The Introduction of Chili Peppers to India

I saw you green, then
Turning red as you ripened.
Pleasant to look at and tasty in a dish,
But too hot if excess is used
Savior of the poor, enhancer of good food.
Fiery when bitten, this makes it difficult
Even to think of the good Lord himself!

– Purandara Dāsa, 16th C. Indian Poet

Potato, papaya, pineapple, cassava, and chili peppers, all were brought from the New World to the Indian subcontinent by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century or in the case of the potato, in the 17th century.  All of the plants grew well in the hot climate of the south Asia and were adopted into local cuisines, but only the chili pepper spread across Asia like wildfire.

Capsicum longum, Fuchs, 1542
Capsicum longum, Fuchs, 1542

In fact, the speed of its spread across India from the late 15th Century to the mid-16th Century was so quick that several European botanists (notably Fuchs (1542), but also later writers such as Dodoens (1554) and Gerarde (1597)) described chili peppers as part of the native flora of India. Dodoens writes:

The Indian pepper is hot and dry in third degree. Indian pepper is used in diverse places for the dressing of meats, for it hath
the same virtue and taste that the usual pepper hath. Furthermore, it coloreth like Saffron, and being taken in such sort it warmeth the stomach and helpeth greatly the
digestion of meats

The same doth also dissolve and consume the swellings about the throat called the King’s Evil [scrofula], all kernels and cold swellings, and taketh away all spots and lentils of the face, being laid thereunto with honey.

It is dangerous to be used in too great a quantity: for this pepper hath in it a certain hidden evil quality, whereby it killeth
dogs if it be given them to eat.

This is good evidence  that by the mid-16th Century that at least some of the culinary uses of the capsicums were well-known within the monastic and academic communities of Europe, even if they were confused about the geographic origin of the genus.  Although brief, these early botanical references to the use of chili peppers in the kitchen are important because they predate formal, published, European recipes by more than 100 years.

One of the earliest European cookbooks containing recipes for dishes with chili peppers is Domingos Rodrigues’ Arte de Cozhina, published in 1680.  This book, in fact, contains several recipes that use different types of chili peppers, so the knowledge and use of the differing flavor and heat of chili peppers was fairly sophisticated in this early reference.  Rodrigues was the cook for the royal household of Portugal, so we can be certain that at least the royals like their dishes hot. (One of Rodrigues’ recipes.)

The Bhojanakutuhalam
The Bhojanakutuhalam

Indian scholar, KT Achaya, has claimed that the 17th Century ayurvedic text, the Bhojanakutuhalam, contains the earliest published recipes for chili peppers.  However, my detailed read of the text finds only three brief mentions of chili peppers that ascribe some ayurvedic qualities to them.  The Bhojanakutuhalam contains no chili recipes. This leaves the Portuguese reference as the earliest published culinary reference for chili peppers I have been able to uncover – at least so far.

In 15th and 16th Century India, the rapid adoption and naturalization of chili peppers is a result of a perfect storm of hospitable climate, rampant poverty, and the high nutritional value of chili peppers.  According to the USDA, 100 grams of cayenne chilis contains 318 calories, 2000 mg. of potassium, 293 mg. of phosphorus, approximately 150 mg. of calcium and magnesium and 76 mg. of vitamin C.  Not only would this have boosted general caloric intake, but the impact of the micronutrients of overall health status would have been significant.  Thus, the addition of chilis to the diet of India’s undernourished poor, would have been nothing short of a nutritional windfall.

Interestingly, many of the medicinal uses attributed to chili peppers by Fuchs and Dodoens (following Brunfels (1531)), such as the use as a treatment for scrofula, were actually attributed to black pepper by Discorides.  So, for more than 1500 years, western knowledge of the medical uses of pepper remained virtually stagnant. When chili peppers were brought back from the New World, some of the medicinal uses long described for black pepper were simply transferred to chili peppers. Much the same thing happened in the Ayurvedic system, when chili peppers were introduced to the subcontinent, as witnessed in the pages of the Bhojanakutuhalam.

In the Ayurvedic system, chili peppers are classified as pungent amongst the six tastes, are used to restore balance to an unbalanced kapha-dosha, and should be avoided by those with a diagnosed excess of pitta-dosha.

Today, modern scientific and medical communities are rediscovering the medicinal uses of chili peppers. Accepted uses today include use as a treatment for neuropathy, neuralgia, and back pain, as well as treatments for some digestive disorders and use as an anti-clotting agent. Research is also underway to look a chili peppers as anti-cancer treatments (pro-apoptotic) as well. Congruously perhaps, many of the researchers doing this work are in India, or part of the great Indian scientific and technical diaspora around the world.

(Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photographs of Fuchs chili pepper plate from the Missouri Botanical Gardens manuscript, and photograph of the cover of the Bhojanakutuhalam by Laura Kelley.)

“Asian” Food in Colonial America

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 settlers in colonial America 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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Curry Through Foreign Eyes #4: Dr. Kitchiner

Today’s exploration of Indian Curry through Foreign Eyes takes us back to early 19th Century England to The Cook’s Oracle by Dr. Kitchiner, which was first published in London by Samuel Bagster in 1817. The original title of the book is Apicius Redivivus, or Apicius Reborn, so it is clear that the publisher thought that this book was a masterpiece of gourmet dining. Either that, or he simply wanted to cash in on the image of Apicius’s legendary dining habits in the sales of Dr. Kitchiner’s book.

The Cook's Oracle, 1831 (American)
The Cook’s Oracle, 1830 (American)

The Kitchiner recipe for curry powder is an important one, and is cited as the basis of many recipes since then, including Mrs. Beeton’s and the curry powder used when the British introduced “Indian” curry to the Japanese in the late 19th Century.

To begin, the 1817 edition of The Cook’s Oracle has two recipes for curry powder (Nos. 454 and 455). These change and combine a great deal across editions of the book, with recipe No. 455 (with some variation) becoming the recipe that endures in later editions, including the American editions. In the 1817 edition of the book, Kitchiner observes that these recipes were given to him by a friend and he cannot vouch for their flavor or authenticity (imagine writing THAT in a cookbook today)! However in later editions of the book, he swears to the authenticity of recipe No. 455 for “Cheap Curry Powder”. So I chose to work with this recipe both for its terrific name as well as for its lasting quality.

In working with the Kitchiner recipes (No. 455 from both the 1817 and 1830 editions), I also think I have figured out why so many early curries and so many modern commercial curry powders have much more turmeric than any modern or historical Indian curry out there. The answer is simple: The confusion of grated, fresh turmeric root with dried and ground turmeric powder.

I have never seen an authentic Indian curry with more than a fraction of turmeric relative to the amounts of coriander and cumin. For example, if the recipe calls for 2-3 teaspoons of ground cumin and/or coriander, it will usually only call for about ¼-to- ½ -teaspoon of turmeric. Most Indian recipes use turmeric judiciously, almost in the way a bit of saffron is used to take the sharp edges off of the flavor of the other spices. On the other hand, try to find a mainstream, commercial curry powder that isn’t bright yellow or orange from the amount to turmeric in the mix. I have long wondered about this, and now think that adhearance to “traditional” historical recipes may be the reason for this.

Turmeric, Two Forms
Turmeric, Two Forms

To try to prove this hypothesis, I cooked the Kitchiner curries with three ounces of fresh, grated turmeric root and found them to taste much more like and Indian curry than curries cooked with ground turmeric. This is not simply the difference between fresh and dried spice – a difference we all are aware of – but also of the relative proportion of the wet, grated root to the baked and dried powder in the recipe as a whole. An ounce of fresh root is much less turmeric than an ounce of ground turmeric, and the resulting flavor of the curry is radically different. It’s fascinating to me how a likely mistake in the 18th and 19th Centuries can still resonate today. Try it sometime with a favorite historical recipe and see if you agree about the turmeric issue. On to the recipes.

The 1817 Recipe for “Cheap Curry Powder” calls for four ounces of coriander seed, three ounces of turmeric, one ounce each of black pepper, ginger, and lesser cardamoms, and one-quarter ounce of cinnamon and cayenne. This recipe becomes a little gentler as time goes on, with later editions calling for three ounces of coriander seed and turmeric, one ounce of black pepper, mustard (an addition) and ginger, and half an ounce of lesser cardamoms, and a quarter ounce of cumin seed. Later American editions call for the addition of a half-ounce of allspice as well. Dr. Kitchiner observes in the later editions that the omission of the cayenne pepper from the recipe is to allow for cooks to add more curry powder according to taste without making the dish too hot. Written in modern form the recipes looks like this:

Dr. Kitchiner’s Curry Powder No. 455 (1817)
8 tablespoons coriander seed
6 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons ginger
2 tablespoons green cardamom seeds
1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons cayenne pepper

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Dr. Kitchiner’s Curry Powder No. 455 (1830)
6 tablespoons coriander seed
6 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons mustard (an addition)
2 tablespoons ginger
1 tablespoon green cardamom
1 tablespoon allspice
1.5 teaspoons cumin seed.

