Curry Through Foreign Eyes #5: Japanese Curry

The next stop on our exploration of Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes is Japan.  Curry came to Japan by way of British sailors and merchants in the mid-19th Century.  This happened sometime after Commodore Matthew Perry landed at Kurihama in 1853, and opened Japan to the world after centuries of isolation.  The first recipe for curry in Japanese was published in 1872 by the renowned writer and satirist, Kanagaki Robun, in his Western Food Handbook or Seiyo Ryoritsu.  The recipe is for a mixed-seafood curry with large quantities of fresh ginger and a little butter, salt, and curry powder.

First Japanese Curry Recipe (1872)
First Japanese Curry Recipe (1872)

Following the publication of the first recipe, Japan went curry-crazy.  In 1877, the Ginza Fugetsudo Restaurant first listed curry rice on its menu.  Despite being almost 10 times more expensive than noodles, curry quickly grew in popularity.  The first domestic curry powder went on sale in Osaka in 1903, sold by the company that is now Bee Foods, and the first curry shop – a restaurant devoted solely to curry dishes – opened in 1910, also in Osaka.

Curry took Tokyo by storm in 1927 when the Hankyu Market Restaurant started to serve curry.  Demand for curry dishes was so high that a direct farm-to-table supply of ingredients was secured to feed the 25,000 customers a day (65,000 a day on Sundays) who ordered curries.  The modern age of curry was ushered in 1950 when Bell Foods started selling curry powder mixed with flour in a chocolate-bar form, now called curry-roux. All home-cooks needed to do now was to break off a few squares of spice and add them to whatever they wanted to “curry”.

Ad for Bon Curry in 1960s

Concomitant with its increasing popularity in the general public, curry rice and other curry dishes also became mainstay meals in the Japanese military.  In addition to feeding the troops in the field and at mess, this also allowed conscripts from all over Japan to experience curry – facilitating its further acceptance.

From its humble beginnings in 1872, curry has become one of the most popular of Japanese dishes. Over the years, curry has been adapted to Japanese tastes and cooking methods, and today there are over 80 different kinds of Japanese curry, from curried rice, and curried udon or soba noodles, to bread with curry sauce or kare pan, and tonkatsu cutlet curries.  Press surveys report that the ‘average’ Japanese person eats curry 84 times a year – or more than once a week.

Japanese Curry Rice
Japanese Curry Rice

Today’s Japanese curry has little in common with its Indian ancestor. It is almost uniformly sweeter than any Indian curry I’ve had, and often has apples and honey added to it to tame the sharp edges of the spices in the curry–roux mix.  In general, there also seems to be a lot more sauce in Japanese curries than in Indian ones.  There are also special dishes representative of the areas they come from, like Sika-Deer Curry from Hokkaido and Natto Curry from Ibaraki Prefecture.

What strikes me as very strange is, if curry is so popular in Japan, why is it so under-represented in Japanese restaurants in the west? We have a few large Eastern Asian markets in our area that have food courts, and some of the food stalls serve a couple of Japanese curry dishes. Other than that, there is no Japanese restaurant from Baltimore to DC that has Japanese curry on its menu. Most offer sushi and the Japanese-American food-theatre known as hibatchi (which is really teppanyaki-style cooking). Although I haven’t done a thorough survey of Japanese restaurants in the US, I suspect that Japanese curry is difficult to find on most menus.

So, on to the first Japanese curry recipe.

The First Japanese Curry (1872) 

Ingredients
1 raw cibol, finely-chopped (Allium fistulosum)
1/2 ginger race, minced
1 piece of garlic, finely-chopped
1 tablespoon butter
shrimp
oyster
sea bream
reddish-brown frog
1 teaspoon of curry powder
appropriate quantities of salt
2 tablespoon wheat flour, mixed with water
270ml water

Method
1. Heat butter in a pan and cook raw cibol, ginger, garlic 2. Add 270ml water, shrimp, sea bream, frog and boil 10-20 minutes 3. Add curry powder, salt and boil 1 hour 4. Add water-mixed flour and stir.

