A spicy history
Visiting the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich last week for the first time in years got us talking about spices and the way that food and flavours have driven us in Europe to sail the world, to explore and to conquer. That is the power of great food and the possibility of bringing never before tasted flavours to the table, they changed the make up of the world as we know it even to the point at which the spices themselves were too valuable actually to use for dinner.
It was the quest for spices that really precipitated the golden age of maritime exploration. Spice trade routes over land across Asia and Europe made these commodities prohibitively expensive and meant that the major European powers at the end of the trade routes could do nothing to control the prices.
Unfortunately the ability to sail to the major spice producing parts of the world was somewhat prevented by the huge mass of Africa standing between them and their goal. There were only two options for an adventurous spirited individual with a boat and a backer in the 1400s and both involved sailing into the unknown: either travel south and try and round the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa, or travel west and try and circumnavigate the globe with little concept that America might be in the way.
It was in this era that Portugal came to dominate spice driven exploration under the influence of Prince Henry the Navigator, middle son of King John of Happy Memory and nephew of England’s own King Henry IV. During the reigns of his father, his brother Edward the Eloquent and nephew Afonso the African (don’t Mediterranean monarchs have much better nicknames than ours?), Henry was a tireless patron of explorers and cartographers, more because he was a devout Christian keen to spread his faith and discover the mythical Christian king Prester John than out of a genuine curiosity about the wider world.
The upshot of Henry’s maritime patronage, though, was that Portugal gained a foothold in Africa. He was the one that pushed for the conquest of Ceuta, the Muslim port in North Africa that is still a Spanish territory (it switched allegiance to Spain during the Iberian Union in which both countries had the same king), as well as the colonisation of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands, on the way to exploring the whole African coast and gaining influence over Saharan trade routes.
Henry died in 1460, but he had already set in motion a path that would bring plenty of spices back to Europe and give us the delicious curries that we love today. In 1488 Bartholomew Diaz sailed to the Cape of Good Hope and ten years later Vasco Da Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa and became the first European to sail to India, forever opening up a new route to bring spices back to Europe.
Portuguese colonial interests in Goa, in particular, would provide the first fusion of European and South Asian foods. The most famous example of this is the vindaloo, still by far the best known Goan food here in Britain. Vindaloo has its origins in a kind of adobo, meat immersed in a mix of salt, garlic, wine or vinegar both for flavour and preservation reasons, known to the Portuguese as carne de vinha d’alhos (meat with red wine and garlic). This preserved pork dish was taken by the Portuguese explorers around the world and became the vina dosh of the Azores and Madeira, the garlic pork of Guyana, and Goan vindaloo.
Given local tastes and available ingredients, the wine element of the carne de vinha d’alhos was replaced by vinegar to marinade and preserve the meat, creating the vindaloo. With the Americas being explored for the first time in the same era, many of their native native plants and spices were introduced by the Portuguese colonists into India. As a result, red chillies started being added to the vindaloo as well. By the time the British began to get seriously involved in exploring and controlling trade with India and the East Indies in the 1600s there was an assumption that South American ingredients like chilli were in fact native to India and were imported back to Britain as a traditional flavour of Indian food along with all the genuinely native spices.
Given a royal charter in 1600, the East India Company in its early years was nothing like the behemoth that would come to account for half the world’s trade, but its interests were already being driven by spices. The privateer and adventurer James Lancaster commanded the company’s first expedition in 1601 with a fleet of four ships led by the Red Dragon. A trading post was established in Banten in Java to trade in black pepper and a commercial mission was dispatched to the Moluccas, the so-called “Spice Islands” which were the major source of the likes of cloves, nutmeg and mace. The more powerful Dutch East India Company continued to dominate the spice trade at this time, though, and the nautical-culinary history interest in Lancaster’s voyage comes more from Lancaster’s pioneering use of lemon juice to combat scurvy.
Of the four ships that set out from Torbay in April 1601 only the Red Dragon, Lancaster’s own ship, supported Lancaster’s idea of giving the sailors a daily spoonful of lemon juice. By the time the fleet arrived in southern Africa, the crew of the other three ships were devastated by scurvy and needed the much healthier Red Dragon crew’s assistance. Essentially this amounted to the closest thing the 1600s had to a clinical trial and Lancaster reported his findings accordingly. 200 years later, in 1795, the Admiralty decided to enforce scurvy preventing citrus juices and English sailors became known as limeys.
The marriage of the Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza to the English King Charles II in 1661 brought the town of Bombay (now Mumbai) under English control as part of her dowry. In 1668 the East India Company established a trading post there and soon after in Calcutta. By the 1700s, Britain and the East India Company were heavily involved in India, with 15% of British imports in 1720 coming from India, including spices.
Through the 1700s increasing numbers of young British people served in many different ways with the East India Company, travelled too and lived in India and developed a taste for the food (this cultural, and thus culinary, fusion is obvious in its most literal form in the fact that one in three British men who came to India in the 17th and 18th centuries married Indian wives). As the East India Company were bringing spices back to Britain more cheaply and in greater quantities, it was inevitable that Indian influenced food would be brought back to Britain, hence the birth of curry.
