Tag Archive for 'curry'

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.

A Child’s Party

A Child's Party

My youngest was about to turn five and I suddenly became very interested in Victorian children’s parties, of course. We know the Victorians were the original Goths, with their dark clothes and near-fetishization of death through elaborate mourning rituals and codes. How did they feel about the celebration of life?

Through a little searching, I found a child’s novella called The Birth-day Visit to Holly Farm [1860] by Susan Bogart Warner, wherein a girl turns eight and is immediately showered with presents when she wakes up, and is taken to a farm field with a picnic packed for a “birthnight tea” with a friend and her governess.

The only mention of birthdays in Beeton’s is historical. She gives a history of the Greek dinner party, and adds that “a birthday, too, was an excuse for a dinner; a birthday, that is, of any person long dead and buried, as well as of a living person, being a member of the family, or otherwise esteemed [1883].” She does not mention specific occasions for throwing a birthday dinner in her time, but she does comment in the same passage on the British predilection for having parties: “Douglas Jerrold said that such is the British humour for dining and giving of dinners, that if London were to be destroyed by an earthquake, the Londoners would meet at a public dinner to consider the subject.”

I understand that sentiment. I think I look for any excuse as well. I wonder if birthdays were such commonplace affairs that there was no need to really explain to the reader how they happened? I imagine you celebrated according to your means and desires, much like today. There was no need to lay out an elaborate code, such as with calling cards or mourning dress.

I made an interesting accidental discovery by flipping through Beeton’s as I was planning this birthday dinner relating to children’s parties: negus. Negus was a popular wine-based party punch referenced in several early Victorian novels.

Negus appears in a couple of forms in a charming “collection of receipts” called Oxford Night Caps (1847) by Richard Cook. There is a recipe for white wine negus, calling for calf’s foot jelly, which I imagine is somewhat like a boozy warm Jell-o drink, a cold white wine negus, and a port wine negus, which is what is offered in Beeton’s. By the time the recipe is recorded in Beeton’s, negus had apparently become passé. She notes: “this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than any other [1835].”

I wondered if she meant it had become a children’s drink, or if adults drank it there to stave off the potential boredom of watching a bunch of children gavotte or attempt to play whist. Could children really be guzzling cups of fortified wine, asked your author, clutching her modern American pearls?

Answer: looks like it. The Churchman, a British quarterly dedicated to Christian thought that has been published since 1879, has a story in its 1 July 1882 edition about charitable treatment of poor children at Christmas. The author writes, “She concocted a glass of steaming negus, much to the delight of the children.”

A reasonably-priced port

Negus is very easy to make. Most recipes call for rubbing sugar on the peel of a lemon, which I figure is ye olde zesting, since sugar often came in lumps or loaves. I chose to just zest the lemon instead. Beeton’s never mentions zest, but peel only, and this rubbing technique. Then you add sugar, juice, and watered-down port, and simmer slightly. It called for grated nutmeg as well (surprising, I know), but I threw in a couple of mace blades instead, since I don’t care for the way grated nutmeg feels in liquid when you drink it.

My guests both enjoyed the warm negus. One said that the only drawback was, despite the fact that the concentration of the booze was theoretically weak, was that “you just get trashed instantly.” Don’t drink this if you have anywhere else to be or have higher math to do. Heretic that I am I was enjoying my beer so much I opted not to have a glass.

I did give the children about an inch of negus in mugs so they could try it, and told them it was a child’s party drink from 150 years ago. It is one thing to tell children something about how the old days were, but I thought it would make an impact on them if they tried a little. “BLECH,” declared my older daughter. “Tastes like alcohol.” Well, yes. They quickly abandoned it in favor of the goat cheese I had set out for an appetizer.

The majority of the work was allotted to the Soup a la Julienne [131], which involved julienneing a bunch of vegetables (something I freely admit I suck at, since I do it so rarely) and then simmering the fuck out of them until it hardly matters which shape they started in. It contained carrots, turnip, onions, leeks, and celery.


The soup also called for generic “lettuce” added, which, I have had soup with kale, watercress, or other greens in, but I could not see adding perfectly nice lettuce to the pot, so I used sturdier chopped napa cabbage. Another thing I did not feel like tracking down was sorrel and savory, which a more run-of-the-mill supermarket does not carry, so I grabbed some parsley and a smidge of tarragon from the backyard. The soup is served over bread. I cubed some peasant bread and sprinkled it on for those who could eat gluten, and it absorbed the flavorful broth very nicely.

The veggies were higher than the broth level until the cooked down a bit.

The soup was springy, much like the cock-a-leekie, and reminded me of a very particular veggie soup you will get in a small cup at Thai or Vietnamese restaurants that comes free with the lunch special. I liked the combination of flavors, but it was nothing too extraordinary, and not worth all the julienneing. I was disappointed when I discovered the next morning that my scullery maid had swilled too much negus and fell asleep rather than putting the soup away.

I also mashed sweet potatoes [1146], which behaved just like you would expect them to. I served these with a lobster curry [274] over rice. I was kind of intrigued by this, since it’s not what you usually expect to see in an Indian-style curry. I bought a large frozen lobster tail and cooked it as it instructed, and then simmered the chunks in the curry. This is where things went wrong–it made the lobster bits tough. I should have stirred them in at the last minute instead.

Lobster curry and yam mash

I topped a gluten-free chocolate cake with an almond icing [1735] that was much like marzipan. I liked the clash of the old with the very new–a 150-year-old frosting recipe atop a gluten-free cake mix was very pleasing somehow, and it went over well. The interesting part to me was that the frosting contained egg whites, and once you top the cake it goes back in the oven for a bit and it cooked on the cake.

I have no idea if it was a traditional Victorian birthday meal, but everyone had a good time and enjoyed trying something new. I will have to try the negus again next fall for a grown up party, no matter that Beeton thinks it’s a kiddie drink.

1835. Negus

To every pint of port wine allow 1 quart of boiling water
¼ pound sugar [I added a half-cup]
1 lemon
Grated nutmeg to taste [I used 2 mace blades]

As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to 1/4 lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage. [Of course I simmered it all in a saucepan.]