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).

Shizi, Singh, Gangs Sengemo – A Lion by Any Other Name . .

Skilled dancers from Xiiang,
Persian masks and lion masks.
The heads are carved of wood,
The tails are woven with thread.
Pupils are flecked with gold
And teeth capped with silver.
They wave fur costumes
And flap their ears
As if from across the drifting sands
Ten thousand miles away…

– Bo Juyi, 9th Century

With Chinese New Year, rapidly approaching, a post about the endangered Asiatic Lion seemed like a good idea. The Chinese along with many other Eastern and Southeastern Asian cultures usher the New Year in with a lion dance to banish evil spirits and sorcery and allow good fortune and joy to reign. Not native to China, common knowledge is that lions and their symbolism probably came east to China from India with the spread of Buddhism by the first century of the Common Era along the Silk Road (Some accounts call for the adoption of Buddhism in China to be in the first century or two BCE). Lions were quickly revered and incorporated into Chinese culture as symbols of majesty and power. Whether real or imagined, lions were believed to protect people against evil spirits by chasing them away and were conjured in protection rituals and carved in stone to be sentinel temple and palace guards.

Lions Guarding Palace - Nepal

There were, however, many opportunities for contact between Chinese traders and soldiers and peoples from lion-inhabited lands along the Silk Road. Bo’s poem, however, speaks of a lion dance that took place eight centuries later, in the T’ang Dynasty in what was then a western frontier region, Liangzhou, in which the dancers wore Persian masks. Since the Persian Achaemenid Empire reached as far east as Tajikistan by 500 BCE, it is not out of the question that the Chinese knew about Asiatic lions sooner than the first century CE, but perhaps their adoption of Buddhism gave greater zeal to the symbolism of the lion.

Guard Lion - Closeup

China is not alone in is reverence for lions, many Asian countries incorporate its symbolism into their myths, folklore and art. In Tibet, the snow lion is an imaginary beast that is said to represent unconditional cheerfulness, a mind free of doubt that is clear and precise. It has a beauty and dignity resulting from a body and mind that are synchronized, and a youthful, vibrant energy of goodness and a natural sense of delight. The snow lioness also is said to have a special milk which heals both physical and spiritual ills.

Lions are so honored in South Asia as to be symbol of India herself and are often used in depictions of Bharat Mata or Mother India.

The Lion Capital of India with its three lions placed with their backs together, facing outwards was first erected in 250 BCE by Emperor Ashoka has also become a national symbol for the country. Singh is also an ancient Vedic name meaning lion that dates back thousands of years. Narashima or Narasingha is also the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu and is held sacred by all Hindus. In Sri Lanka, the lion represents the ethnic Sinhalese – or people with lion blood – and a sword wielding lion is the central symbol on the country’s flag.

Lion Symbolism - India

In considering bravery and fearlessness as two important aspects of the lion symbolism, whether Asian or African, I am reminded of a story once told to me by a former colleague. It is about his own adventures in Central Africa as an American epidemiologist. His research group was camped not far from a native village whose population part of an ongoing study. One night, he heard the usually peaceful village in an uproar. He heard lots of yelling and screaming going on, lots of drumming and other noise making. Not sure what was going on, whether it was a festival or trouble, he made his way towards the village alone. By the time he reached the village, it had grown quiet again and no one was about, so he left and went back to camp. He queried the village headman the next day about the cause of the noise and was met with disbelief that he was still alive. It seems that a lioness had made her way into the village and the noise was made to scare her off. She ran off through the trees in the direction of the path that he was walking. The headman made some consultation with other men of the village and then the good doctor was given a bracelet of lion claws – because he must have been a man beloved by lions.

Back in Europe, at the Pergamon, I’ve walked through the Ishtar Gates of Babylon and down the heavenly cobalt blue and turquoise path strewn with golden sunflowers and lions. Built by Nebuchadnezzar II around 575 BCE, it is one of the wonders of the ancient world that I am grateful for having experienced.

Ishtar Lion

Reverence and symbolism aside, the last wild lion was seen in Western Asia in mid-20th Century Iran. How can we as a species value the idea of a lion and the symbolism we have assigned to it so highly and care so little for it in the world? Once roaming freely from Eastern Mediterranean Europe across Western Asia and North Africa and into Central India and the Northern Levant, less than a few hundred Asiatic lions remain in the wild, most living on the Gir Forest Reserve in Gujrat, India. Worse than these dangerously low numbers is that the exisiting wild lions are descended from an even smaller population that survived to the early 20th Century and are thus so closely related that they do not form a natural, healthy population. Now critically endangered, the lion has become mired in internal Indian politics between factions who wish to create separate populations of the animals outside Gujrat in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and Gujrati’s who don’t wish to lose the designate of the last refuge of the Asiatic lion. Gene pools, zoos and captive breeding seem like the only hope for Asia’s last lions as habitat destruction, poaching, pressure from encroaching human villages in Gujrat and lack of genetic diversity continue to wear away its tenuous hold on existence.

So if you see a lion dance during the coming Spring Festival, and if they banish the evil spirits that afflict you and bring you gifts of oranges and good fortune, remember that your children may be telling their children about how lions – like the ones in Africa – once roamed Asia. (Words and photos of Nepalese Lions by Laura Kelley; illustration of Bharat Mata and Photo of the Ishtar Lions from Wikimedia Commons. Click here for more information about Asiatic Lions.)