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There were several issues with the original recipe that required interpretation and/or revision. The first issue was deciding how much ginger was in a “race.” Luckily I got some assistance on that matter from Kathleen Wall of Plimoth Plantation who shared with me the amount considered a “race” by the cooks interpreting recipes at Plimouth. Half a race still seemed like a lot of ginger, but that is what I used. The next issue I had was that I needed to add more water than called for, because more moisture was needed to create a curry sauce from the spring onions, garlic and ginger. The next problem was what seemed like excessive cooking times for the fish. I opted to add the fish and shellfish after the curry sauce had been made and only cooked them for a few minutes. This is the method I generally use for modern curries with similar ingredients.

One thing that continues to vex me about trying to re-create this recipe is that to a large degree, a curry is made by the masala, the mix of dry spices used, or in the ingredients in the commercially prepared curry powder. In the original recipe, there is no information given about the make-up of the curry powder. I did some research, but had little luck finding information on what might have been used. Ultimately, I had to resort to a modern product and so chose the turmeric-laden S&B Oriental Curry Powder. If another product were used, say some break-off squares in a House Foods – Vermont Curry block, the taste would change according to the makeup of the product used.

Lastly, I had to omit the red frog. I simply didn’t know what species it might be, and didn’t want to take any chances. The resulting recipe follows:

First Japanese Curry (1872) (Interpreted)

Ingredients
1-2 tablespoons butter
1/2 ginger race (slightly more than 1/2 cup), peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, finely-chopped
1 small bunch of spring onions (about 6 stalks), chopped
2 cups water
3-4 teaspoons of curry powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 – 1½ cups medium shrimp (10-12 shrimp), peeled and deveined
1 sea bream (porgy), cleaned and chopped
1 cup oysters, chopped
2 tablespoons wheat flour, mixed with water

Method
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sauté the spring onions for about one minute over medium heat. Then add the ginger and garlic and sauté for 2-3 minutes or until they start to color. Add water and stir well until warm. Let cook for 3-5 minutes and add the curry powder and salt and stir well. Cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes over medium-low or low heat, stirring often until sauce begins to form.

Add fish and cook for 3 minutes, then add shrimp and oysters and cook for another 3-4 minutes until shrimp are pink and curled. As fish and shellfish are cooking, mix the flour and water together until smooth. When the mixture is smooth, stir it in a bit at a time to thicken the curry sauce. You may not need to use all of the mixture. Cook for a few minutes to banish the “raw” flavor of the thickening mixture.  Remove from heat and serve with rice.

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The First Japanese Curry
The First Japanese Curry

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The taste of the curry is very good. Although very much influenced by the ratio of ingredients of the curry powder, the mingling of fish and shellfish flavor with the curry powder is delicious. There is also an interesting, almost buttery flavor to the curry, which is surprising given the modest amount of butter used in the recipe. Lastly the large amount of ginger used cooks down nicely and adds a light gingery taste to the curry without being bitter. The garlic and spring onion, while adding depth to the curry are undiscernible as individual ingredients.

The first Japanese curry also differs a great deal from modern Japanese curries, which come in several distinct commercial varieties.  These range from “spicy” Java curry to sweet Vermont curry, with Torokeru and Kokumaru falling in between the other two.  Golden curry is a muted, less distinct alternative than the other types.  To complicate the situation, most Japanese curry cooks, both at home and in curry shops, blend the curry-roux blocks to make distinctive or signature flavors for those enjoying their dishes.

There seems to be a movement amongst younger Japanese cooks to try to make curries from “scratch” – by creating their own mix of spices.  Sometimes these recipes are both good and interesting and offer a mix of standard curry spices.  At other times, recipes simply add a lot of garam masala to the pot, replacing one commercial spice mix with another highly variable spice mix.  Interestingly, almost all of these new recipes use some sort of roux (cooked tan or brown) with spices to thicken the dish instead of the white-wash or slurry of flour and water used in the first Japanese curry recipe.

There are also a wider variety of vegetables used today than in the first Japanese curry recipe.  For example, a seafood curry recipe from the House Foods website has several yellow onions in it, some white wine and uses a Kokumaru curry-roux block.  Other recipes I’ve seen include a mix of vegetables, such as zucchini and eggplant in addition to the onions, still other add potatoes or carrots.  So you see, even though a commercial spice mix is at the heart of modern Japanese curries, there is a lot of variation still to be experienced in the dishes, with the results depending upon the imagination of the individual cook.

(Words, recipe interpretation and cooking by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Seiyo Ryoritsu text taken from a PDF of the manuscript by Laura Kelley, photo of Bon Curry advertisement borrowed from the Kikkoman website, photo of Japanese Curry Rice by Torsakarin@Dreamstime.com, and photo of The First Japanese Curry by Laura Kelley.  Special thanks to Mr. Hiroo Watai who found the first Japanese curry recipe for me and translated it.)

