Pepper Water

Mum’s staple Anglo-Indian dishes of dol and rice, ball curry, jalfrezi, turkey devil etc were perfect for her growing children who had more of an Anglo palate than an Indian one when we were very young. AI food made for children is comforting, soft and mild. Nursery food. Of course, AI cooking for grown-ups has plenty of kick with curd chillies and green chillies chucked in willy-nilly. But there was one dish that was so powerfully spicy, stringently peppery and yet tart and tangy that, to really enjoy it, you had to have been raised on it from birth. It is everything that is good about AI cooking, sweetness, sourness and spiciness, condensed into a few peppery cupfuls of watery soup, enigmatically titled ‘Pepper Water’.

I never really appreciated it at the time. Mum made it in small quantities for her own consumption mostly. I associate it more with my Gran who always seemed to have a small pot of this black water covered at the back of her hob or in a pyrex dish in the fridge. She never served it to us as children when we would spend the weekend with her (at that time in her flat by Ealing Common). She would take us to West Ealing (why, when we had to pass Ealing Broadway to get there?) and we would go to Sainsbury’s to choose our dinner (Findus crispy pancakes or Lean Cuisine prawn curry or beef Madras, an individual strawberry trifle, a can of cherry 7Up, and a sachet of mint hot chocolate). Then we would go to McDonald’s for lunch. She would have a plain hamburger and cup of tea. We would have the works: burgers, fries, nuggets, and milkshakes. When I was older, in my teens, we used to visit Granny at the weekend and she might have made some dol and rice and pepper water. At these times, I would enjoy a few spoonfuls over my rice and marvel at how simple yet satisfying it was. Umami before I knew what that meant. I never thought to ask how she made it…

My Granny (Esther) was one of 8 Martin children born to Walter Martin and Mary Elizabeth Milne in Kharagpur, India. Walter’s parents, Robert Martin and Caroline Rodrigues were married in 1880 in Palghaut, India and Robert’s parents, John Martin and Jessie Drane were married in 1855 in Coimbatore, India. My Grandfather, Leonard Upshon, Lennie, Papa, had the same Anglo-Indian background, both military and industrial, working in the steel and rail professions. Granny and Papa married in April 1948 in Jhargram and my Mum was born the following May in Burnpur. My Uncle Adrian was born 10 years later.

Great-Grandparents Walter and Mary with Uncle Laddie (bottom left), Uncle Pixie (bottom right), and Aunty Vida (centre)

My Gran was the fifth born:

  1. Rita (died in infancy)
  2. Laddie
  3. Ronald (known affectionately as Pixie)
  4. Vida
  5. Esther
  6. Luna
  7. Benjamin
  8. Philomena

Uncle Laddie died before I was born but I grew up knowing Uncle Pixie, Aunty Luna, Uncle Benny and Aunty Philo very well. Uncle Pixie died in the 1990s and Uncle Benny died last year. My great-aunt Vida is going to be 100 this year and Pip and I are hoping to visit her in Canada. She moved to Canada from India so I have only seen her a few times but I know she is a wonderful woman.

My great-aunts Luna and Philo have been Londoners all my life and are fantastic matriarchs and role models. Both excellent cooks, Aunty Philo’s curries are out of this world and her biriani is second only to Uncle Benny’s who had a gift for its flavour and tenderness. Aunty Luna’s phone-calls are always about the old days and I love to hear her talk about the food and how Christmas and New Year were wonderful celebrations of shared cuisine in the neighbourhood. Aunty Luna says proudly about the Martins specifically and Anglo-Indians in general, ‘we are thrifty’, which chimes with Mum’s approach to making meals stretch but never letting anyone go hungry.

Clockwise from top: Laddie, Vida, Esther, Philo, Benny and Pixie

I’m lucky to have such long-lived relatives. My Mum adored her family, her aunts, uncles and cousins. The women are all feisty, beautiful and totally bonkers at parties! The men are talented, resourceful and proudly family orientated.

Mum and Dad’s wedding March 1973 (Granny in the blue coat on the left, Great-Granny Mary in the brown coat below her; bridesmaids Corinne on the left and Patricia on the right.)

I remember the parties in the old days, everyone packed into the living rooms, music, food, and silly games. The pandemic has meant we only see each other via Whatsapp and Facebook but we’ve been planning our reunion party for two years now!

Me on my fairy godmother and cousin Corinne’s lap and Kris on Aunty Vida’s lap

My Papa, Lennie, died on Boxing Day at our house in 1983. I was almost four and don’t remember but I will always remember Mum telling me about hearing Papa’s breath leaving his body. He was in the garden trying to get his moped to start and had a catastrophic heart attack. Granny was convalescing upstairs after one of the few bouts with mental illness she suffered throughout her life. She had manic depression and was medicated throughout the time I knew her. Granny died from polycystic kidney disease in 2007.

In the late 1990s, Granny moved to a bungalow in Suffolk in the same cul-de-sac as my Uncle Adrian and his wife and daughter. It was here that Gran cooked more frequently and where we would have bigger dinners when we visited. Pepper water is not really something made on a larger scale so it never appeared at these meals. But you could be certain that somewhere in her kitchen there would be at least a cupful of pepper water covered with clingfilm. Hers was more black, probably a simpler version, perhaps uncluttered by other spices, which is where I’ve been going wrong in trying to recreate it.

I never thought to ask either Granny or my Mum to write it down. It seemed so simple! How wrong could I be?

When Mum died and I found the recipe cards she had been writing for me, I didn’t notice that pepper water wasn’t down. I hadn’t mentioned it in the years after Gran died and I can’t remember having it again while Mum and Dad lived in Suffolk. Not even in the year I lived with them when I had Pip. This was a serious omission.

After Mum died, the conversations I had with my Aunty Luna were all about food and what marvellous cooks the Martins were and still are. It was in these conversations that I remembered how delicious and important pepper water was in the AI community. Aunty Luna gave me her version that includes Madras curry powder, which she uses as her masala in all her curries. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t like Granny’s.

Since then, I’ve trawled through Mum’s recipe books, particularly her Bridget White collection of ‘Anglo Indian Delicacies’ etc and her recipe is simple. But still not as I remember it.

Finally, on the Facebook AI Recipes group, I tried a few versions until I found one that is the closest.

It’s a really tangy and cold-busting liquor of tamarind, black pepper powder and spices, with curry leaves and a tomato to cheer it up. The best thing to do is to make this alongside dol and rice, and, as it’s still christmas, why not some turkey devil?

4 cups of water

1 lime sized ball of tamarind soaked in water

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp black pepper powder

Half tsp salt

Half tsp turmeric

2 dried red chillies

3 garlic cloves

Boil for 10 minutes then strain into a fresh pot and temper with:

2 tsp ghee

1 tsp mustard seeds

6 curry leaves

1 dried red chilli

(Chopped tomato is my addition)

It mightn’t look much! Pepper water with a tomato and rice

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