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)

Roots of the Silk Road

RHubarb

No, not another promised exploration of the cuisines of the Levant States or of Saudi Arabia. This essay is about the root vegetables eaten along the Silk Road. That is onions, shallot, leek, garlic, carrot, rhubarb, beet, radish and turnip – and everything in between.

For example, all of the commonly consumed vegetables in the Allium family (onion, shallot, leek and garlic) as well as the most important of those in the Apiaceae family (carrots and celery) all arose in Central Asia and spread globally from there. Turnips and parsnips are Eurasian and beets appear to be southwest Asian in origin. Yams are common throughout the Old World and are commonly used in the cuisines of SE Asia and the Pacific. Roots arising on the Indian subcontinent and spreading from there include the spice turmeric.

Some of the root vegetables commonly eaten today arose in NW China or Mongolia and spread around East Asia as well as made there way into Central, Western and Southern Asian cuisines include diakon radishes, rhubarb, gingerroot and to some degree lotus roots (spread to S Asia). Examples of roots with origins in China that remained predominantly in East Asian use include water chestnuts, spring onions and lemongrass (it may be a stretch to consider lemongrass a root vegetable, but it can be cultivated by root).

Of course, the potato is a new world root (recent genetic evidence suggests Peru as the point of origin) that was introduced into Europe around 1536. It reached India by the early 1600s and mainland China by the early to mid 1700s, the Himalayas by the late 1700s, Indonesia and Persia (Iran) by the early to mid 1800s and Thailand and Malaysia in the late 19th Century.

Another important root vegetable from the New World that has become a linchpin of Southern and SE Asian cuisines is cassava and its starch tapioca.

For the early pastoral peoples in Central and Southwest Asia, the gathering of wild vegetables and informal cultivation of native roots were very important sources of nutrition to these seasonally nomadic people. They were also important trade items. Shortly after 3000 BC vegetables of the allium family (onion, leek and garlic) are documented in pharaonic Egypt. Evidence of native Egyptian cultivation of allium isn’t found until about 2000 BC, so it seems that it was introduced as a trade crop from Asia. The Egyptians truly revered onions and even incorporated them into their burial ceremonies.

On a similar note, the lotus and lotusroot has important symbolism in the Indian subcontinent as the home of the god Vishnu. But, frankly I think that much of the attraction to root vegetables is practical, and that the symbolism came later. They provide a ready source of good nutrition; they have generally excellent storage characteristics and in colder climates many of them can be planted in the winter for spring harvest. In the Himalayas and on the Tibetan and Mongolian plateau many roots (particularly carrots and potatoes) also formed important staple sources in areas where rice cultivation was impossible.

The threat of famine which was not uncommon in many areas of Asia and is well documented on the Indian subcontinent and in some areas of Central and Northern China was also in some part staved off by the consumption of root vegetables.

Many vegetables and seeds were also used medicinally or for other apothecary reasons. Garlic is one of these root vegetables that was considered a cure-all – even up until the 18th Century when it was used to lessen the effects of confluent smallpox.

Some interesting and simple culinary ways to prepare root vegetables include baking them prior to mixing them with other ingredients. For sugar beets and other sweet roots, this “fixes” the sugar in them and keeps them sweet even when mixed with vinegars or other vegetables. (Bake them with the skins on and wrapped in foil. When done and cool, slip the skins off with your fingers and prepare as needed). One of my favorite recipes for beets is the warm Georgian Beets with Sour Cherries from The Silk Road Gourmet.

Taking a cue from the Central Asians, I also like to stuff onions. For this I use a larger, sweeter onion like a Vidalia or a mayan onion. Stuffings can be rice or meat based and usually also include garlic, cumin and possibly some fenugreek.

There are so many delicious potato recipes from Asia that it is hard to pick one. Favorites include the Cinnamon Potatoes with Pine Nuts from Azerbaijan or the Tamarind-Ginger Potatoes from Afghanistan. Potatoes are also used as fillings for samosa or samsa pastries eaten from western to southern Asia.

Spectrum of Carrot Colors

Most Asian cuisines integrate root vegetables into main dishes (curries, stews and meal-soups) instead of serving them by themselves. This is in part done because the consumption of meat is, even to the modern day, a less common thing in most of Asia than it is in the west. When meat is eaten, it is also consumed in smaller quantities for both economic reasons and cultural preferences. The tradition of main dishes featuring root vegetables become more common in cultures practicing some level of vegetarianism as in the Hindu areas of the Indian subcontinent and in some Buddhist countries.

Many Central Asian states have delicious recipes for carrots which can be found in huge piles in the markets of the area. Some of these have East Asian influences in them from traditional contact with China and more recently with Korean workers settling there on a long-term basis. Also of note with carrots on the Silk Road is the amazing array of colors that carrots naturally come in. Most colors have been lost in time with the standardization of carrots to orange hues. The great news is that some specialty grocers are reintroducing multicolored carrots. This has been underway in the UK for several years and is just beginning in the US. Hmmm, make mine deep purple. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Rhubarb by Gynane | Dreamstime.com; Photo of the Carrot Sprectrum by the US Agricultural Research Service.)