“Curry” as a term represents the British take on Indian food, rather than that native to India’s own population, although there is some debate as to the etymology of the word. Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible points to references to curry in British sources dating back to the pre-East India Company 16th century. She cites an 1882 dictionary of Indo-British words that refers to “curry” as taken from the Kannada word karil or its Tamil equivalent kari, meaning “sauce”: “It consists of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric; and a little of this gives flavour to a large mess of rice.”
The kari origin is the most popular explanation for the origin of the English word, but there has also been the suggestion that it comes from karahi or karai, the dish that sizzling curry dishes are cooked in. Equally, of course, the word curry already existed in English as far back as the first English cookbook, 1390’s The Forme of Cury. In this case “cury” just meant cooking, coming from cuire, the French word for to cook. Thanks to the spice trade routes across Asia and Europe, there were already meat dishes prepared using spices and even the term “curies” long before curry as we know it came over from India.
Whatever the origin of the term, the strongest evidence that “Indian style” curry was now a part of a British household comes with its first appearance as a recipe in a British cookbook, which occurred in the middle of the 18th century courtesy of Georgian domestic goddess Hannah Glasse. You may remember Glasse as the writer who never wrote a recipe beginning “First catch your hare”, despite popular suggestion otherwise.Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published was one of the most influential cookbooks of all time.
The illegitimate daughter of a Northumberland gentleman, Glasse was enough a part of comfortable country living to be familiar with the finest food, but enough on the outside never to be part of that world and always in need of money. Her husband, John Glasse, was a transient Irish soldier and after her marriage Glasse would always struggle for money. Even with the success of her book (published anonymously, Glasse would not be revealed as the author until years after), she would often struggle financially. It was published in 1747 and Glasse was declared bankrupt in 1754 and later ended up in a debtors’ prison. Nevertheless, the book’s pioneering simple, straightforward tone and advice would influence both 18th century home cooks and generations of cookbooks to follow.
Hannah and John had eight children, two of which would have an Indian connection with one son joining the East India Company and another dying on a Royal Navy ship that sank off Pondicherry, something that is indicative of the likely familiarity that a woman of Glasse’s class and that of her audience would have with India and its influence. Long before that would happen, though, Glasse would publish the first recorded English recipe to: “make a currey the Indian way” and it goes like this:
“Take two small chickens, skin them and cut them as for a fricasey, wash them clean, and stew them in about a quart of water, for about five minutes, then strain of 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 together until they are brown, take a quarter of an ounce of turmeric, a large spoonful of ginger and beaten pepper together, and a little salt to your palate; stew all these ingredients over the chicken whilst it is frying, then pour in the liquor, and let is 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 turmeric must be beat very fine.”
In honour of the early history of spice, exploration and curry, I decided to have a go at making Glasse’s curry recipe. In many ways the recipe is more reflective of Glasse’s own cooking than its Indian influences. Like the Nigella of the 1700s, Glasse is known for her love of cooking in amounts of butter that we would perhaps consider unhealthy today, hence the two ounces that appear in this recipe. Nevertheless, curries today continue to cook in more butter than many other food types thanks to the use of ghee.
There are, however, just three spices in the dish, something that makes it less of a complex mix of flavours than curry dishes might tend to be today. Black pepper, ginger and turmeric are all native to South India and had been known in British cooking since the Middle Ages, albeit as very expensive luxury ingredients. All three are more hot in flavour than anything, but all would continue to be used quite happily with chicken. There had been a time when peppercorns were stockpiled and traded like gold rather than used for seasoning, but the trade of the East India Company had made it much more affordable. Ginger and turmeric roots were perhaps less common than in their powdered form until relatively recently, while the latter has typically been used more as a dye to give food, and other things, a strongly yellow colour.
To make Glasse’s recipe, I browned pieces of chicken in butter and then removed them and sauteed a chopped onion in the pan. Then I added some grated ginger and turmeric and crushed black peppercorns. I had made chicken stock from the remnants of this Sunday’s roast, so I used this presuming it equates to the “liquor” in Glasse’s recipe. This I allowed to simmer in the pan for half an hour before adding the cream and the juice of a lemon. Glasse follows the “currey the Indian way” recipe with advice on how to boil rice, so I decided to serve my curry with rice as well.
In the end, it must be said that Hannah Glasse makes a perfectly reasonable curry. The flavours are mostly ones that we would continue to use today and all work well together. It would hold up relatively well today, but lovers of really great British-Indian food should probably be grateful that we have a much wider range of spices available, and easily affordable, these days to make something more complex than this chicken dish that mostly tasted of lemon and pepper.
The merging of Indian and European food and flavours (not to mention American ingredients that now seem a fundamental part of “Indian” food) came a long way from Vasco da Gama first sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to Hannah Glasse’s chicken with a ginger, cream and lemon sauce, but it has equally developed a great deal in over 250 years since The Art of Cookery and will almost certainly continue to do so on into the future.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Despite its age, this is very recognisably a curry. Not sure which curry, precisely, but definitely a curry. It’s very tasty, though the flavour isn’t nearly as complex as ‘real’ Asian curries. I’d definitely have it again, though, especially if the store cupboard was running a bit low and I wanted something quick (assuming you sub in turmeric powder for the fresh turmeric root).