Curry ‘the Indian Way’: 1774

My daughter loves colouring in. She loves it so much, easily more than she loves me or her father. She will colour in anything at all: books, bank statements, walls, sleeping cats – if it sits still enough she will colour it in. We’ve tried giving her crayons and chalks, figuring that these may leave fewer marks or be easily rubbed off, but there’s only one tool she ever wants for the job: highlighters.

What started out as a cute game of help-mummy-mark-essays has now become a frenzied version of hide and seek whenever she approaches the desk; me desperately scraping up papers with one arm and throwing a rainbow of pens over her head to my husband as I shriek “hide the highlighters! For the love of God, hide the highlighters!”

Alas, she remains in the thrall of neon. Our carpets are dotted with fuschia and blue spots, our dining room table is streaked with fluorescent yellow which, especially when eating dinner, looks unnervingly reminiscent of cat piss.

It’s important you understand all this so that you’ll also understand why, from a toddler’s point of view, after today’s experiment I don’t have a leg to stand on when I try to take the highlighters away.

Curry is one of those things that everyone seems to enjoy without ever really understanding what it is – a bit like Derren Brown. Just as with Derren, Britain loves a curry. So much so that there’s an official National Curry Week every October and in 2001 Britain’s then foreign secretary Robin Cook called chicken tikka masala “a true British national dish”.

In truth, ‘curry’ isn’t a dish on its own. The word itself is an anglicised form of the Tamil word kaṟi which roughly translates as ‘sauce’. We kind of know that to be the case in Britain because we distinguish between the different types of curry such as vindaloo or korma, but I think lots of us think these dishes are also widely eaten in India, when they aren’t. As someone with Indian heritage through my dad, it’s shamefully only recently that I’ve learnt more about the differences between British and Indian curries. As one of my friends put it – “just sticking turmeric in something does not make it Indian!’

Searched ‘curry’ and predictably this is what came up. Hi, turmeric!
Photo by Mareefe on Pexels.com

The entrepreneur Dean Mahomed is often credited with serving the first curries to the British masses in the early 19th century when he opened the first Indian restaurant in London called the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is rightfully celebrated as a champion of the fusion of Anglo-Indian culture in an altogether more peaceful way than the earlier method employed by the East India Company which involved invading parts of India and basically saying ‘all this is ours now’ whilst holding guns.

In truth, curries were known about in Britain before Dean Mahomed set up the Hindoostane Coffee House. Cooks in the rich households of the East India Company men, who missed the flavours of India when they returned to England, had been experimenting with new recipes designed to mimic the food enjoyed by the ‘nabobs’ (as the East India Company men were known after the Indian word ‘nawab’, meaning governor.) In 1733, curry was even served in the Norris Street Coffee House in Haymarket.

But it wasn’t until 1747 that an English writer thought to write a recipe for curry that could be easily replicated throughout the land. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was intended to be a manual for servants – the “lower sort” of people, as she charmingly called them. In this edition there are 3 recipes for pilau rice. Over the years more recipes were added in each new edition and it is in the 1774 version of her book that the first known English version of curry appears. Glasse was not a professional writer; she was a housewife and her main aim was to make money. Taking inspiration from the actions of the East India Company, many of the recipes in her cookbook aren’t her own and are in fact stolen from other cooks and writers. In total, 342 of the 972 recipes found in her pages are directly lifted from other sources. Hannah got away with it though because her writing style was engaging and straightforward, written in simple language that ordinary people understood – a welcome relief to those “lower sort” of maids who were “at a loss to know what [the original recipes] mean.” In fact, her book was so eloquent that for decades after its publication many thought it had been written by a man, not believing that a woman could be capable of such a feat.

Entitled “How to make Currey the Indian Way”, the recipe falls foul of my friend’s curry test because it contains a fair bit of turmeric and not much in the way of other spices. I’m happy to forgive Ms. Glasse, though, because what it lacks in authenticity it makes up for in the fact that unlike some of the other Georgian and Victorian recipes I’ve tried, (yes, Mrs Beeton I’m looking at you) it contains butter. Lots and lots of delicious, flavourful butter and, oh my goodness, cream too.

Blessed are the onions that are to be fried in butter and not just boiled in plain water

It did start off a bit worringly when I saw I had to boil chicken that had been cut “as for a fricassey”, but thankfully this was only for 5 minutes or long enough to make a sort of weak chicken stock, which was drained off and used later.

