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)

Thackeray’s Ode to Curry

Poem to Curry

– William Makepeace Thackeray (1811 -1863)

Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly half a pound,
And stews them in a pan until they’re brown’d.

What’s next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With curry-powder table-spoonfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for half an hour,
A lemon’s ready juice she’ll o’er it pour.

Then, bless her! Then she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boil – and serves quite hot.
PS – Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish,
Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind fish,
Are fit to make a CURRY. ‘Tis, when done,
A dish for Emperors to feed upon.

Sound like the lady could be making Hannah Glasse’s curry – only with veal, no? A delightful example of 19th Century food porn poetry with big onions, little minxes, savory stews and hot pots. As an Englishman born and initially raised in Kolkata by parents both with ties to the East India Company, Thackeray wrote about something he knew well – curry.  Something to amuse you as we continue on our journey examining curry through foreign eyes.

For more on the proper (traditional) definition of food porn, see my post on The Lotus Eaters from 2010. (Words except cited verse by Laura Kelley.)

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).