A What is a Recipe? contribution by Salma Wasi (Department of History, University of Delhi)
The recipe I am choosing for this project is “Dehydrated Food Items for Soldiers,” as this newly preserved food recipe became the mainstay supply of food provisions to Indian troops in forward areas during the Second World War. Dehydration, the modern method of preserving foodstuffs, simply means that the natural water content was removed from the food. Foods were then safely stored. It came into its formal existence when troops were in crisis situations and it was difficult for fresh food items to reach the soldiers in different war zone areas. The army therefore experimented with compact rations to make a light and easily supplied food for soldiers on the move or isolated from main source of food supply. The issue of proper nutrition was always kept in mind, as vitamins, minerals, and disease caused by their deficiency were known by this time. Different methods were also employed to enhance the taste of dehydrated food articles. Thus, it was a new kind of recipe that brought new tastes to the South Asian market during the Second World War.
These are some dehydrated food recipes which the Indian troops were using:
Dehydrated fish: Fish received from the boat was first salted and then taken to the factory, where it was washed and the bones were removed. Fillets were loaded onto trays and placed in a kiln into which smoke, produced by slow-burning rice husks and rice straw, was passed. This smoking enhanced the flavor and lengthened the storage life of the fish. The smoked fillets were then carefully dried in a stream of warm air.
Vegetables: vegetables were peeled, cut into slices, washed, and blanched. Blanching was carried out either by dipping into boiling water or by exposure to steam. This process ensured the retention of vitamins, mineral salts, and natural color. The slices were then spread on perforated metal trays and placed in a special air drier, where the water was driven off.
Fruit: Ripe fruit was treated with steam and exposed to the fumes of burning sulphur before being dehydrated in hot air driers. The sulphur improved the color of the fruit and made it store well.
The modern method of preserving foodstuffs and reducing their bulk by dehydrating them was adopted on a large scale by the army in India in 1944. Along with potato, dehydrated meat, other vegetables (cabbage, carrots, turnip, etc.), fruits, and fish were served to troops in the farther area where the supply of fresh food was impossible. The natural water content was removed in the process of dehydrating food articles. Various other methods were employed to improve the color, taste, and durability of the food. For example, smoking enhanced the flavor and lengthened the storage life of the fish. Blanching ensured the retention of vitamins, mineral salts, and natural color in vegetables. Sulphur improved the color of the fruit and helped in its proper storage for longer periods. These processed items could then be safely stored and regularly transported to the frontlines, which was a valuable addition in the diet of the sepoys, who earlier survived only with groundnut and shakarpara (a kind of biscuit made up of stone-ground durum wheat and unrefined sugar) for several days.
As this newly preserved food became the mainstay of provisions to the troops in the forward areas, the effect of dehydration on the nutritive value of vegetables and other foods was studied intensely in England, Canada, the U.S.A., and Australia during the Second World War period. A good deal of work on this subject was also carried out in the Indian Research Fund Association Nutrition Research Laboratories, Coonoor, under Dr. W.R. Aykroyd. He also attended the United Nation Conference on Food and Agriculture in 1943 and collected considerable literature on the subject.
Dehydrated food lost its vitamin C and mineral content during storage and cooking respectively. Aykroyd’s meticulous research on the subject showed that, steam-blanched cabbage was found to lose vitamin C more rapidly in storage than cabbage blanched by dipping in boiling water. Loss of vitamin C in dehydrated vegetables prepared by the so-called pro-cooling method was more rapid than in vegetables prepared by other processes. The general conclusion arising out of a considerable amount of work on the vitamin C content of dehydrated vegetables was that they couldn’t be relied upon as anti-scorbutic after a few months’ storage. While carotene is somewhat more stable than vitamin C in dehydrated vegetables, very appreciable losses occur on storage. After 20 weeks storage at 98 F, bitter gourd, cauliflower, carrot, pumpkin, and potato lost 35 to 60 percent of their original carotene content. Losses in the mineral content of the dehydrated vegetables during reconstitution and cooking amounted to a further 60 percent.
I think these recipes for dehydrated food preparation are interesting because there was widespread use and consumption of these items among the armies during the wartime. Thus, this new variety of food had multiple advantages. It was transported to far locations without leakage, as it was easily packed and tinned. It reduced the time consumed in cutting, cleaning, baking, and other necessary cooking processes to prepare the food. It also reduced the pressure on the water supply, as they did not require it to cut and clean food articles in the field. This further solved their problem of disposing of waste material from the process of preparing and cooking food. Thus, it helped in a big way in maintaining sanitation and hygiene in frontline kitchens. Other important advantages were that the weight and bulk of the foodstuffs were greatly reduced, and great savings in transport were made: dehydrated cabbage weighed only 1/25 of its original weight, meat 1/6 of its original bulk, and fish weighed 1/7 of the weight of fresh fish. In addition, dehydrated food did not require refrigeration. Overall, these technological interventions and innovations had changed the kind of food and the way it was transported, stored, and consumed, not just by sepoys but also by civilians thanks to demobilization after the conflict.