Garum – Its not as Roman as You Think!

Roman Fish Mosaic

Roman Fish Mosaic

I had the pleasure recently to be a guest on Eat This Podcast with Jeremy Cherfas. On the show, Jeremy and I spoke about the fish sauce garum, how to make it, its origins (not Roman), and its many uses in cooking and as a table condiment. I hope you enjoy the show and consider making some garum for yourself! I also hope that you continue to listen to Eat This Podcast Its a great source of eclectic information about food and cuisines.  Jeremy writes:

Garum is one of those ancient foods that everyone seems to have heard of. It is usually described as “fermented fish guts,” or something equally unappealing, and people often call it the Roman ketchup, because they used it so liberally on so many things. Fermented fish guts is indeed accurate, though calculated to distance ourselves from it. And garum is just one form of fermented fish; there’s also liquamen, muria. allec and haimation. All this I learned from Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet. Unlike most of the people who opine on garum, and who offer recipes for quick garum, she painstakingly created the real deal. She is also convinced that it isn’t really Roman in origin. We only think of it that way because history is written by the victors not the vanquished.  And then there’s the whole question of the Asian fish sauces, Vietnamese nước mắm and the rest of them. Independent discovery, or copied from the Romans?

Other interviews I’ve done are available on the sidebar MP3 Player as well.

“Asian” Food in Colonial American Cuisine

When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats. What most people don’t realize is that the colonists had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America. . . [MORE HERE]

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Pomegranate Symbolism for Spring

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Read more about pomegranates on Zester Daily – HERE.

Pomegranate Spring

A Review of the Viking Cookbook, An Early Meal

An Early Meal by Serra and Tunberg

An Early Meal by Serra and Tunberg

Raiders… conquerors… fierce in battle and strong in family. These are the images that the world has of Vikings. We know where they lived, and to some degree how they made a living. We know which gods they worshipped and how. Yet the bulk of our knowledge consists of broad brush strokes that omit the nuances of everyday life. The Vikings recorded many things, from The Sagas to business transactions and personal letters. But beyond a brief and occasional mention, two of the many things they didn’t write about were what they ate and how they prepared their meals. The Vikings left no recipes.

Read the rest of my review of the Viking cookbook, An Early Meal on the EXARC (Experimental Archaeology) website.

The Silk Road History of Rhubarb in Zester Daily

Everything you wanted to know about rhubarb’s Silk Road history, from its origins in Tibet and early use as medicine to its adoption as a food, in Zester Daily. A great recipe for savory lamb and rhubarb stew included! Read all about it HERE.

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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.)

Rice Omelets, Yōshoku, and A Little International Understanding

2014 began with our family hosting a Japanese college student for a brief homestay.  A Facebook friend of mine had a daughter studying in the United States; she had some time on her hands over the Christmas break, and she decided to spend some of it with us.  Despite the arctic cold front that hit the area and talk of, “polar vortexes,” moving through the area, we toured around some of the monuments and museums of Washington DC that week, and also visited the beautiful aquarium in Baltimore and George Washington’s estate Mount Vernon in northern Virginia.

During Hiyori’s visit we ate a mish-mash of Asian and European food.  On a couple of mornings I made a nice Japanese breakfast with homemade miso soup, rice, natto, baked fish, and some other small dishes which she loved and ate heartily.  There were also some good steaks, some kimchi chigae, tandoori chicken (which she also loved) and my husband bought her a hot dog from a street-cart outside the Smithsonian on a cold afternoon.

Knowing how it feels to be away from home for a long time and to simply want the comfort of the familiar, I told Hiyori that if there was some type of food that she really wanted, to let us know and that we would try make it for her.  She got a serious look on her face, thought about it for a little while, and declared that what she really wanted was an Omu-raisu (オムライス) a Japanese rice omelet.

Japanese Rice Omelet

Japanese Rice Omelet

For those of you unfamiliar with rice omelets, they are simply omelets stuffed with rice and flavored with ketchup.  The rice is often leftover from other meals, and a variety of other fillings can accompany it, such as vegetables (especially onions, carrots and peas), chicken or pork, or fruits, like tomatoes and mushrooms.  They are a mainstay of Japanese homecooking as well as a menu staple in casual restaurants and diners.  Variations include using tonkatsu sauce or demi-glace in the place of ketchup for a slightly more high-brow taste.

For a dish so simple and unassuming, it is steeped in history.  Rice omelets first started to be made in Japan around the turn of the 20th Century, but they are part of a much larger trend of the introduction and adaptation of western dishes to Japanese tastes that began during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s.  At the beginning of this period, Japan’s national seclusion was eliminated, and the Emperor declared Western ideas central to Japan’s future progress. As part of the reformations, the Emperor lifted the ban on red meat and promoted Western cuisine, which was viewed as the cause of the Westerner’s greater physical size.

