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)

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

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.

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.

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).


16 thoughts on “Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #1: Hannah Glasse

  1. First, catch your chicken, ha ha. I know those aren’t the exact words but it’s the most I knew about Hannah Glasse until I read this. How sad that she had to sell the copyright. Having spent time in India and lived in England, I have always had a fascination for Anglo-India dishes in particular. There are many things that I’ve wondered which came first, the English interpretation or the Indian need (not sure if that is the best word) to create something to feed the British with, particularly during the time of the Raj. I’d love to hear your take on Mulligatawny!

    • That’s an interesting point-of-view! All along, I’ve been tackling the issue as if the British were reconstructing the recipes from the outside in. Until I read your comment, I hadn’t thought that these were dishes altered from the inside out to please colonial overlords. Leave it to your comment to cause a sea-change in my thinking! Thanks!

      As to mulligatawny, it is a thickened version of a Indian soup (rasam or saaru) made with varying gram and vegetables and other ingredients. It is often sipped along with a meal or sometimes used as a sauce over rice – sort of like a dal. Most recipes that I have seen are either from Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh. I don’t know if the Indian’s adapted it to British tastes, or whether the British like the flavor of the sipped dish and wanted to thicken and add more solid ingredients . . .

      In doing the research for this post, I found out that the, “First catch your hare. . .” comment about Hannah Glasse’s book is an urban legend. That such a phrase is not used in the text. If I do come across it, I’ll let you know!

  2. I think the earliest American curry I made was one from the middle of the 19th c.
    It was made with lard which I found interesting but also had cardamom in it which was terribly exotic. As you say, a much less complicated spice mix (only a few ingredients) but very good. I’m still trying to remember that recipe source for you!
    I think your mission for early interpretations is terribly noble and a splendid idea.
    I did have a thought to try East India Company histories, there may be a cross reference in one of them. I still think the gold is to be found with the Dutch and Portuguese, I can’t wait to see what you find (aside from a great article for Gastronomica!

    • Hi Deana:

      Thanks for all of the non-English refs. One of the Dutch ones from 1669 looks promising. The Portuguese books are full of references to food from the Arabian Peninsula and “Moorish” dishes, but none so far clearly called “Indian”. Will consider VOC archives as well. Also, another fellow on FB (Adam B) has suggested looking at manuscripts (not fully published sources) on the Wellcome site. Clearly more work to do here unraveling this puzzle. But its fun!

    • Hi Rachel:

      Glad you could stop by. Many thanks for the kind words and encouragement. It will be interesting to see where this ends up!

  3. You probably already know of this title, but it’s a great book, so I’m just making sure: Collingham, Lizzie. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. Also, a 20th century title, which might be considered as the culmination of Anglo-Indian cookery: Indian Cookery: For use in all countries, E.P. Veeraswamy. London 1936.

    • Hi Bonnie:

      Welcome to the site! I have Collingham’s book and will check it again. If memory serves, she tends to paint in broader brushstrokes: Vinegar from the Portuguese etc. But I will check again to be sure. I don’t know the other book and will look for it – many thanks for the tips!

        • I’ve got it, thanks for the link!

          It seems like and interesting book, although late 19th C, is about Anglo-Indian cooking which mingles and mixes subcontinental flavors and ingredients in interesting ways. Will have a look after I plow though some of the earlier recipes.

  4. Curries enter South Africa in the 1600’s from the Dutch East Indies. I’ll see if I can find a period cook book

    • Hi Eric:

      Thanks! Yes I want to do S. African and West Indian curries to round out the series. I’ve had some great S. African curries when working or visiting there! Any help you could offer in digging up a reference would be great! Also I’m interested in teasing out (or ruling out) Portuguese influence if that is possible. Thanks!

  5. Wonderful post – thank you. The word ‘curry’ itself is from the Tamil for ‘meat’. An interesting modern Anglo Indian dish involves ground beef balls with onion and spices, fried and sunk in a tangy sauce and spooned over rice. More than pleasing the colonial overlords, I think the Indians of the time combined the best of both worlds – India through the ages is the ultimate melting pot – and produced tasty Anglo Indian food.

    • Hi Jagan:

      Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. However, Kari is not exactly Tamil for meat. The definition of ‘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”. Check out my post on the topic:

  6. Great post. I’m going to be aking this recipe and I’m going to post it on y YouTube channel shortly. If you are interested in seeing it please visit my channel entitled ‘Steven Heap’.

    Looking forward to posting this interesting and historic dish.

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