The Origins of Curry

The origins of curry – both the word and the food – are clouded in assumption, misinformation and cherry-picking of language to suit one’s purposes.  From my recent research on curry for the Curry Through Foreign Eyes series, I have found that a great deal of the misinformation written in English can be traced to The Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary, first published in 1886.  In this edition and many subsequent editions of the H-J  it states that the root word for curry is the Tamil word kari that means “sauce”. An alternate possibility for the root word is given as the Kanarese word, karil.

Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary
Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary

This is incorrect on several accounts.  First off, the meaning of Tamil word kari varies a great deal depending upon location, class and caste with meanings ranging from “blackened” to “chewing”, “vegetables”, “meat”, “pepper or pea”, and “side dish”. (Please note, that the linguistic studies consulted did not note a meaning for Tamil word kari as “sauce” at all.)

A few examples of this variance include, how Brahmins use the word kari in Chingleput, Tamilnadu to refer to meat in general or to a particular kind of meat, or certain meat dishes. When speaking to vegetarians, these same speakers use the word to refer to vegetables or vegetable dishes. The meaning, “side dish” is only used in the extreme south (Kanyakumari), where the word kari is also used in conjunction with other words to denote vegetables and vegetable dishes. Some speakers in this area also use the word to denote certain liquid dishes – broths and soups.  So the meaning in Tamil depends on who you are, where you live, and with whom you are speaking.   As a point of note, a common word used to mean “sauce” in Tamil, and this particularly means a vegetable or pulse sauce, such as one made from lentils is sambhar; another is kuz, with kuzumbu denoting a tamarind-yogurt sauce and its variants. Neither word, you will notice, even remotely sounds like the English word, “curry”.

Pan-Roasting Spices
Pan-Roasting Spices

Later editions of the Hobson-Jobson omit the Tamil kari as the root of the word curry and cite the Kanarese word karil as the ancestral root for curry, and the word adopted by the Portuguese in Goa. This is problematic, because to the best of my ability, I can not find any word, karil in Kanarese.  The closest I can find is the word kari, which means to cook or particularly to fry.  Another set of meanings for the Kanarese term is “blackened, scorched or roasted”.  This, you will note, is the same as one of the meanings for the Tamil kari (because both terms spring from the same Proto-Dravidian root).

Taking these two meanings together, the Kanarese term kari could have been associated with the cooking of curry in the preparation of masalas.  One possibility is in reference to the way in which whole spices are dry-fried or pan-roasted before grinding. Another possibility could refer to the way in which the masala paste is often fried before being added to the rest of the ingredients of the curry. Thus, the Kanarese word kari may have been transliterated by the Portuguese to become their word for “curry” –  karil or caril.

Red Lentil Dal
Red Lentil Dal

Another error in the H-J concerns the antiquity of curry.  The H-J states that the earliest precise mention of curry is in the Mahavanso (ca. 477 ACE).  The passage states, “He partook of rice dressed in butter with its full accompaniment of curries.”  The original Pali word taken to mean curry by the translator is sûpa.  Other translations of sûpa are broth, soup or liquid preparations of vegetables.  While not out of the question that this could refer to a curry it could also refer to something more like a soup, broth or a pulse-based condiment like a lentil dal.  Its another example of the possible variation or lack of definition being taken out of a potential data point in the quest for the roots of curry.

My own research has identified a much earlier use of the term sûpa in another ancient Pali manuscript.  The 26th canto of the S’rîmad Bhâgavatamm, which is also known as the Bhâgavata Purâna has an instance of sûpa that is translated as, “liquid vegetable preparations”.

Let the people cook many varieties of cooked foods ending with liquid vegetable preparations, and beginning with sweet rice, fried and baked cakes, large, round cakes made from rice flour, and all that is obtained by milking the cows. 

The oral tradition of the Puranas along with many other ancient Hindu texts date back many thousands of years.  However, the Puranas, Vedas and the Mahabharata are said to have been compiled by Dvaipâyana Vyâsadeva, often known simply as Vyâsa.  Vyâsa is said to have lived in the early Kuru Dynasty (1200 – 800 BCE) and is listed in the family tree as the grandson of Kuru himself. This would place Vyâsa’s life sometime in the 11th or 12th Century BCE.  Whatever the “liquid vegetable preparation” that the term sûpa referred to, it is mentioned in text that is at least 3000 years old.

