Curry in a Non-Hurry

Curry in a Non-Hurry

“If Leekes you like, but do their smell dis-like, Eat Onyons, and you shall not smell the Leeke; If you of Onyons would the scent expel, Eat Garlicke, that shall drowne the Onyons’ smell.”  –Dr. William Kitchiner

Isabella Beeton includes fourteen recipes for curries in the Book of Household Management, including lobster curry, which I tried earlier this year, and Indian Curry-Powder [449.], from a Dr. Kitchiner’s Receipt. Here again I have struck gold with regards to one of Beeton’s sources.

William Kitchiner, MD (1775–1827) seemed to have been somewhat of a Renaissance man and an eccentric, who was known for his sauces and spice concoctions. His most famous cookbook was called The Cook’s Oracle (thrillingly subtitled “Containing Receipts for Plain Cookery, On the Most Economical Plan for Private Families; Containing Also a Complete System of Cookery for Catholic Families. Being the Result of Actual Experiments Instituted in the Kitchen of William Kitchiner, MD”). Well, now you don’t have to see the movie to know how it comes out, do you? I love the nineteenth century.

Let’s look at the important part of that gargantuan title: “Result of Actual Experiments.” (!!) Beeton went to the sauce source, it seems. Originally published in 1817, Dr. Kitchiner’s book was an attempt at precision in measurements and timing, rather than instructing the cook to add a bit of this-and-that until it was done. However, Kitchiner acknowledges in his preface to the seventh edition that many of the newly-added recipes had not been tested, though curry powder was not on that list of later recipes.

The book was published through and enhanced through at least the 1840s (William Crescent, the editor for the 1931 edition, released posthumously, notes in his introduction that “many receipts for pastry, preserves, &c, &c have been added to the present edition…”,  making it more of a well-rounded cookbook in keeping with others from that era). I assume Beeton got her hands on a later edition, which presumably means that some of the recipes she lifted for the BOHM were tested, and some were not. Many of Dr. Kitchiner’s recipes are very familiar, textually, such as Portable Soup; of course Beeton’s edit is to extract the  ingredients and lay them out for the reader at the outset like most modern recipes, and to make the language clearer, something she excelled at as an editor.

It is interesting to note that in his preface to the third edition (1819-20?) Kitchiner includes curry powder on a list of sauces, with a little disclaimer:

Store Sauces and many items of Domestic Comfort, which are extravagantly expensive to purchase, and can very seldom be procured genuine, he has given plain directions to prepare at Home–of infinitely finer flavour, and considerable cheaper than they can be obtained ready made…

While 44 years later in her introduction to her chapter on Sauces, Beeton declares that

ALTHOUGH PICKLES MAY BE PURCHASED at shops at as low a rate as they can usually be made for at home, or perhaps even for less, yet we would advise all housewives, who have sufficient time and convenience, to prepare their own.

…Demonstrating that times had changed.

So I decided to try out Dr. Kitchiner’s recipe for curry powder. My old neighbor was from India and he was always exhorting me to make my own. “It’s so much BETTER!” he would say, as he foisted some of his on me as proof.

First, I had to assemble all the spices and let them heat overnight in a cool-ish oven. I did not track down cinnamon seed, but instead used sticks. I didn’t think the powdered and dried ingredients like turmeric and ginger really needed a go in the oven overnight, but I thought I would keep to the spirit of it. Modern curry recipes usually call for toasting the spices in a skillet on the stove top.

Then it was time to grind up the spices. A friend of mine once told me not to monkey around with a mortar and pestle, but to instead use a coffee grinder, so I did. As I ground the spice pile in small batches, I began to sneeze uncontrollably. I think I lost half the contents of my head and the tissues were beginning to turn yellow. My nose burned all day afterward from all the cayenne. Next time I will be smart and wear a handkerchief like a cowboy.

As I ground the spices, I saw that the coriander seeds were losing their outer shells, and that there were a few chunks left behind. I sifted the mixture when it was done to get rid of the excess debris.

It made about two-and-a-half cups, certainly more curry than I have ever purchased in one go.

I decided to use it almost immediately in Curried Fowl [941.]. The base of the curry was meant to be veal gravy, which is not something I keep on hand, so I made some quick gravy with bacon drippings and chicken broth out of the carton. It went over very well and was a nice mixture of hot and flavorful. The dish did not at all resemble what you get in modern Indian restaurants I have eaten in, but was in line with other Victorian Indian dishes I’ve made–the focus is on the curry, a simple gravy, and loads of onions. This one also called for diced apple, which was nice. I will be using the powder for all of the rest of the curry dishes I make this fall.

Visually unexciting, as usual.

I can’t think of anything duller than a long essay on the etymology of the word curry, but I admit I got a little curious about it after stumbling on some writing by Richard Sainthill, an art patron and coin collector who compiled a book of reminiscences and other hodge podge appropriately named An Olla Podrita: or, Scraps, Numismatic, Antiquarian, and Literary, Volume Two [1853]. In this second volume, which features riveting chapter titles such as “The Use of the Samaritan Language By the Jews Until the Reign of Hadrian Deduced from the Coins of Judea” and “Objections to a Laurel Wreath for the Bust of Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the Coinage,” is proof of what can happen when you sarcastically tell someone incredibly dull to “get a hobby already” and they DO, and then they write all about it and expect you to read it.

(Ironic Pause.)

Anyway, Sainthill reproduced some correspondence between himself and a friend whom he only refers to as “Madam Soyers” in regards to Kitchiner and what “real” curry is. Even in the nineteenth century there were obnoxious foodies arguing about authenticity, isn’t that grand? I got all excited because I thought maybe his correspondent was Emma Soyer, Alexis Soyer‘s wife, but I think she was dead by this time and did not travel to India besides. I thought it was worth looking into in spite of the typo, as Sainthill misspelled Kitchiner’s name in the article as well. Sainthill asked Madam Soyers what she thought about Kitchiner’s recipe.

She replied:

Now, both as an eater and maker of curries, I affirm that during nine years’ residence in India I never saw or tasted a curry like Dr. Kitchener’s [sic].

However, she does go on to say that every chef has his own recipe for curry, and surmises that Kitchiner’s recipe may be more similar to concoctions that were created to be imported to London (too turmeric-heavy, suiting English tastes) and not for use in India. I felt that Kitchiner’s was missing garlic, and the “authentic” recipe Madam Soyer includes in her letter from a “most capital cook, Haji Ali” includes it.

Very briefly I will say that while the OED claims the word “curry” comes from a Tamil word, “kari,” meaning sauce/relish for rice, I was interested to see that there is some debate about it. Of course the British appeared in India in the early seventeenth century, but the word “curry” or “cury” was already in the English lexicon. I was interested to find another discussion about the literal meaning of the Tamil word “kari” as well.

As a final aside, Dr. Kitchiner invented something he called “wow-wow sauce,” which does not seem to appear in any form in Beeton’s. There are similar sauces, but no real match. Perhaps it had fallen out of fashion by that time. When I stumbled across this tidbit, I knew the name sounded familiar, and then I got it. Wow-wow sauce is referenced in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as an ingredient for a hangover cure. I could be wrong, but based on Kitchiner’s love affair with flash and the exclamation point, I bet the name is pure nonsense. I love it. I am going to order his biography Regency Eccentric as soon as my library reopens from furlough.

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