The first curry recipes, which entered Japan via English sailors, appeared in 1872. Within a decade, curries proved so popular that they were on the menu at several Tokyo restaurants. Katsu, beefsteak and Hayashi rice are other examples of western dishes that were introduced during this period that have since gone on to be known as a subset of Japanese cuisine known as yōshoku (洋食) or western food.

To us, it was fascinating to discover that the one dish our Japanese guest wanted above all others was an omelet.  How very western, we thought.  But that’s just it, because it turns out that these omelets have become so integrated into modern Japanese food culture that they are as Japanese are cherry blossoms.  Here is the basic recipe.

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Japanese Rice Omelet

Ingredients (for 1 omelet)
1 onion, minced
2-3 tablespoons oil
1½ cup precooked Japanese rice
1 cup of ketchup
2-3 eggs, whisked until frothy
Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Oil a medium sauté pan with 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the onion over medium heat until it becomes translucent and starts to color.  Then add rice and the ketchup and stir well.  Allow mixture to cook for a few minutes and then remove from the pan and set aside.

In a cleaned or fresh pan, add the remaining tablespoon of oil.  Pour in frothed eggs, cook over low-to-medium heat until the bottom is firm and only a little bit of moisture is left on the top. Take care not to burn the bottom of the omelet.

Place the onion and rice mixture on a line down the center of the eggs, leaving at least ½ inch from both edges. Mound the mixture as best as you can and fold the edges of the omelet over the filling.  Slide the omelet out onto a plate.  Garnish with extra ketchup and serve leftover filling as a side dish.  Often served with cucumbers or pickles and shredded cabbage dishes.

N.B.  If you have a seasoned omelet pan, use it.  You will need less oil if you do.

Variations: As noted above, additional ingredients can be included. These are added after the onion cooks and before the rice and ketchup are added. It is also fine to use seasoned rice in the omelet. I usually use a shiso seed-based furikake on my rice. This works fine as filling for the rice omelet as well.

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One of the nice surprises about rice omelets, besides the fact that they are very easy to make, is that all that ketchup is not as “ketchupy” as you might think.  Somehow all that Heinz 57 cooks down a bit to taste more like a semi-sweet tomato sauce.  Also, if folding omelets is something you find challenging, acceptable modern presentation of the dish in Japan include lightly-set eggs set onto the top of rice mounded on a plate.  No folding and breaking, or filling falling out with that method.  Not quite an omelet, perhaps, but the taste of the egg-topped rice is virtually the same.

So much a part of Japanese food culture, the rice omelet was featured in the 1985 foodie movie, Tampopo. In the movie, a hobo father breaks into a kitchen after hours to cook a rice omelet for his son. In the movie, the hobos are the master chefs from whom Tampopo learns how to really make soup. It is a fabulous movie, that tells a number of food-related stories. It also uses camera cuts to create what seem like accidental changes in he narrative. These “accidents” are really sophisticated visual choices on the part of the director and are simply brilliant. But I digress.

In addition to being Japanese, rice omelets are also important parts of Korean and Taiwanese cuisines. They were introduced by the Japanese in the early 20th Century in those countries, so that the roots of the recipe as Japanese may have been forgotten.

Fancy or plain, the modern Japanese (or Korean or Taiwanese) rice omelet is a result of west-east cultural connections that enriched both groups. The Japanese have made it a popular dish in their own cuisine, and westerners are rediscovering it and making it their own once again. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Japanese Rice Omelet from iStock; and video excerpt from Tampopo from You Tube.)

Culinary History Mystery #6: Tomato Eggs

Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes

Chinese Tomato Eggs

Tomato Eggs is a home-cooked Chinese dish that reminds students, travelers, and those living abroad of home.  Just a whiff of this cooking and folks will tell tales of sitting in or near the kitchen as a kid as a parent made this dish – and how good it tasted!  it is simple, elegant, and savory, and less than 10 – 15 minutes from wok to table.  Chopped green onions are almost always used. Sometimes garlic or onion is added, and often there is a blast of shaoxing, rice vinegar, or even oyster sauce to add flavor.  Some recipes also add sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes, but the memorable taste of the dish usually just comes from the combined flavors of the fresh ingredients.

The form of the dish can be dry, like in the picture above, or is can be moist with a thin tomato sauce, or even soupy. It is often served over or with rice or fresh noodles. My travels tend to make me think that presentation varies mostly by individual preference and not by geography, because I have had both dry and wet forms in a number of different places.

I’ve enjoyed this dish all over China, from Beijing and Xian to places much further west and south.  Although the Chinese regard this as a quintessential Chinese dish, my favorite thing about tomato eggs (蕃茄炒蛋/西红柿炒蛋) is that it is probably Arab in origin.

