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.)

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

_____

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)