Apologies to all who found this to be a long, boring, or overly-academic post. I just felt that to all of the misinformation out there in the ether, it would be nice to add something with some reasonable research (as opposed to blind repetition) behind it. As usual, I may not be right, but at least I am well-referenced.

(Research and Words by Laura Kelley; Photos borrowed from Google Images)

Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #1: Hannah Glasse

I have long been fascinated by concepts of “I and other”, or the many ways we separate what is familiar (self) from what is not familiar (non-self). By defining what is not self, we are in fact defining self. One can hear small children do this when misclassified by gender; most adamantly declare that they are not members of the opposite sex. “I and other” are also evident in beautiful symbolic ways when considering the movement of ideas and beliefs through societies. The newly introduced idea is at first foreign, complete with unfamiliar trappings. As the idea flows through society and is adopted, the foreign elements are shed and replaced by the familiar.

Depictions of Buddha: Caucasian and Asian
Depictions of Buddha: Caucasian and Asian

One place to see this is operation is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which houses an expansive collection of Asian art. As Buddhism moves out of India and across Asia, first to the west and then the east, early iconography clearly depicts Buddha as Caucasian (Gandahara style), even if the work is from the Himalayas, Burma or Western China. As time passes, and Buddhist ideas are adopted across the east, however, religious iconography begins to depict a wide variety of races and ethnicities. Noses become smaller, epicanthic lids are added as the face changes from Caucasian to Asian. Expressions usually remain contemplative and serene, but the varying shapes of the faces are evidence of the triumph of the ideas across space and time.

The “I and other” concept is also of interest in historical cookery, especially when one group is attempting to recreate the cuisine of another. I’ve been looking at early recipes for Indian curry written by non-Indians. So far, I have a small collection of English and American recipes from the 18th and 19th centuries that show curry powders and recipes developing from recipes that merely reminiscent as Indian in the eighteenth century to those that are nearly indistinguishable from modern recipes broken out by geographical region by the end of the nineteenth. The earliest amongst them (so far), is a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747.

The Art of Cookery, 1774
The Art of Cookery, 1774 edition

Glasse’s book was an important book for its time and was a major reference for home cooks in England and its colonies for more than 50 years after its publication. If you think of it as an early Joy of Cooking, you are just about spot on. It was revised several times during her lifetime, but to avoid bankruptcy she had to sell the copyright and didn’t profit off of most of the sales.  The recipe for the chicken curry that I made below was added in a later edition of the book published in 1774.

The 1774 recipe reads:

To make a currey the Indian way.
TAKE two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricassee, wash them
clean, and stew them in about a quart of water for about five minutes, then strain
off the liquor and put the chickens in a clean dish; take three large onions, chop
them small, and fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and
fry them in about two ounces of butter, then put in the chickens and fry them together
till they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmerick, and a large spoonful of
ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate and strew all these
ingredients over the chickens whilst it is frying, then pour in the liquor, and let it
stew about half an hour, then put in a quarter of a pint of cream and the juice of two
lemons, and serve it up. The ginger, pepper, and turmerick must be beat very fine.

My interpretation of the recipe follows:

Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken (1774)

Ingredients
1 pound chicken breast meat, cut into bite-size pieces
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large or two medium onions, peeled, sliced and separated
2-3 heaping teaspoons turmeric (the fresher the better)
2 heaping tablespoons ginger, grated or finely minced
2-3 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups low-salt or homemade chicken stock
½ cup heavy cream
¼ -1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Method
Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter and when warm, add the chicken and sauté until the meat is opaque and starting to color. Remove chicken and set aside. If desired, add the remainder of the butter and then sauté the onions for 5-8 minutes, stirring frequently until they start to soften.

Add the ginger and if dry, add a small amount of the stock to moisten the pan. Sauté for 2-3 minutes and then add the pepper, turmeric, and salt and stir well. Cook for 5 minutes to allow flavors to blend, and then add the chicken and any accumulated juices back into the pan and stir well. Add stock to almost cover the meat and stir again. Cook to warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally. When warm, cover and reduce heat to so covered chicken cooks steadily at a medium simmer for 20-30 minutes or until chicken softens. Stir occasionally while chicken cooks.