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshouka

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka

The Arab dish that Tomato Eggs most resembles is Shakshuka. This dish is eaten all over the Saudi Peninsula, North Africa, and the Levant. Turkey even has its own version called Menemen. Although the form varies a great deal, from the dry, Saudi version pictured here, to poached eggs over a spiced tomato sauce as in Egypt and Israel, to a complex ragout of vegetables (with lots of tomatoes) and sometimes bits of meat or sausage bound together by eggs.   It is almost always served with pita bread or naan.  Onions are almost always used and sometimes garlic is as well.  Spicing can be just salt and pepper with a little bit of chopped parsley or cilantro as in Oman to a dish flavored with cumin, or dishes with oregano and other herbs.  Chili peppers or ground chilies are often added, but I have never had a Shakshuka that I could call hot.  These days, cheese is sometimes added, but that is a modern addition and not found in traditional recipes for the dish in any of the cultures that now enjoy it.

A comparison of the Saudi and Chinese recipes show that the recipes are nearly identical, although the Chinese use a two-step cooking process:

Saudi Shakshuka
Chinese Tomato Eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small white onion, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
4 eggs

Heat oil in a small-to-medium sauté pan. Add onions and garlic until tender. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and cumin and stir well. Cook 2-4 minutes until tomatoes soften.

Break eggs over mixture and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until done. Stir with a spatula to mix or slide onto a plate and serve.
3 tablespoons cooking oil
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon shaoxing wine (optional)
3 dashes white pepper powder
8 oz. fresh tomato (cut into thin wedges)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
Some chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (garnish, optional)

Break the eggs into a bowl and use chopsticks to beat the eggs until they break thoroughly. Add salt, sesame oil, shaoxing wine, white pepper powder, and lightly beat to blend well. Set aside.

Heat up a wok with 2 tablespoons cooking oil. Add the egg mixture into the wok, and use your spatula to spread the eggs. Keep stirring until the eggs form lumps. Gently break the lumps into smaller pieces. As soon as the eggs are cooked, dish out and set aside.

Clean the wok and heat it up again with 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Drop the tomato wedges into the wok and do a few quick stirs. Add sugar and water into the tomatoes. Cover it with the lid and let it cook for about 30 seconds. Transfer the eggs and chopped scallions into the tomatoes, stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, dish out and serve immediately.

The main reasons why this is probably another west-to-east spread of a recipe is the commonality and variations of the dish in the Muslim Mediterranean, Suez and Persian Gulf,and the unusual nature of the dish in China’s litany of egg recipes. Another reason why it is likely a dish with an “Arab” origin is that Muslim people took to the tomato very early on in its introduction in the Old World. While the Europeans were generally skittish about eating this member of the nightshade family, and raised them as curiosities or ornamental garden plants, the Muslims dove right in and cultivated them as food early on in their arrival in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Spanish were the only Europeans who generally took to eating the tomato in the 16th Century. This is probably because they saw them being cultivated and eaten in the New World and knew that they were not harmful.

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

The Spanish were said to particularly enjoy them with cooked with oil, salt, and pepper as a sort of stew, and also to make a sauce out of them with vinegar added to the ingredients above and to use that sauce on their meats (Gerarde, History of Plants, 1597). Gerarde also notes that tomatoes or “Love Apples” grow well in warm climates like Spain and italy. Of interest, perhaps, is that Gerarde describes both red and yellow tomatoes.

Although there is mention that the Italians also ate tomatoes in 17th Century botanicals, this is repetition of incorrect information. The original citation says that the Italians ate, “Eggplants”. This, even in historical documents became misreported as, “tomatoes”, and the error continues to proliferate today.

Evidence for the early Arab love of eating tomatoes can be found in John Parkinson’s 1629 Earthly Paradise, in which he reports that tomato plants grow well in hot climates like those in, “Barbary and Ethiopia”. Parkinson’s 1640 Theatrum Botanicum expands this range of growth in the Old World to, “easterly countries such as Egypt, Syria and Arabia.” His 1629 work notes that tomatoes are much eaten in the hot countries where they grow well.

Lancelot Addison’s 1671 work, An Account of West Barbary, notes that tomatoes are eaten raw with oil along with other, “salads.” In 1710, Dr. William Salmon’s Herbal notes that the Spanish ate tomatoes boiled in vinegar with pepper and salt, and served up with oil and lemon juice (possibly a poached tomato); and that they also eat tomatoes raw with oil, vinegar, and pepper.

Red Tomato

Red Tomato

By comparison, the earliest European mention of tomatoes growing in Asia (Malaysia) can be found in Georg Rumphius’s 1747 work Herbarium Amboinense. Rumphius notes that the natives cultivate two varieties and that both are used in cooking. In 1790, a brief mention of tomatoes growing well in the fields and gardens of Cochin, China is found in Louriero’s Flora Cochinchinensis.

