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.
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.
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?
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.)
Described by the Spanish in 1492 during the first Columbian voyage to the New World, chili peppers took the Old World by storm. Brought by the Portuguese to their colonies in Africa and India by the end of the 15th Century, chilies were so eagerly adopted by the indigenous peoples of these regions that they became widespread naturalized crops within a couple of decades.
After that, chili peppers were embraced by the Indonesians by the late 1520s and 1530s and in China and Japan by the 1540s.
Interestingly, the adoption of chilies within Europe itself was somewhat slower, with the first real scientific description being made in the 1540s by Fuchs, and the earliest published recipes only appearing in the 17th Century.
While I was working with the early East Indian curry recipe in Domingos Rodrigues’ Arte de Cozhina (1680), I stumbled upon some of these early European chili recipes. Although I am still translating and developing these recipes, I found a real gem of a dish that I’d like to share with you: a delicious 17th Century Portuguese “frittata” with lamb and spices that also packs a wallop of heat because of the chilies it contains.
The original recipe reads: Pasteis de perna de Carneiro
Metase em uma panela uno perna de Carneiro, meyo arratel de toucinho, duas onças de manteiga, duas cebolas, um golpe de vinagre, adubos inteiro, e uma capelle de todos os cheiro, e pan-se a cozer em agua pouca ; estando jà o Carneiro mais de meyo cozido, tirese fóra, e piquese a parte todo o Carneiro ; e logo em outra parte piquemse os cheiro, e em uma tigela baixa, untada de manteiga se vàpondo cama de Carneiro, cama de toucinho : deitemse logo por cima meya duzia de ovos batidos, e pan-se a córar em lume brando.
Feito isto, façable de fóra parte umas sopas da dita substancia, e depois que estiverem muy aboboradas, virese a tigella, em que se fizerem, sobre o prato, equebrese a tigela, para que a sopa fique inteira ; sobre ella se porà o pastel, e lançindolhe por cima çumo de limaõ, mandesa à mesa.
Tambem se faz de lombos, e vitela, ou da carne que quizerem.
My liberal and functional translation of this is:
Frittata with Lamb
Place a leg of lamb in a pan with the lard from one pound of bacon, two ounces of butter, two onions, a stroke of vinegar, and whole spices. Separately, place the chili peppers to cook in a little water.
When most of the fat has evaporated, take the lamb from the pan and remove the meat from the bone. Chop up the hot peppers and mix them with the meat.
In a shallow bowl, greased with butter, place the chopped lamb [and peppers]. Above this lay down a double layer of bacon. Pour a dozen beaten eggs over this and place in the oven until golden brown but still soft.
This done, now it is time to turn the eggs out of the pan. Place flatbread on top of the pan and cover this with a plate. Turn the pan with the eggs over so that the eggs come out in one piece. Pour lemon juice over the dish and send it to the table.
Also can be made with veal or beef tenderloin.
Written in modern form, the recipe looks like this:
Lamb Frittata with Chili Peppers
2 pounds of lamb cut from the leg, trimmed into bite-size pieces
fat from 1 pound of bacon
4 tablespoons sweet butter, plus a bit more to grease the pie dish
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1.5 tablespoons coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1-2 tablespoons malt vinegar
3-4 dried Habanero peppers (more or less to taste)
6 eggs, whisked until frothy
juice of half a lemon
chopped cilantro for garnish
Dry roast or pan fry the whole spices until lightly colored and set aside to cool. Crack or coarsely grind the roasted spices. Melt the bacon fat and butter over high heat in a large sauté pan and add the lamb, stirring often as the meat colors and cooks. When the lamb starts to brown, remove it from the pan and set aside.
Lower the heat to medium and add the roasted spices. Add the cayenne (if using) and the turmeric, and stir well. Add the sliced onion, stir, lower heat again, and cover to cook for 5-8 minutes. Add the malt vinegar, stir well, and add the lamb back into the pan. Mix well and allow the lamb to cook over medium or medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes until it starts to become tender.
Heat some water to boil in a small sauté pan. Remove from heat and drop the chili peppers into the hot water. Let chilies soak for a minute or two and remove from the pan to drain. Mince chilies, but do not remove the seeds or placenta. Habaneros are powerful little gems and you may wish to wear gloves to handle them. When done, wash hands well with soap and water. Add the chilies to the lamb and onion mixture and mix well. When the lamb is tender, remove from the heat.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a deep-dish pie pan with butter (I used a ceramic pan) and add the lamb and onion mixture. Add the frothed eggs and make sure the eggs envelop the lamb. When oven is hot, place the egg pan into the oven and bake for about 8-10 minutes or until the eggs are firm and colored golden-brown. Remove pan from oven and rest for a few minutes.
Run a knife gently around the edge of the pan to loosen the eggs and place an 8-10 inch piece of flatbread (I used commercial, Indian naan) on top of the eggs. Place a serving plate on top of the flatbread and invert to remove the eggs from the pan. Sprinkle lemon juice over the eggs, garnish with cilantro and serve. Serve with slices of lemon on the table for diners to add if desired.
