipped on pints of Champagne with crushed ice. Described by Lord Curzon, the youngest Viceroy of India as “an important imperial space linked with the power of the ruling authority”, the Byculla Club was famous for its members as it was for its meals.
The British and Bombay
By the mid 18th century, the British had a plan for Bombay. They wanted the city with a natural harbour to reflect their grand plans for India, the crown jewel of the Empire. Renovations and expansions were the need of the hour. Some of the city’s most fantastical buildings—Victoria Terminus, Bombay University and Rajabai Clock Tower—announced to all coming to Bombay that this was truly a world city, defined by impressive monuments and bold, Gothic architecture.
As the city expanded, new neighbourhoods attracted prosperous families. Byculla, a newly minted extension of Mazagon thanks to the Hornby Vellard Project that connected the city’s seven islands was where Sir David Sassoon—one of the city’s greatest benefactors—built a home and synagogue. Affluent Parsi and Bohri Muslim families moved to the area too, along with British high society. In I833, a new church [what we now know as Gloria Church] was completed, using neo-classical columns left over from those imported for the town hall [now Asiatic Library].
The same year saw the founding of Bombay’s Byculla Club, a refuge for British officers entering the city, to enjoy like-minded company and cuisine that reminded them of home. Here’s what Samuel T Sheppard, author of the 1916 book The Byculla Club, A History says about the need for a club of its kind in the city: “The gentlemen arriving from the mofussil either for health, pleasure or business, will no longer be obliged to roam about like the babes in the wood in quest of a spot of rest, and that portion of the community permanently resident in Bombay will have a respectable place of resort, where they can at all times command refreshments, news, conversation and society, at a price far below what any individual must at present pay for the same..”
Byculla Club and ‘the stuff of ambrosia’
Indians were not allowed entry into these exclusive clubs of the Raj that hosted some of the Empire’s biggest names: Lord Curzon, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, named Governor of Bombay in 1862, General Sir Douglas Haig, Inspector-General of Cavalry in India, as well as Sir Basil Scott, a Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. Such distinguished patrons demanded meals that were worthy of their titles. Per Sheppard’s account, a French chef was brought into the kitchen, giving rise to unique dishes that were the stuff of urban legend in the city.
Blending British and Indian cuisines, the menu at Byculla Club featured plates such as Craigie Toast, an omelette of chilli, tomato and fried bread croutons named after an illustrious club member Adair Craigie, as well as more high-end inventions that used the most expensive ingredient at the time: ice.
A fascination in the late 1800s, ice quickly became a status symbol amongst the rich in India. Imported from Boston and insulated with sawdust along the way, American ice was all the rage. In 1840, The Byculla Club imported 40 tons of ice, for which, according to Sheppard, they paid a princely sum of Rs300 per ton. The Club’s role in supporting the import of ice is recorded in an 1839 edition of The Bombay Times: “Society will be much indebted to the members of the Club, for their encouragement of this spirited undertaking, and we hope that measures may be arranged to give the public the full benefit of this important luxury.”
Dishes that employed this frigid ingredient were quickly developed, arguably to raise the image of the institution in which they were served. From the kitchens and bars of The Byculla Club came drinks known for their size and potency such as the Capri Cup, with “great chunks of ice, aromatic lime juice, the green borage leaf, orange juice and the liqueur”, along with The Byculla Cocktail that called for “one liqueur glass each of Noyeau, Ginger Brandy, and Water”, along with “a small amount bitters.” The drink was then shaken and poured with crushed ice.
But perhaps the most famous of them all remains that fluffy, creamy delight, the Byculla Souffle, which—according to Jennifer Brennan’s Curries and Bugles, A cookbook of the British Raj—embodied “the epicurean standards of the Raj at its best.” The souffle’s fame reached mythic proportions among the world’s wanderers. Using a mix of Kummel, Chartreuse, Curacao, and Benedictine liqueurs with gelatine and cream, the chefs at the club created a dessert that was “the stuff of ambrosia.” The dessert was set in a mould, topped with crumbs of mixed biscuit and kept in ice until it was time to be served. For those who wished to recreate this wonder at home, Sheppard offered his two cents: “To cooks who attempt to make the Souffle and fail, a word of consolation may be offered: it can only be made to perfection in the Club kitchen.” The grandiose descriptions of the Byculla Souffle beg the question: If this culinary creation once had the city’s elite in raptures, why do we not eat it today?
The answer lies in the eventual downfall of the once esteemed neighbourhood of Byculla. By 1857, the beautiful Byculla railway station was completed with stained glass windows and intricate iron art. Vast, open tracts of land welcomed mill owners and workers alike. As factories such as The Byculla Iron Works set up shop and the station made these sites accessible, the neighbourhood began to get more crowded, with flourishing vegetable markets and furniture makers. While the chambers at Byculla Club (with an Rs350/month charge) and dinners that featured exquisite prawn curries and a souffle full of liqueurs were still much sought after in the late 1800s, the ‘decline’ of the ‘old Byculla’ had already begun. By the time the plague hit the city in 1896, British officers and richer Parsi families moved to the newly minted and more fashionable Malabar Hill.
Widely regarded as one of the oldest and most prestigious clubs of the Raj era, Byculla Club was later overshadowed by the Yacht Club that opened at Apollo Bunder in 1898. The club was turned into a hospital during WWI and was eventually sold in the 1920s. And with it, the city lost some of its unique culinary treasures.
You may not be able to visit Byculla Club, but should you wish to recreate the Byculla Souffle, you can follow this recipe from Sheppard’s book:
Take the yolks of six eggs, add three tablespoons of good white sugar, beat well till dry and keep aside. Take half a seer of cream and also beat till dry. Now take half a packet of Isinglass well soaked, add one liqueur glass each of Kummel, Chartreuse, Curacao, and Benedictine. Mix the whole well together, then put into a mould, on the top put crumbs of mixed biscuit and keep in ice until wanted.