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.)

Curry Through Foreign Eyes #5: Japanese Curry

The next stop on our exploration of Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes is Japan.  Curry came to Japan by way of British sailors and merchants in the mid-19th Century.  This happened sometime after Commodore Matthew Perry landed at Kurihama in 1853, and opened Japan to the world after centuries of isolation.  The first recipe for curry in Japanese was published in 1872 by the renowned writer and satirist, Kanagaki Robun, in his Western Food Handbook or Seiyo Ryoritsu.  The recipe is for a mixed-seafood curry with large quantities of fresh ginger and a little butter, salt, and curry powder.

First Japanese Curry Recipe (1872)
First Japanese Curry Recipe (1872)

Following the publication of the first recipe, Japan went curry-crazy.  In 1877, the Ginza Fugetsudo Restaurant first listed curry rice on its menu.  Despite being almost 10 times more expensive than noodles, curry quickly grew in popularity.  The first domestic curry powder went on sale in Osaka in 1903, sold by the company that is now Bee Foods, and the first curry shop – a restaurant devoted solely to curry dishes – opened in 1910, also in Osaka.

Curry took Tokyo by storm in 1927 when the Hankyu Market Restaurant started to serve curry.  Demand for curry dishes was so high that a direct farm-to-table supply of ingredients was secured to feed the 25,000 customers a day (65,000 a day on Sundays) who ordered curries.  The modern age of curry was ushered in 1950 when Bell Foods started selling curry powder mixed with flour in a chocolate-bar form, now called curry-roux. All home-cooks needed to do now was to break off a few squares of spice and add them to whatever they wanted to “curry”.

Ad for Bon Curry in 1960s

Concomitant with its increasing popularity in the general public, curry rice and other curry dishes also became mainstay meals in the Japanese military.  In addition to feeding the troops in the field and at mess, this also allowed conscripts from all over Japan to experience curry – facilitating its further acceptance.

From its humble beginnings in 1872, curry has become one of the most popular of Japanese dishes. Over the years, curry has been adapted to Japanese tastes and cooking methods, and today there are over 80 different kinds of Japanese curry, from curried rice, and curried udon or soba noodles, to bread with curry sauce or kare pan, and tonkatsu cutlet curries.  Press surveys report that the ‘average’ Japanese person eats curry 84 times a year – or more than once a week.

Japanese Curry Rice
Japanese Curry Rice

Today’s Japanese curry has little in common with its Indian ancestor. It is almost uniformly sweeter than any Indian curry I’ve had, and often has apples and honey added to it to tame the sharp edges of the spices in the curry–roux mix.  In general, there also seems to be a lot more sauce in Japanese curries than in Indian ones.  There are also special dishes representative of the areas they come from, like Sika-Deer Curry from Hokkaido and Natto Curry from Ibaraki Prefecture.

What strikes me as very strange is, if curry is so popular in Japan, why is it so under-represented in Japanese restaurants in the west? We have a few large Eastern Asian markets in our area that have food courts, and some of the food stalls serve a couple of Japanese curry dishes. Other than that, there is no Japanese restaurant from Baltimore to DC that has Japanese curry on its menu. Most offer sushi and the Japanese-American food-theatre known as hibatchi (which is really teppanyaki-style cooking). Although I haven’t done a thorough survey of Japanese restaurants in the US, I suspect that Japanese curry is difficult to find on most menus.

So, on to the first Japanese curry recipe.

The First Japanese Curry (1872) 

Ingredients
1 raw cibol, finely-chopped (Allium fistulosum)
1/2 ginger race, minced
1 piece of garlic, finely-chopped
1 tablespoon butter
shrimp
oyster
sea bream
reddish-brown frog
1 teaspoon of curry powder
appropriate quantities of salt
2 tablespoon wheat flour, mixed with water
270ml water

Method
1. Heat butter in a pan and cook raw cibol, ginger, garlic 2. Add 270ml water, shrimp, sea bream, frog and boil 10-20 minutes 3. Add curry powder, salt and boil 1 hour 4. Add water-mixed flour and stir.

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There were several issues with the original recipe that required interpretation and/or revision. The first issue was deciding how much ginger was in a “race.” Luckily I got some assistance on that matter from Kathleen Wall of Plimoth Plantation who shared with me the amount considered a “race” by the cooks interpreting recipes at Plimouth. Half a race still seemed like a lot of ginger, but that is what I used. The next issue I had was that I needed to add more water than called for, because more moisture was needed to create a curry sauce from the spring onions, garlic and ginger. The next problem was what seemed like excessive cooking times for the fish. I opted to add the fish and shellfish after the curry sauce had been made and only cooked them for a few minutes. This is the method I generally use for modern curries with similar ingredients.

