Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes, Part 1: Hannah Glasse’s 18th-century Curry Recipe
by Laura Kelley
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.
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 when 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 The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747.
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 Curry the Indian Way
Take two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricassée, 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 until 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 more modern interpretation of the recipe follows:
Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken Recipe (1774)
Ingredients3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 pound chicken breast meat, cut into bite-size pieces
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. Add turmeric and continue to cook and stir.
- Sauté for 2-3 minutes and then add the pepper 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.
- To get the most juice out of lemons, roll them well before cutting to break down the internal substance of the fruit before squeezing.
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. (Words and adapted recipe by Laura Kelley; Photo of Hannah Glasse Curry, 1774 by Laura Kelley; other images in the public domain.)
This article was adapted from the article “Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes #1: Hannah Glasse” on Laura’ site, The Silk Road Gourmet.