To Make a Dish of Curry After the East Indian Manner

When I picked this blog up again last year I had every intention of blogging regularly.  I had these grand ideas of how much redacting and historical cooking I was going to do, and how much research on historical foodways I was going to undertake, and all that jazz.  Then life and grad school hit me like a ton of bricks and all those great intentions vaporized.   Then when I did have free time, I chose to spend it on other hobbies, like sewing, knitting, and not doing a damned thing.  Even when I actually made something historical, I couldn’t be bothered to blog about it for a month, which is the case here.  But hey, better late than never.

Some time last month I had some free time on a Sunday and I had a whole chicken that I had defrosted to roast.  At some point in the early morning I decided that, instead, I was going to see what I could do with from a historical perspective.  I had wanted to try 19th century curries for a while so I set out to find an appropriate recipe in one of my books.  I bypassed the obvious Mrs. Beeton for no real reason, and picked up The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph, and hit the jackpot.  I found this slightly odd, though not unsurprising as even in the 19th century American cookery was heavily influenced by English and British Empire cookery.  The recipe is called “To Make a Dish of Curry After the East Indian Manner.”

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A post about a 19th century curry recipe cannot possibly exist without a disclaimer about curry and a little bit of its history.  Disclaimer:  curry is not actually Indian, it’s a British invention.  The short history: Curry as we know it today is an Anglicization of the regional food of the Indian subcontinent. While some dishes are toned-down versions of true Indian dishes, many more are completely invented by the British, tikka masala, for example.  When the British took over India, they found the cuisine unpalatable, and their Indian cooks slowly adapted recipes to suit the British taste.  The British then began using the term “curry,” which came from the Tamil word “kari,” to refer to any Indian dish with a sauce like ragouts and stews but also as a dish in its own right.  The idea, and the recipes, traveled from India to the British Isles, and to the rest of the British Empire, and by the 1850s curry was a British staple, and it remains so to this day.  Curry, I think, is a very good example of the relationship between food and politics.  As Lizzie Collingham points out in her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, ” British racial and cultural arrogance meant that they set out to shape Indian society and culture to their own end.” [1]

The actual recipe indicates that it’s in the manner of East India, making a clear distinction for West Indian curries.  The final dish is basically chicken in butter with copious amounts of curry powder.  In this case, “East Indian Manner” is more like Anglo-Indian manner the distinctive difference between true Indian food and Anglo-Indian (British) curries was the latter’s reliance on curry powder, something true Indian cooks wouldn’t be caught dead using.  The history of curry powder is also interesting but suffice to say that it is also a 19th British invention, and that early Anglo-Indian curry recipes do not call for it.[2]

“To Make A Dish of Curry After the East Indian Manner”

Cut two chickens as for fricassee, was them clean, and put then in a stew pan with as much water as will cover them; sprinkle them with a large spoonful of salt and let them boil until tender, covered close all the time, and skim them well; when boiled enough, take up the chickens, and put the liquor of them into a pan, then put half a pound of fresh butter in the pan, and brown it a little; put into it two cloves of garlic, and a large onion sliced, and let these all fry till brown, often shaking the pan, then put in the chickens and sprinkle over them two or three spoonsful of curry powder; then cover the pan close and let the chickens do till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the liquor the chickens were boiled in, and let all stew till tender; if acid is agreeable squeeze the juices of a lemon or orange in it. [3]

Neck, breast, wings, and leg and thighs.

spine, breast, wings, and leg and thighs.

Thankfully, this is a pretty straightforward recipe as far as measurements is concerned, but it is a bit confusing at times.  The part when you put the liquor in a pan, then put the butter “in the pan” can throw you for a loop, and make you make a big mistake, if you didn’t read the recipe through carefully.  Mary Randolph is referring to two different pans, but that is not clear until later when she asks for the liquor to be added to the pan with the butter and the chicken.  There is no way you can fry anything in a pan full of chicken water and half a pound of butter.  Silly Mary!

After boiling the chicken (I halved the recipe), I decided that all that water was way too much for the final dish to be anything but a watery soup, which it is not meant to be as the recipe immediately following it is called “Dish of Rice to be Served up with the Curry, in a Dish by Itself.”  If there had been a call for thickening the liquid it would have been OK, but there wasn’t so I made the decision to cut back on the chicken liquid I added to the chicken after frying it.  This turnout well as there was enough gravy (butter, really) to soak into the rice but no so much that it was bland and watery.

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Here is my final recipe:

1 3 pound chicken, separated into breast, legs and thighs, wings, and spine
1 tbsp salt
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small onion, sliced
1 tbsp curry powder

Put the chicken with the salt in a large stockpot and boil until almost tender, approximately 20 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the liquid and reserve 1 cup of the liquid.

In a heavy pan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Fry the onion and garlic until brown, add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and sprinkle them with the curry powder. Fry the chicken until golden brown, covered stirring often so the onions don’t burn.  Turn the chicken, and add the reserved 1 cup of chicken liquid.  Cook for a further 10 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.  Serve over rice.

While I was preparing to make this curry, I had a quick glance at what 19th century curry powders contained, then had a look at what the commercial curry powder in my spice cabinet contains and it wasn’t even close.  In the spirit of historical accuracy, I decided to make curry powder with the spices called for in a period recipe.  I reduced the amount but kept the same proportions, more or less, it’s not an exact science.  Here is the spice mix I used, I ground everything in a small coffee grinder because I didn’t how ground fenugreek seed:

Turmeric: 1 tsp
ground coriander: 1/2 tsp
ground cummin 1/4 tsp
fenugreek (seed) 1/4 tsp
cayenne, a large pinch

The original curry powder recipe is from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery.

While very different from a modern British curry, this dish was very good and I am very pleased with the results.  It was very interesting, once more, to see that what we call some things today bear little resemblance to what the same term represented a mere two hundred years ago.

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1. Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 110
2. Ibid., 140.
3. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook (Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1860), 80.

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