One thing that continues to vex me about trying to re-create this recipe is that to a large degree, a curry is made by the masala, the mix of dry spices used, or in the ingredients in the commercially prepared curry powder. In the original recipe, there is no information given about the make-up of the curry powder. I did some research, but had little luck finding information on what might have been used. Ultimately, I had to resort to a modern product and so chose the turmeric-laden S&B Oriental Curry Powder. If another product were used, say some break-off squares in a House Foods – Vermont Curry block, the taste would change according to the makeup of the product used.

Lastly, I had to omit the red frog. I simply didn’t know what species it might be, and didn’t want to take any chances. The resulting recipe follows:

First Japanese Curry (1872) (Interpreted)

Ingredients
1-2 tablespoons butter
1/2 ginger race (slightly more than 1/2 cup), peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, finely-chopped
1 small bunch of spring onions (about 6 stalks), chopped
2 cups water
3-4 teaspoons of curry powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 – 1½ cups medium shrimp (10-12 shrimp), peeled and deveined
1 sea bream (porgy), cleaned and chopped
1 cup oysters, chopped
2 tablespoons wheat flour, mixed with water

Method
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sauté the spring onions for about one minute over medium heat. Then add the ginger and garlic and sauté for 2-3 minutes or until they start to color. Add water and stir well until warm. Let cook for 3-5 minutes and add the curry powder and salt and stir well. Cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes over medium-low or low heat, stirring often until sauce begins to form.

Add fish and cook for 3 minutes, then add shrimp and oysters and cook for another 3-4 minutes until shrimp are pink and curled. As fish and shellfish are cooking, mix the flour and water together until smooth. When the mixture is smooth, stir it in a bit at a time to thicken the curry sauce. You may not need to use all of the mixture. Cook for a few minutes to banish the “raw” flavor of the thickening mixture.  Remove from heat and serve with rice.

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The First Japanese Curry
The First Japanese Curry

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The taste of the curry is very good. Although very much influenced by the ratio of ingredients of the curry powder, the mingling of fish and shellfish flavor with the curry powder is delicious. There is also an interesting, almost buttery flavor to the curry, which is surprising given the modest amount of butter used in the recipe. Lastly the large amount of ginger used cooks down nicely and adds a light gingery taste to the curry without being bitter. The garlic and spring onion, while adding depth to the curry are undiscernible as individual ingredients.

The first Japanese curry also differs a great deal from modern Japanese curries, which come in several distinct commercial varieties.  These range from “spicy” Java curry to sweet Vermont curry, with Torokeru and Kokumaru falling in between the other two.  Golden curry is a muted, less distinct alternative than the other types.  To complicate the situation, most Japanese curry cooks, both at home and in curry shops, blend the curry-roux blocks to make distinctive or signature flavors for those enjoying their dishes.

There seems to be a movement amongst younger Japanese cooks to try to make curries from “scratch” – by creating their own mix of spices.  Sometimes these recipes are both good and interesting and offer a mix of standard curry spices.  At other times, recipes simply add a lot of garam masala to the pot, replacing one commercial spice mix with another highly variable spice mix.  Interestingly, almost all of these new recipes use some sort of roux (cooked tan or brown) with spices to thicken the dish instead of the white-wash or slurry of flour and water used in the first Japanese curry recipe.

There are also a wider variety of vegetables used today than in the first Japanese curry recipe.  For example, a seafood curry recipe from the House Foods website has several yellow onions in it, some white wine and uses a Kokumaru curry-roux block.  Other recipes I’ve seen include a mix of vegetables, such as zucchini and eggplant in addition to the onions, still other add potatoes or carrots.  So you see, even though a commercial spice mix is at the heart of modern Japanese curries, there is a lot of variation still to be experienced in the dishes, with the results depending upon the imagination of the individual cook.

(Words, recipe interpretation and cooking by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Seiyo Ryoritsu text taken from a PDF of the manuscript by Laura Kelley, photo of Bon Curry advertisement borrowed from the Kikkoman website, photo of Japanese Curry Rice by Torsakarin@Dreamstime.com, and photo of The First Japanese Curry by Laura Kelley.  Special thanks to Mr. Hiroo Watai who found the first Japanese curry recipe for me and translated it.)