When the chicken is tender, uncover and if necessary let sauce reduce a bit. When nearly done, reduce heat to lowest and add the cream and lemon juice and stir in well. Cook to heat and serve with rice or bread.
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I used breast meat, because my family doesn’t like to deal with bones unless necessary. Feel free to use chicken on the bone if you prefer, just adapt the cooking time so that the joints move easily and the meat is tender. I’ve also deliberately used a range of ingredients to allow people to adapt the recipe to their desired taste and consistency – that is a wetter or drier curry. Also, to get the most juice out of lemons, roll them well before cutting to break down the internal substance of the fruit before squeezing.
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Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774
Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774

The dish is very good, but not quite a modern curry. As you can see from the title of my interpreted recipe, the modern dish most like it is an eastern (Kolkata) butter chicken. However, the Hannah Glasse curry recipe lacks a full complement of spices and the varying amounts of tomato sauce now so often used in the dish. The turmeric and lemon juice are the dominant flavors, with the “heat” coming from the large amount of black pepper used. The heavy cream lends a nice touch that blankets the stronger flavors and tones them down a bit. I served the dish over a plain basmati spiced with a bit of black pepper and cardamom. All in all a delicious meal – and one of historical significance – good for both the body and the mind.

Other early recipes I’ve been working with include Mary Randolph’s 1824 recipes for a nutmeg and mace laden curry powder and her recipes for catfish and chicken curries. Another curry powder we’ve been sampling has been Mrs. Beeton’s 1861 recipe with cinnamon, fenugreek and mustard, which is more like a panchforan than a curry powder. I’ll be writing about these dishes in future posts, so stay tuned. Also, thanks to friend of the Silk Road Gourmet, the beautiful and talented Deana Sidney of Lost Past Remembered, I now have some early Dutch and Portuguese references to plow through looking for early curry recipes.

I will also be scouring earlier books for recipes that claim to be early Indian curries. If you know of any non-Indian recipes earlier than the mid-18th Century, please drop me a line or leave a comment with the reference.

Lastly, I will be on the road in May and may find it difficult to update the site, but please stay tuned for more curries and tales from Central and Western Asia when I return. (Words and adapted recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774 by Laura Kelley; other images in the public domain).

Oh Henry VIII!

You have now a broken banquet; but we’ll mend it.
A good digestion to you all: and once more
I shower a welcome on ye; welcome all. . .

Thus in Act I, Scene IV of The Life of King Henry VIII does the king, in disguise, crash the party at Cardinal Wolsey’s house. That night was both magical and fateful, foods were served from all over the world, wine and mead flowed and Henry Tudor met Ann Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor from the Folger Production of Henry VIII

This rarely performed Shakespeare-Fletcher work, Henry VIII opened the season at the Folger this year. We were there as usual and for the first time, so were our children – now old enough to pay attention and enjoy a good performance that doesn’t have to feature talking animals or wizards (however cool they may be). I admit that Henry was a hard sell after Titus Andronicus – which my daughter said “rocked”, but we keep on promising that Comedy of Errors will be better as will Cyrano which round out the Folger’s season this year.

Nevertheless, the play was well mounted and played with unique artistic touches including using the court jester, Will Sommers to enter into the story and to move about – without posing a threat – the machinations of Henry’s court. The scenery was sparse, comprised of a series of metal gates and screens with served to portray the dangerous labyrinth that the courtiers had to traverse. This design also gave the actors chances to appear to eavesdrop on each other’s conversations – crucial to moving the plot along in many cases.

History has to some extent, created a false portrait of Henry. The known excesses of his romantic life – many in the quest for a male heir – have been spun into the portrait of a syphilitic glutton. A slovenly man with a hair-trigger temper and atrocious table manners. Too many of these images of Henry have been handed down to us from Victorian-era writers and personalities who viewed the life of Henry Tudor through their own moral lenses. Contrary to too many of these portrayals, Henry was a studious, learned and thoughtful man who wanted to leave the country a better, stronger place than he found it. He was enamored of More’s Utopia and tried to find elements to apply to his own life – such as educating girls and women in his own household to the same level as men. Erasmus was a frequent visitor to court as was Holbein, and there was an unprecedented promotion of the arts under his reign. He was also, father of the English Navy which only a couple of centuries later became the key to acquiring and maintaining colonies across several continents.