The direction is to place all ingredients in a cool oven overnight, then to grind in a granite mortar and pass through a silk sieve. The sieving makes this a fine powder as opposed to a coarser, rustic grind.

Another reason for working with recipe No. 455 is that there is no specific recipe for a curry in the 1817 version of Dr. Kitchiner. Rather he suggests making curry sauces by adding curry powder a bit at a time to gravy or butter until a sauce pleasing to taste unfolds. There are recipes for deviled eggs, a bare-bones mulligitawny and a couple of curry-flavored forcemeats as well a a calf’s-head broth, but no meat stewed in liquid as the British had come to interpret as curry. I had to turn to a later edition if I wanted the Kitchiner curry recipe, and used the recipe from the 1830 edition instead.

Here is the original recipe for curries in the 1830 edition of Dr. Kitchiner’s The Cooks Oracle:

Curries (No. 497)
Cut fowls or rabbits into joints, and wash them clean: put two ounces of butter into a stew-pan; when it is melted, put in the meat, and two middling-sized onions sliced, let them be over a smart fire till they are of a light brown, then put in half a pint of broth; let it simmer twenty minutes.

Put in a basin one or two table-spoonfuls of curry powder (No. 455), a tea-spoonful of flour, and a tea-spoonful of salt; mix it smooth with a little cold water, put it into the stew-pan, and shake it well about till it boils: let it simmer twenty minutes longer; then take out the meat, and rub the sauce through a tamis or sieve: add to it two table spoonfuls of cream or milk; give it a boil up; then pour it into a dish, lay the meat over it: send up the rice in a separate dish.

Written in a more modern form, the ingredients looks like this:

Dr. Kitchiner’s Curries (1830)
1 – 1.5 pounds boneless fowl or rabbit (more if using meat on the bone)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons curry powder (No. 455)
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
water to make a thin paste of the above three ingredients
2 tablespoons of whole milk or cream

The method from the original recipe is fairly straightforward. I made a couple of changes, searing the meat and removing it from the pan before adding the onions to the remaining butter, I added a bit more curry powder than called for, didn’t really boil the curry after adding the dairy, and I didn’t sieve the sauce before serving.

Dr. Kitchiner's Chicken Curry, 1830
Dr. Kitchiner’s Chicken Curry, 1830

Note that the “cowboy roux” or “white wash” used at the end is a mix of flour, water, curry powder and salt and is used to thicken the sauce before finishing it with a bit of whole milk or cream. Because the Kitchiner recipe is so influential in the development of other western recipes for curry, I suspect that this recipe is probably where East Asian curries adopted their “curry roux” from, because the British introduced their version of Indian curry to Japan in the late 19th Century. More about that in future posts.

So what do these curries taste like? To me, the Kitchiner curry using the 1830 curry powder tastes like a more robust version of the Hannah Glasse curry (1774) which used only turmeric, ginger and black pepper (with a little lemon juice) for spice. It’s good, but it’s very turmeric heavy and almost completely lacks any cumin flavor, which is understandable given the proportionally miniscule amount in the curry powder. It also has none of the nutmeg and mace that Mary Randolph wrote about in 1824. The 1817 version of the powder that has the extra 2 tablespoons of coriander seeds, the two tablespoons of green cardamom seeds, and 1.5 teaspoons each of cinnamon and cayenne has a nice kick to it that is lacking in the 1830 curry powder. The overwhelming flavor of turmeric is less overwhelming in the earlier version. Its a pity that this earlier version of the curry powder didn’t endure.

Both recipes also taste more authentically “Indian” with the use of three ounces fresh turmeric instead of three ounces of dried powder. (Words and historical recipe development by Laura Kelley; Photo of The Cook’s Oracle from Gunsight Antiques; Photo of Turmeric, Two Forms from Wikipedia and merged by Laura Kelley; Photo of Dr. Kitchiner’s Chicken Curry by Joseph Gough@Dreamstime.com)

Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #3: Domingos Rodrigues

Arte de Cozhina
Arte de Cozinha

Take a step back in time from the English (Hannah Glasse) and American (Mary Randolph) versions of Indian curry that we have examined and explore a 17th Century Portuguese version of a Goan fish curry. The recipe comes from Arte de Cozinha by Domingos Rodrigues and was first published in Lisbon in 1680.