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)

The Origins of Curry

The origins of curry – both the word and the food – are clouded in assumption, misinformation and cherry-picking of language to suit one’s purposes.  From my recent research on curry for the Curry Through Foreign Eyes series, I have found that a great deal of the misinformation written in English can be traced to The Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary, first published in 1886.  In this edition and many subsequent editions of the H-J  it states that the root word for curry is the Tamil word kari that means “sauce”. An alternate possibility for the root word is given as the Kanarese word, karil.

Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary
Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary

This is incorrect on several accounts.  First off, the meaning of Tamil word 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”. (Please note, that the linguistic studies consulted did not note a meaning for Tamil word kari as “sauce” at all.)

A few examples of this variance include, how Brahmins use the word kari in Chingleput, Tamilnadu to refer to meat in general or to a particular kind of meat, or certain meat dishes. When speaking to vegetarians, these same speakers use the word to refer to vegetables or vegetable dishes. The meaning, “side dish” is only used in the extreme south (Kanyakumari), where the word kari is also used in conjunction with other words to denote vegetables and vegetable dishes. Some speakers in this area also use the word to denote certain liquid dishes – broths and soups.  So the meaning in Tamil depends on who you are, where you live, and with whom you are speaking.   As a point of note, a common word used to mean “sauce” in Tamil, and this particularly means a vegetable or pulse sauce, such as one made from lentils is sambhar; another is kuz, with kuzumbu denoting a tamarind-yogurt sauce and its variants. Neither word, you will notice, even remotely sounds like the English word, “curry”.

Pan-Roasting Spices
Pan-Roasting Spices

Later editions of the Hobson-Jobson omit the Tamil kari as the root of the word curry and cite the Kanarese word karil as the ancestral root for curry, and the word adopted by the Portuguese in Goa. This is problematic, because to the best of my ability, I can not find any word, karil in Kanarese.  The closest I can find is the word kari, which means to cook or particularly to fry.  Another set of meanings for the Kanarese term is “blackened, scorched or roasted”.  This, you will note, is the same as one of the meanings for the Tamil kari (because both terms spring from the same Proto-Dravidian root).

Taking these two meanings together, the Kanarese term kari could have been associated with the cooking of curry in the preparation of masalas.  One possibility is in reference to the way in which whole spices are dry-fried or pan-roasted before grinding. Another possibility could refer to the way in which the masala paste is often fried before being added to the rest of the ingredients of the curry. Thus, the Kanarese word kari may have been transliterated by the Portuguese to become their word for “curry” –  karil or caril.

Red Lentil Dal
Red Lentil Dal

Another error in the H-J concerns the antiquity of curry.  The H-J states that the earliest precise mention of curry is in the Mahavanso (ca. 477 ACE).  The passage states, “He partook of rice dressed in butter with its full accompaniment of curries.”  The original Pali word taken to mean curry by the translator is sûpa.  Other translations of sûpa are broth, soup or liquid preparations of vegetables.  While not out of the question that this could refer to a curry it could also refer to something more like a soup, broth or a pulse-based condiment like a lentil dal.  Its another example of the possible variation or lack of definition being taken out of a potential data point in the quest for the roots of curry.

My own research has identified a much earlier use of the term sûpa in another ancient Pali manuscript.  The 26th canto of the S’rîmad Bhâgavatamm, which is also known as the Bhâgavata Purâna has an instance of sûpa that is translated as, “liquid vegetable preparations”.

Let the people cook many varieties of cooked foods ending with liquid vegetable preparations, and beginning with sweet rice, fried and baked cakes, large, round cakes made from rice flour, and all that is obtained by milking the cows. 

The oral tradition of the Puranas along with many other ancient Hindu texts date back many thousands of years.  However, the Puranas, Vedas and the Mahabharata are said to have been compiled by Dvaipâyana Vyâsadeva, often known simply as Vyâsa.  Vyâsa is said to have lived in the early Kuru Dynasty (1200 – 800 BCE) and is listed in the family tree as the grandson of Kuru himself. This would place Vyâsa’s life sometime in the 11th or 12th Century BCE.  Whatever the “liquid vegetable preparation” that the term sûpa referred to, it is mentioned in text that is at least 3000 years old.

Apologies to all who found this to be a long, boring, or overly-academic post. I just felt that to all of the misinformation out there in the ether, it would be nice to add something with some reasonable research (as opposed to blind repetition) behind it. As usual, I may not be right, but at least I am well-referenced.

(Research and Words by Laura Kelley; Photos borrowed from Google Images)