On Wednesday I talked about the history of curry as a British take on Indian food and spicy flavours and perhaps the ultimate example of anglicised Indian food is in the invention of curry powder. This catch all spice mix for use in any type of dish is a purely British invention, but one whose long history is indicative of how popular curry has been in Britain over the last couple of hundred years.
Typically a mix of cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilli peppers, fenugreek and other assorted spices, British curry powder could be said to draw on the traditional Indian spice mix of garam masala, which typically includes some similar ingredients along with the likes of cloves and cardamom. However, in reality curry powder comes from Britain and a British desire to simplify the complex array of spices that are in different regional Indian cooking traditions.
J. A. Sharwood and Company, still going today as Sharwood’s, were founded in 1889 and were selling tins of pre-made curry powder even to the Victorians, which should not really come as much of a surprise given that Victorian grocers were known already to make their own curry powder spice mixes for their customers.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management there are a number of curry recipes, from meat to fish and even lobster curry, most of which recommend the use of a curry powder. She gives a recipe for one, using coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne, mustard, ginger, allspice and fenugreek. However, even by this point in 1861, Beeton comments that: “We have given this recipe for curry-powder, as some persons prefer to make it at home; but that purchased at any respectable shop is, generally speaking, far superior, and, taking all things into consideration, very frequently more economical.”
Isabella Beeton was more a compiler than a creator when it came to recipes, so obviously curry powder was not only present in “any respectable shop”, but also there were many recipes previous to hers. Indeed, Beeton gives her curry powder recipe as: “Founded on Dr. Kitchener’s recipe”. The “Dr. Kitchener” referred to here is, presumably, William Kitchiner, a pre-Victorian food enthusiast and writer whose 1830 Cook’s Oracle was one of the most popular pieces of food writing of the era, but whose name is now almost unknown beside Mrs. Beeton.
Kitchiner was an optician, scientist and a food writer who both cooked and cleaned up after all his own meals (very unusual in the 1800s. Noted as a lover of sauces and spices, he invented both telescopes and “Wow-Wow Sauce” and would travel with a portable “cabinet of taste” full of spices and seasonings. Kitchiner’s curry powder is made from coriander, turmeric, black pepper, mustard, ginger, allspice, cardamom, and cumin.
“This receipt was an attempt to imitate some of the best Indian curry powder, selected for me by a friend at the India house: the flavour approximates to the Indian powder so exactly, the most profound palaticians have pronounced it a perfect copy of the original curry stuff,” Kitchiner wrote in the Cook’s Oracle, adding “The following remark was sent to the editor by an East Indian friend: ‘The ingredients which you have selected to form the curry powder, are the same as are used in India, with this difference only, that some of them are in a raw green state, and are mashed together, and afterward dried, powdered, and sifted.'”
The story of curry powder goes back even further than that, though. Almost as far back as Hannah Glasse’s first curry recipe, in fact. In the British Library collection can be found this advert for curry powder sold by Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse on Piccadilly, dating back to 1784. It promises that: “The celebrated East-India Dishes, and most sumptuous Sauces, are made with this Powder. It is exceeding pleasant and healthful, renders the stomach active in digestion, the blood naturally free in circulation, the mind vigorous, and contributes most of any food to an increase of the human race.” And if that doesn’t sell people on curry, nothing will!