Rodrigues was a cook for the royal household of Portugal who lived from 1637 to 1719, and Arte de Cozhina was the first important cookbook published in Portuguese and was reprinted many times since its initial publication. My copy is a facsimile of the 1732 edition, but I checked the curry recipe against versions on the internet from 1680 and there is no change between the editions.

The recipe was written a full hundred years before Glasse’s curry and it is indeed a very different dish. For starters, this curry is really just a robust sauce or relish to be spooned over poached fish or meat that sit atop salted rice. It is not fish or meat cooked in lots of sauce until tender that is then eaten with plain or flavored rice. It also calls for a large amount of rice. In short, the proportion of meat, sauce and rice in Rodrigues’ curry are different from many curries today. Certainly this is true for those eaten in the west or in those served in international restaurants. However, “curry” as a sauce for rice with only a bit of meat or vegetable is commonly eaten in modern home meals and also in food market stalls on the subcontinent and in the Indo Pacific.

The original recipe reads:

Caril para qualquer peixe

Afogadas duas cebolas bem picadas em uma quarta de manteiga de vaca, deitem-lhe uns poucos de camaroes, ou amêijoas, com o leite de uma quarta de amêndoas e, cozendo-se tudo até que fique um tanto grosso, tempere-se de adubos. Feito isto, coza-se meio arrátel de arroz em água e sal, ponha-se no prato e, sobre ele, algumas postas de peixe que quiserem, cozidas em água, e deite-se por cima o caril. Deste modo se faz também caril para carne, mas nao leva marisco.

A liberal and functional translation of this is:

Curry for any fish

Sauté two minced onions in one fourth of unsalted cow’s butter. Add a few shrimp or clams along with the milk from one fourth of almonds and cook until the sauce has reduced a bit. Season with spices. Cook a half pound of rice in salted water. When the rice is done put it on a plate. On top of the rice place some poached fish and spoon or pour the sauce over the fish and rice. Works well with meat, but not for seafood.

Written in a modern form, the recipe looks like this. (Please note that I made some changes to the original recipe, such as reducing the amount of butter and almond milk used. Other choices are discussed below.)

Domingos Rodrigues’ Fish Curry

Ingredients
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, minced
10 shrimp, peeled, deveined and diced
1 -1½ cups unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
2 green or finger-hot chilies, chopped
1-3 teaspoons malt vinegar

Masala
6-7 dry red chilis (Kashmiri are best)
3 tablespoons coriander seed
3 teaspoons cumin seed
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped
8-10 cloves of garlic
2-4 tablespoons finely ground coconut
2 ½ teaspoons tamarind concentrate
Water as needed to make a paste

Fish Poach
2-3 mild fish: croaker, pomfret, or cod
Water in medium-to-large sauté pan to cover fish
½ teaspoon salt
½ onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1-2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon whole, black peppercorns

Method
Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. When butter is melted and warmed, add onion and sauté until they start to become translucent. Add the diced shrimp or clams and stir well. When the shrimp have colored and cooked, add the almond milk and stir well.

As the curry sauce warms, prepare the masala. You will need to stir the curry sauce from time to time as you prepare the masala. Individually dry roast the chili peppers, coriander seeds and cumin seeds and set aside. Put all of the ingredients of the masala into a blender (you can pound it if you really want to), and add about 1/4 cup of water to start. Grind until you have a smooth paste, adding water in small amounts as needed for consistency.

Prepare the rice (I used basmati) in salted water any way you wish. Pour enough water in a large sauté pan to cover the fish, but do not yet place the fish in the water. Season the water with salt, onions, white vinegar and peppercorns, cover, and bring water to a boil.

Add the masala paste to the curry sauce and stir well. Cook over medium-low heat for at least 15 minutes to integrate the spices into the sauce. When garlic and spices are cooked, finish the sauce with a bit of salt, peppercorns, diced green chili peppers and malt vinegar.

When the poaching water has boiled, uncover and reduce heat. Slide the fish steaks into the water, cover and reheat to a medium-to-high simmer. Do not boil. Cook fish for 5-8 minutes (less is better) and when done, remove from sauté pan to drain before setting atop the rice. When sauce is done, spoon over fish and rice in the amount desired. Tuck in for a delicious dish.