The banquets of Hampton Court and of other Tudor residences are legendary. In these events – often lasting several days – foods from all over the world would be lavishly prepared and presented to the king and his court. Roasted peacocks, boar’s head, venison, capons and fish – the menus were exceedingly rich in meats and sparse on the vegetables – which tended to be used in stuffings, puddings and savory pastries and pies. Fruits were used in desserts as expected, but also often used to flavor meats.

Perusing the Book of Cookrye printed in 1591 but compiling recipes from many years before, one can get an idea of the types of foods that might have been served at some of Henry’s banquets. The influence of the Silk Road can be felt in almost every page of the book – not only as a trade route which brought exotic ingredients to England that were then combined in unique English ways, but also as a conduit for recipes, manners, and ideas. The influence of the Muslim world on the Tudor court also cannot be denied. Nearly identical recipes for some of the dishes persist in Persian, Iranian and Arab kitchens today. From the use of preserved lemons and verjuice to flavor capons and mutton stew with barberries to spinach and cheese pastries and marigold pies. Some recipes include:

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Capon with Lemons

To boyle a Capon larded with Lemons. Take a fair Capon and truss him, boyl him by himselfe in faire water with a little small Oat-meal, then take Mutton Broath, and half a pint of White-wine, a bundle of Herbs, whole Mace, season it with Verjuyce, put Marrow, Dates, season it with Sugar, then take preserved Lemons and cut them like Lard, and with a larding pin, lard in it, then put the capon in a deep dish, thicken your broth with Almonds, and poure it on the Capon.

Some recipes I’ve seen use a sweeter lemon – preserved in white wine and rosewater, with other variations being the use of barberries instead of dates and lots of pepper to season the capon in addition to the mace.

Pudding in a Carret Root

Take your Carret root and scrape it fair, then take a fine knife and cut out all the meat that is within the roote, and make it hollow, then make your pudding stuffe of the liver of a gooce or of a Pig, with grated bread, Corance, Cloves and mace, Dates, Pepper, Salt and Sugar, chop your Liver very small, and perboile it ere you chop it, so doon, put it in your hollow root. As for the broth, take mutton broth with corance, carets sliste, salt, whole Mace, sweet Butter, Vergious and grated bread, and so serve it forth upon sippets.

Tarte of Marigoldes

Take marigold floures and perboyle them tender, then strayne them wyth the yolckes of three or foure egges, and swete curdes, or els take three or foure apples, and perboyle wythal and strayne them with swete butter and a lyttle mace and so bake it.

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Western Asian marigold flowers and barberries, Central Asian carrots, dates and figs from the Islamic world and the ubiquitous verjuice – not to mention the spices from Southern Asia and Asia-Pacific – clearly, one of the routes of the Silk Road ended in Tudor England. Also important to the banquets of Henry’s reign, contrary to popular imagery were courtly table manners and behavior. There were strict codes of things to do and not to do that the men and women who attended state affairs were expected to follow. Courtly manners from Venice and Milan were flowing into France and England and shaping a new society. Western Europe in the Early 16th Century was a Europe of the early-to-mid Renaissance that was teeming with new ideas, new art and a new world view.

So in addition to being a gourmand who later suffered from gout, let us also remember Henry for his greater marks upon history. The formation of the Anglican Church and the rejection of Rome after his failure to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon set the stage for the later rational and scientific society that emerged in the early 18th Century after the reformation and counterreformation. By making the church subservient to the will of the king, Henry, arguably perhaps, was taking the first step into the modern world. Some might feel that the humanist and renaissance ideals that began prior to Henry’s reign collapsed during the nearly two hundred years of religious wars and strife that followed. But a longer view of history might say that Henry’s actions (and those of other princes and kings seeking to consolidate political and religious power) were necessary for a Europe that was no longer divided into political and spiritual worlds to emerge.

The Folger production of Henry VIII ends with the king beholding the infant Elizabeth and proclaiming that he had never before created anything of such worth as his older daughter, Mary, turns on her heels and silently stalks off stage. Surely life in the Tudor court wasn’t easy and many good men and women unjustly lost their lives during Henry’s reign – some because they couldn’t reconcile their beliefs with the will of the state. Along those lines, what I’d really like now is for someone to bring a production of A Man for All Seasons to DC. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Anne Boleyn and Henry Tudor from the Folger Production of Henry VIII borrowed from an issue of TBD).