A 1675 Vindaloo Roast Chicken

Cover of Wellcome MS 4050, 1675
Cover of Wellcome MS 4050, 1675

Move over Hannah Glasse. Your published recipe for butter chicken that is widely hailed as the first English recipe for curry, has an English contender. In a 1675 anonymous manuscript full of recipes and potions in the Wellcome Library in London (Wellcome Manuscript 4050) is an English recipe for a vindaloo-flavored roast. In the recipe, cloves, mace, and lots of black pepper form the spice base. This is then mingled with some minced sweet herbs and mixed with vinegar for a marinade and baste for the roast. Not a vindaloo stew or braise like we are accustomed to today, but a recipe for vindaloo-flavored roast hen, mutton, or lamb. A proto-vindaloo, if you will.

Of course, there is an earlier published recipe for a curry than Glasse. The recipe entitled, A Curry for any Fish can be found in the 1680 edition of Arte de Cozhina by Domingos Rodrigues.  But because it is in Portuguese, it is often passed over by people writing about the spread of curry into Europe and the Americas.  Like the 1675 recipe, Rodrigues’ recipe is not in the form of a stew or braise, but rather it is a thick sauce to be ladled on top of a poached fish.  The recipe specifies that it is also good for meat, but not for seafood.

Older than either Glasse or Rodrigues, however, is the recipe for vindaloo-roast in the 1675 Wellcome manuscript. Tucked unassumingly onto the bottom of a page with recipes for hare, venison, and mutton (along with some recipes for pancakes and jelly) is a recipe entitled: “To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb the Indian Way.”

Recipe for Vindaloo Roast in Wellcome MS 4050
Recipe for a Vindaloo Roast in Wellcome MS 4050

The recipe reads:

To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb ye Indian Way

Take a hen and cut her down the back and wash her from the blood and dry her, then take salt, pepper, cloves and mace and beat the spices very well, then take also sweet herbs and some shallots and mince them very small with lemon and mingle all these well together; then rub up the hen all over with these things and lay it flat in an earthen pan and cover it with some vinegar and let it steep two hours; then roast it and baste with this liquor—when it is enough, set the liquor a cooking, take off the grease, and pour off the hen; dissolve anchovies in it and heat it with beaten butter. So serve it up.

A more modern presentation of the recipe prepared with a chicken would read:

Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675

Ingredients
1 small 4-4.5 pound chicken
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1½ teaspoons mace
6 shallots, peeled and minced
Leaves from two sprigs of rosemary
¼ cup minced parsley
¼ cup minced cilantro
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, ground
Zest from two lemons, minced
2 cups of white wine vinegar
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 handful dried anchovies
½ teaspoon cornstarch to thicken gravy (optional)

Method
Wash and dry the chicken and split it down the back. Flatten the bird by pressing it down with a heavy saucepan. Grind the cloves and the peppercorns and mix them with the salt and 1 teaspoon of the mace. Add the minced shallots, the rosemary, parsley and cilantro. Grind the fennel seeds and add them to the herb and spice mixture. Add the lemon zest and mix well.

Coat the bird on both sides with the spice mixture and then lay it as flat as possible, skin side down, in a ceramic or enamel baking dish. Add the vinegar around the edge of the bird, and spoon some over the bird without washing the herbs and spices away. Cover and let marinate for at least 2 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. while the bird is marinating.

When ready to cook, lift the bird out of the pan and place it on a plate. Then pour the marinade into a bowl. This will be used to baste the chicken as it cooks. Place a rack inside the ceramic or enamel pan and place the bird on it skin side up. Place into preheated oven.

After about 20 minutes, place the pats of butter on the chicken and place back in the oven. Lower heat to 350 degrees F. Every 10-15 minutes throughout the baking time, baste the chicken with the marinade. After about ½ hour, flip the bird over so it is skin side down. Cook this way for about 15-20 minutes and flip it skin side up. Total cooking time for a 4-4.5 pound bird should be about 1.25 – 1.5 hours. While you bake, mince the anchovies. I left the head and spine intact, and strained them from the sauce later.

When the bird is done, remove it from the pan and set aside in a warm spot. Pour the mixture of marinade and cooking juices into a small saucepan, and if you desire, skim the fat from the top. Then add the anchovies. Heat, but do not boil, and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly, to mingle the flavors. Then strain the solids from the gravy. I used a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth.

Return the strained sauce to a cleaned saucepan and reheat for another 5-10 minutes, watching that it doesn’t boil. Add the remaining mace and mix well. If the gravy doesn’t thicken enough as it reduces, take about ¼ cup of the sauce and put it in a teacup or small bowl. Add some cornstarch to the cup and whisk or mix well with a fork to break up the cornstarch. Whisk the sauce in the saucepan and drizzle the mixture of cornstarch and gravy until the gravy thickens up to your desired consistency.

Carve and plate the bird and spoon a small amount over the chicken. Serve the remaining gravy on the table for diners to add at will. I did not reheat the bird, given the tendency for people in the past to eat dishes warm or cooled, but not hot.

Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675
Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675

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The bird was really delicious. The sauce made with the mace and vinegar was fantastic! Although I was a bit skeptical about this recipe being a proto-vindaloo based on the ingredients, it very much tastes like I would expect and early European version to taste. If that seems a bit convoluted, just think how the butter chicken recipes of de Peyster or Glasse in the 18th Century compare with modern versions of the recipe. Minus the tomato sauce in many modern versions, the taste is different, but it is clearly an attempt to recreate Indian flavors. Likewise, this recipe from Wellcome manuscript 4050, is definitely an attempt to recreate the flavors of an Indian vindaloo.

The major difference between my version and the original recipe was extra mace added in the sauce to balance out the overwhelming taste of vinegar. In fact, I think that there was such a tendency for the vinegar to overpower the herbs and spices used on the bird, that I would use much less of it in subsequent preparations. One way to do this would be to use about 1 cup for the marinade. Another way would be to skip the vinegar in the marinade, and just baste the bird with ¼ cup of vinegar in addition to the butter and cooking juices. Minus the vinegar, I would also let the herbs and spices sit on the bird for a longer amount of time, perhaps even overnight.

Another change I made was to put the butter on the chicken as it was roasting rather than add it to the sauce as it is being reduced after cooking.

As with many modern recipes from the Silk Road, this recipe gives a lot of freedom to the cook to alter amounts of ingredients or even whole ingredients.  In this early recipe there is the direction to, “then take also sweet herbs.”  I chose parsley, rosemary, and cilantro with a bit of added ground fennel seeds.  Different choices would lead to different flavor, especially with less vinegar in the mix.

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For me, cooking this recipe and enjoying the dish with my husband on our 20th wedding anniversary was a wonderful experience.  It was like time traveling with a delicious twist.  Eating a dish that was cooked when Charles II was restored to the throne of England was fascinating.

Think about 1675 for a moment.  Subcontinental flavors were creeping into European cuisine, and interest in eastern cultures that wasn’t purely economic was on the rise.  The importance of science in society was taking a more modern shape as the cornerstone for the Greenwich Observatory was laid, Leibnitz was demonstrating integral calculus, and van Leeuwenhoek was opening doors to the microcosm.  All in all, the globalized world that was beign created by the the massive trading corporations was smaller than that fueled by Silk Road trade.

From a European perspective, however, the world was also more diverse and complex place than ever before.  New species were being discovered on a nearly daily basis, and early travelogues and anthropologies added faces and customs to the people from far-off lands.  Sea monsters began to disappear from maps as man gained greater mastery over the seas, and science replaced mythology and folklore with anatomic description.  Europe was on the doorstep of The Enlightenment, and this is what at least one English family might have been eating.  (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photographs of Wellcome manuscript 4050 from the Wellcome Trust.  Photograph of Vindaloo Roast Chicken by Laura Kelley.)

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.)

Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #2: Mary Randolph

Mary Randolph
Mary Randolph

Next up on our exploration of curries is Mary Randolph’s Curry from her book, The Virginia Housewife, first published in the United Sates in 1824. Although she was well born, Mary and her husband’s fortunes fell in middle age and The Virginia Housewife was written to help lift her family out of poverty. The Virginia Housewife underwent multiple revisions and no less than 19 editions were published prior to the Civil War. It also continued in circulation and regular use into the late 19th Century. Unfortunately, Mary died in 1828 and didn’t live to see most of those revisions and understand the true impact of her work.

Although not the first published cookbook of US origin, it was the first highly successful one. This may be in part because of the wide range of recipes offered in the book, from Virginian specialties to English, French, and Spanish dishes, to Eastern and Western Indian curries.

The Virginia Housewife, 1824
The Virginia Housewife, 1824

There are two East Indian curry recipes in Mary Randolph’s book: one for catfish and one for chicken. There are also accessory recipes for curry powder and rice dishes to go along with the curry dishes. For the sake of comparison with Hannah Glasse’s chicken curry, I chose to work with Randolph’s chicken recipe. My husband made the catfish curry for us, however, and it was spectacular!

Separated by 50 years from Hannah Glasse’s recipe, Randolph’s recipe is much more sophisticated and complex. It has a much broader compliment of spices in the seasoning and the addition of garlic along with onions helps deepen the savory aspects of the dish.

So, what does it taste like? First off, it is very different from the Hannah Glasse curry.  Nutmeg and mace are the dominant flavors, with turmeric and coriander following.  The onions especially pick up the turmeric flavor, which allows you to taste it as a distinct flavor.  Surprisingly, perhaps, this curry also packs a bit of a wallop in terms of heat with all that Cayenne pepper in the mix.  I would rate it a 4-5 on a scale of modern hot dishes, so don’t be afraid of it.  However, it is a great deal hotter than most early 19th Century food I’ve tasted.  So, enough words. . . on to the recipes.