So, from all this information, we can infer that the Arabs were eating tomatoes in the 16th century – at least the Morisco’s in Spain were – and possibly so were people across a broad swath of the Muslim World from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and into the Levant. More evidence for Tomato Eggs having Arab roots. Tomatoes may have been eaten in Ming China, but the earliest evidence I can find in a language I can read comes from well into the period of Qing rule. That said, however, we know that the Chinese were trading with the pre-Islamic Arabs and that trade between the peoples only flourished after the adoption of Islam, with the influence of foreign Muslim peoples in China reaching its peak probably in the Yuan Dynasty.

What I love most about Culinary History Mysteries like that is that hundreds of years later, the history of the interaction between the Chinese and the “Arabs” lives on in the foods people eat. Another enduring testament to the power of the Silk Road in the lives of the people.

(Words and recipe analysis by Laura Kelley. Photo of Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes by ppy2010ha@Dreamstime.com; Photo of Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka by Noor AlQahtani. Recipe for Saudi Shakshuka from Noor’s site, Ya Salam; Recipe for Chinese Tomato Eggs from Rasa Malaysia)

The Origins of Curry Powder

Where did curry powder come from? There is no real equivalent in authentic subcontinental cuisines for a ready-made powder. The closest thing to a curry powder is a masala, and that is almost always more of a paste than a powder because of the addition of wet and dry ingredients to the mix. On the subcontinent, seeds and roots, etc. are roasted, ground and mixed in varying proportions according to the needs of the recipe. Although the origins of curry powder are unclear, the advertisement below gives us a firm data point of the mid 1780s for a commercial curry powder for sale in London.

First British Curry Advertisement

First British Curry Advertisement

The advertisement, which ran in the Morning Post (now incorporated into the Daily Telegraph) says that this curry powder was brought back from the East Indies by Solander. Now, Solander was the great Swedish naturalist who was botanist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the Pacific. Despite the claim, this is probably just a marketing ploy – like Mrs. Pepperidge – because the closest the Endeavour ever got to India was actually Indonesia (Batavia/Jakarta) and it returned to Britain in 1771, some 13 years before the advertisement. Solander, on the other hand, did meet an untimely death in 1784, and was something of a celebrated figure at the time. So, it was good business sense by the maker of the curry powder to use Solander’s name to conjure images of exploration and the exotic cuisines of the east.

It isn’t completely clear which company manufactured this powder, but I have one data point that indicates that it was Crosse and Blackwell – S&B – still makers of chutneys, relishes, and sauces. The problem with this is that they weren’t incorporated until 1830 when the men behind the initials S&B bought the business from its proprietors West and Wyatt. West and Wyatt, on the other opened its doors for business in 1706, so it indeed could have been their curry powder for sale at Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse in 1784.

The advertisement claims that the curry powder will help you make sumptuous sauces for East-Indian dishes. It also says that the curry powder promotes good digestion, good circulation, a vigorous mind and . . . wait for it . . . a strong libido. Who doesn’t want more of all that? How could anyone resist?

Dean Mahomet

Sake Dean Mahomet

However, because our early data point shows commercial curry powder for sale in 18th Century England, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an English invention. People from the subcontinent were already immigrating in the 17th Century, with the earliest baptism of an Indian-born Asian man in 1616, and by the 18th Century, Indian sailors were commonplace on East India Company ships, hired to replace men who had died on the voyage east. The passage for the Indian sailors was often one-way, from east to west, with the sailors attempting to start a life in a less-than-welcoming England. Usually, however, they wound up in transient, low-wage jobs or living by the good will of others. The cooks on the ships who fed these sailors, sometimes fared better than the sailors themselves, and wound up as tavern and pub cooks, slinging British food as well as the occasional curry to the hungry English populous.

In 1773 the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket started selling a prepared curry, and by 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian-owned and operated Indian restaurant in Britain with the Hindustan Coffee House at 34 George Street, Portman Square. In Mahomet’s restaurant, British patrons could enjoy hookahs with ‘real Chilim tobacco’ as well as a wide selection of curries.

Fortunately, perhaps, or not, this article has no firm conclusions to offer about the definitive origins of curry powder, but it does place some good data on the table. Despite my wanting to keep the door open to the contributions of Anglo-Asians in the formulation of curry powders, my instinct tells me that commercial, prepared curry powder is probably not their contribution to world cuisine. If it were an Asian or an Anglo-Asian invention, I would think that the taste of curries made with curry powder would be a lot more authentically “Indian”. Still, I’ll keep digging to see there are further strands to pull, so stay tuned. (Words by Laura Kelley, Newspaper clipping of first British Curry Powder Ad from the British Library and Portrait of Sake Dean Mohamet from the Wellcome Archive.)