With the chicken parboiled (can you parboil chicken?) I added 3 large onions and 2 ounces of butter to the pan and fried it, with tears of joy (and a little bit onion related) streaming down my face as I realised that this was actually going to taste good.

Once the onions were soft, I added the chicken back to the pan and cooked it all together until it was just starting to brown. I had a lot of chicken to cook, so I had to add it in rounds which was a bit of a pain but also my fault for not having the foresight to scale the recipe back – in the recipe below I’ve scaled it back so it should be enough for 4.

While all this was cooking I set to work on the component that I thought was what qualified this dish, in Hannah’s mind, to be a curry: the spices. There were 3 – ginger, pepper and turmeric. I used fresh ginger because the recipe called for the ginger and pepper to be “beaten together” in a way that suggested it had to be broken down in a pestle and mortar. Unhelpfully, it wasn’t until the end of the instructions that she mentions that all the spices should be “beat very fine” such as one would find in ground ginger, so to make it easier for anyone wanting to recreate this curry I’ve changed it to ground ginger in the recipe below. To the chicken and onions I added the 3 spices of variously beaten and ground states and poured the pathetic excuse for chicken stock back over everything before leaving to simmer for 30 minutes.

To an 18th century cook, this must have been quite an exciting dish to prepare. Spices were already well known in Britain and had been used extensively since the middle ages, but the colour in this dish was amazing – vibrant yellow. I mean, it’s true that was the only colour – Hannah wasn’t one for garnishes in an ‘eat the rainbow’ sort of way, but if she had been, the yellow part of the rainbow was well and truly covered here.

When it was time I added the juice of 2 lemons and the most exciting addition of all – 1/4 pint of cream, stirred it and then served it for lunch. I informed my husband, who felt that he had been stung one too many times by my culinary experiments, that since it contained butter and cream it was bound to taste good, and tucked in.

No, I hadn’t experimented with medium-rare chicken – it’s just thigh meat which looks too pink in the light

This was, as expected, not what you think of when you think of curry. It wasn’t spicy at all, for a start. It also wasn’t a thick sauce – the chicken was just lumps of meat in a yellow broth. But do you know what – in some ways that’s more representative of what ‘curry’ means. In traditional Indian cuisine the sauce is supposed to mingle with the rice and add flavour, not sit on top being heavy and stodgy like so many curry sauces today do.

The chicken itself was a bit bland. Not unpleasant, but just not really saying anything important here. What was the stand out was the sauce. It was delicious. Slightly tangy because of the lemons, but with a richness that left a pleasant aftertaste because of the cream. You could taste the turmeric and the ginger, but they complemented each other very well with neither one being the dominant flavour. In fact, I went back after half an hour when it had all cooled in the pan a bit and just stood slurping the sauce from a spoon – if anything it tasted even better having had a bit more time for all the flavours to marinate into each other. Curry masochists who enjoy losing all sense of taste and smell may scoff at the lack of spiciness, and maybe my tastes are a bit boring, but I found this delightful.

The only tiny problem I found was when I went to clear the plates away. Some of the sauce must have splashed onto the table and left a neon yellow ring around the base of the bowl that wouldn’t come out no matter how much I tried. On cue, my daughter came barrelling into the room and stopped when she saw me scrubbing the surface. She looked from the stain, to me and then to the highlighters, a look of mad triumph flooding her face as it dawned on her that there was now no way I could refuse her request. She held out a palm, victorious and smugly demanded “draw.”

Draw is right, I thought, as I conceeded and handed her the highlighters.

E x

Curry ‘the Indian Way’

4 chicken breasts
500ml water
3 onions
5g turmeric
Teaspoon of ground ginger
Teaspoon of pepper
70ml of double cream
30g of butter
Juice of 1 lemon

  1. Simmer the chicken in the water for 5 minutes. Then remove the chicken and pour the water into a jug for later.
  2. Chop 3 onions finely and add them to the pan with the butter. Fry until soft.
  3. Add the chicken to the onions and fry all together until browned.
  4. When the chicken is browned, add the turmeric, ginger and pepper and pour the water back over. Mix all together.
  5. Cook for 30 minutes.
  6. Add the lemon juice and cream and serve with rice or naan bread.

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