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Crucial to recreation of the dish is the use of Mary’s recipe for curry powder.  As you can see, this mixture of spices is much richer and more complex than the one used in the earlier Hannah Glasse recipe.  That recipe had only turmeric, ginger and black pepper for seasoning.  Mary’s recipe reads:

CURRY POWDER
One ounce turmeric, one do. coriander seed, one do. cumin seed, one do. white ginger, one of nutmeg, one of mace , and one of Cayenne pepper; pound all together, and pass them through a fine sieve; bottle and cork it well – one tea-spoonful is sufficient to season any dish.

Listed in modern form, this recipe reads:

Mary Randolph’s Curry Powder

Ingredients
1 ounce turmeric
1 ounce coriander seed
1 ounce cumin seed
1 ounce powdered ginger
1 ounce nutmeg
1 ounce of mace
1 ounce of Cayenne pepper

Method
Grate nutmeg and turmeric and measure out one ounce of each spice.  Combine with other dried and powdered ingredients and mix.  Grind coriander and cumin seeds separately until fine and combine with other ingredients.  If desired, grind all ingredients together for a few more second to get a more integrated mix.

Now, onto the construction of the curry itself.  Mary’s recipe reads:

TO MAKE A DISH OF CURRY AFTER THE EAST INDIAN MANNER
Cut two chickens as for fricassee, wash them clean, and put them in a stew pan with as much water as will cover them; sprinkle them with a large spoonful of salt, and let them boil till tender, covered close all the time, and skim them well.  When boiled enough, take up the chickens, and put the liquor of them into a pan, then put half a pound of fresh butter in the pan, and brown it a little; put in two cloves of garlic, and a large onion sliced, and let these all fry till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the chickens, and sprinkle over them two or three spoonsful of curry powder; then cover the pan close, and let the chicken do till brown, often shaking the pan; then put in the liquor the chickens were boiled in, and let all stew till tender; if acid is agreeable, squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange in it.

My interpretation of the recipe follows:

Mary Randolph’s Butter Chicken (1824)

Ingredients
1 pound chicken breast meat, cut into bitesize pieces
1 stick unsalted butter
1-2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 large or two medium yellow onions, peeled, sliced and separated
3 heaping teaspoons curry powder (prepared from the recipe above)
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups low-salt or homemade chicken stock
¼ -1/3 cup fresh lemon or orange juice

Method
Melt butter in a saucepan and when warm add the chicken and sauté until the meat is opaque and starting to color.  Remove chicken with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add the garlic and stir well. Then add the onions and sauté for 5-8 minutes, stirring frequently until they start to soften.

Add the curry powder and salt and if dry, add a small amount of the stock to moisten the pan and spices.  Sauté for 2-3 minutes to allow flavors to blend.  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 lemon or orange juice and stir in well.  Cook to heat and serve with rice or bread.

Mary Randolph's Chicken Curry
Mary Randolph’s Chicken Curry

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As you can see, I just couldn’t bring myself to use two sticks of butter for this dish.  It worked very well with one stick and your cardiovascular system with thank me for the reduction.  Unlike the Hannah Glasse recipe, there is no cream added.  Perhaps the large quantity of butter was supposed to offset the absence of cream, but one stick (which is about 3 times the amount of butter I use in modern butter-based curries) works nicely, and serves to blanket and unite the flavor of the spices in the curry powder.

The quantity of nutmeg and mace is interesting to me.  Firstly, it makes it probable that this dish is an adaptation of a Mughali recipe which would have been relatively close to but still different from the Parsi roots of Butter Chicken.

Secondly, at Mary Randolph’s time, this recipe would have been very expensive to make because of the price of nutmeg and mace at that time.  Granted, the trees that produce these spices were introduced by the French into the New World (French Guyana) in the mid-1770s, and pirated by the British to their Grenadian colonies a few years after that.  However, nutmeg trees grow very slowly (I know, I have one) and I don’t think that there would have been enough Grenadian nutmeg on the colonial market by the 1820s to make those spices affordable.  I may be miscalculating, but I still think that it would be at least a couple of decades after Mary Randolph that the prices of those spices would have fallen.  So, if that line of reasoning is correct, this would be a special dish, perhaps for a celebration, for a special meal, or for demonstration of conspicuous consumption.

On another note, we tried it with both lemon and orange juice and like it both ways.  Although, most modern Indian dishes tend to use lemon juice, the orange juice lends a gentler, more “Persian” flavor, which harken back to the roots of the dish.

This is the last historical curry recipe I’m going to post before my trip (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia), but I will continue this exploration at some point after my return. I have an early-to-mid 18th Century Dutch-American recipe for Butter Chicken from Anna de Peyster’s manuscripts held by the Van Cortland trust, and a Facebook colleague has pointed out some very early recipes in manuscripts from the 17th Century that I simply have to try. So stay tuned for more on Indian Curries Through Foreign Eyes.

(Words and interpretation of recipes by Laura Kelley. Photo of The Virginia Housewife from the Virginia Historical Society; Photo of Mary Randolph’s Butter Chicken by Kumikomurakamicampos @ Dreamstime.com; other images in the public domain)