The dish itself is more like an Apician patella or an Iranian kuku than like any other modern dish called a “pasteis” which range from codfish cakes to egg-custard desserts, so I feel that it is acceptable to call it a frittata.
About the chilies. The peppers in the recipe are called pimento de cheiro, or aromatic chilies, which Rodrigues abbreviates to chieros. The genus and species that this represents is Capiscum chinense. Generally speaking as a family, these chilies are known as the Chinese lantern chilies and they are the hottest chilies in the world. Varieties include, the Bhut Jolokia, the Hainan Yellow Lantern, the now infamous Trinidad Scorpion, and the easy to find Habenero chili. For this recipe I used the Habanero, for the ease in acquisition, the ability to control the heat in the recipe, and the assumption that chili peppers in the 17th Century were generally more like the Habanero and less like the Trinidad Scorpion with its 2.5 million Scovilles of heat.
As to how I dealt with the “whole spices” direction? This time I didn’t do original research as I did with the curry spices, I started by using a recipe from a modern edition of Arte de Cozhina that includes a few developed recipes that I found on the internet. It looked like an interesting spice mix, but it unfortunately had no context on how or why the spices were chosen. Nevertheless, I tried it, and it was delicious.
I adapted the recipe a bit by chopping the lamb off the bone before cooking, by reducing the number of eggs by half, and by omitting the bacon, because, although I like the flavor, I often find it overpowering. Even with the adaptations, this is still a rich and savory historical dish that may surprise your family and friends with its unusual combinations of flavors. These choices made may result in a spicier dish than the original, because the meat is taken off the bone before it is sautéed, but it really is quite good this way. I was a bit suspicious about the use of lemon juice on the eggs, but in the end, I found that it worked wonderfully.
There are several other recipes in Arte de Cozhina using different types of chili peppers, If those yield dishes as savory and delicious as this one, I will be sure to let you know. Till then, tuck into this great recipe and imagine what might have been like to be a Portuguese sailor or trader in the in the 17th Century . . . experiencing strange and wonderful foreign cultures along the remnants of the Maritime Silk Road. (Words, recipe translation and development by Laura Kelley, Photo of Habanero Chili Peppers from Wikimedia, and Photo of the Lamb Frittata with Chili Peppers by Laura Kelley).
African coins, some possibly minted as early as 900 ACE, have been found buried on the Wessel Islands of Northern Australia, and have thrown accepted notions of when non-Aboriginal peoples first visited the continent into question. The oldest of the coins were minted in Kilwa, an island off the coast of Tanzania that was once a luxurious stopover for merchants and travelers on the Maritime Silk Road.
For over 600 years, Kilwa was the most prominent port, trading post, and resort on the east African coast. It had a glittering mosque, decorated with coral and Chinese porcelain, and a palace with an octagonal swimming pool. It controlled the trade in gold, ivory and slaves out of Zimbabwe, up into Arabia, into Persia and across to India.
Originally discovered in 1944 by an Australian soldier, Maurice Isenberg, the coins were treated as personal curiosities for decades until Isenberg sent them for appraisal in 1979. At that time, Isenberg found that 5 of the coins were over 1,000 years of age and from Africa, while the others were minted by the Dutch East India Company.
The coins came to the attention of an Australian graduate student, Ian Mcintosh, before Isenberg died in 1991. In July of this year, Mcintosh, who is now a Professor from the Indiana University-Purdue University, will be leading a team of international researchers to the Wessel Islands to try to discover how the coins came to the island. They will be using a map, hand-drawn by Isenberg, to locate the site of the original discovery and to determine whether other artifacts could be buried nearby.
The Kilwan coins could have come to Australia as part of a horde from much later than 900 ACE, or they could be evidence that non-Aboriginal peoples stopped on the Wessel Islands when trading goods from Africa for those from the Indo-Pacific along the Maritime Silk Road over 1,000 years ago.
It is unlikely that African merchants brought the coins to Australia, unless as sailors on other vessels, because African ships weren’t equipped to go further to sea than Arabia and India. They could travel up to Arabia on small boats sewn together by coconut fibers. But once they got to Arabia and India, large vessels from these nations could travel all the way to Tang China and down into the Spice Islands.
Additionally, the famed Chinese-Muslim mariner, Zheng-He made many, celebrated trips from mainland China to Africa and back during his life time in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. He was also not the first Asian to trade for Africa’s rich bounty of animals, spices, ivory and gold.
Other finds from the Indo-Pacific, including the wreck of an Arab-style dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung are evidence for an early, rich trade between China, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the bowls found aboard that wreck had a manufacturing date of July 16th, 826 ACE – earlier even than the Kilwan coins.
I will be watching the progress of Mcintosh’s work closely and report significant findings here. So, stay tuned.
(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Great Mosque at Kilwa from Wikimedia; Photo of the Kilwan coins from original news reports of the story.)