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A Curry for any Fish from Arte de Cozinha
A Curry for any Fish from Arte de Cozinha

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As you can see, there is a great deal of room for creativity on the part of the cook and variation in the dish with the direction from the original recipe which reads, “season with spices”. To determine which spices to use, I consulted some modern Goan recipes for fish curry and constructed a recipe based on these. Of course, by 1680, the Portuguese had extended their presence in India beyond the Malabar Coast to Sri Lanka and up to Bengal in the northeast, but I chose to construct the curry based on Goan recipes simply because that was the “capital” of the Portuguese trading empire on the subcontinent, and the cuisine still bears the mark of their colonization.

Another thing that figured into the choice of Goan spices was the description of Goan curried fish by 16th Century Dutch traveler Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. Huyghen, who was Secretary to the Archbishop of Goa from 1583 – 1589, wrote: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel, which is their daily meat.”

With this description, I felt good about using a lot of tamarind for sourness, and also decided to prepare the water that the fish is poached in slightly, as Huyghen calls it a “broth”. Many historical recipes do not mention doing this, but most cooks do it. It is one of those unspoken directions that can subtly change the flavor of a dish. My additions were simple. I just added a bit of white vinegar in the water to help maintain the consistency of the fish, some cracked peppercorns and a few slices of onion.

I felt justified in using lots of chili peppers, as these had been eagerly adopted from the Portuguese by the Goans and Kanarese in the very early 16th Century. By the time Rodrigues was writing, chilies had long been naturalized on the subcontinent. I did omit the tomatoes found in many modern Goan curries, because this fruit was not embraced by the Indians until the mid 19th-to-early 20th Century.

Coconut can be found in most modern Goan curries as part of the masala, but it is also mentioned in the 1563 edition of, Conversations on the Simples, Drugs and Medicinal Substances of India, by the Portuguese physician living in Goa, Garcia de Orta. Orta wrote, “With this Coquo pounded they make a sort of milk, and cook rice with it, and it is like rice boiled in goat’s milk. They make dishes with it of birds and meat, which they call Caril.”

Map of the World, 1510
Map of the World, 1510

The choice of fish was a bit challenging. I initially cooked this dish with mackerel, but found the strong flavor of the fish to pull against the spicy, sour flavor of the curry sauce. The second time I tried the dish, I went with a milder fish called an Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus). The fish were caught locally and were very fresh when cooked, which was a positive factor in my decision-making process. The croaker worked well with the curry, and I recommend it or any other mild fish with this recipe.

A word about measurement. The original recipe uses the measurement, “one fourth” for butter and the amount of almonds used to make almond milk. I based the amount I used for each on the quartillo – the measurement used in many contemporaneous Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican recipes. The quartillo is equal to one pint. I couldn’t bring myself to use 1 pound of butter and so reduced this by half. Its possible that the “one fourth” refers to one quarter of a pound instead of the quartillo. It is difficult to tell.

Lastly, I found the use of almond milk interesting, and wonder if that was not Rodrigues substitution in lieu of coconut milk, which Garcia de Orta noted was of, “poor quality” in the Portuguese homeland.

Other interpretations of this dish are clearly possible given the great latitude for seasoning that Rodrigues’ recipe offers. I made my choices and was clear about why I made them, but recognize that other permutations are possible. The recipe as written is a mixture of hot, spicy and sour which works well with fish. There are titles of other curries in Arte de Cozhina – a Flounder Curry and a Lamb Curry. Alas these are just titles without ANY ingredients or method and like ideal forms will remain just out of reach.

I hope you enjoy these “Through Foreign Eyes” historical curry recipes. I enjoy researching, cooking, and writing about them because they allow one to travel in both space AND time. For example, given Rodrigues’ position as royal cook, this dish could have been served at a royal banquet. Close your eyes and you can hear the light clink of the silver and quiet conversations as the lords and ladies enjoy their special meal. (Words, translation and interpretation of historical recipe, and photographs by Laura Kelley. Special thanks to Adam B. for pointing out this recipe to me.  Thanks to Rachael L. for information about the quartillo.)

N.B. You can purchase almond milk in most supermarkets, but If you would like to make your own it is very simple to do. Place peeled almonds and water in a 1:2 ratio (i.e. 1 cup almonds, 2 cups water) in a bowl and soak at least overnight. The longer the almonds soak, the less gritty the resulting almond milk will be. When almonds are done soaking, strain them and discard the soaking water. Add new water in the same 1:2 nuts-to-water proportion and blend until smooth. For additional smoothness strain through a fine sieve or moist cheesecloth and refrigerate until needed.