Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trivia Day; Currying Favor with the "King of Curry"

A couple of months ago, I spied a book titled; David Wade's Kitchen Classics, (© 1969) resting precariously on the top shelf of one of my book cases. "How did this get here?" I thought to myself. "Perhaps, the answer is on the page with the make-shift bookmark glowing from within. (I often use neon post it note labels as bookmarks.) Let's see..." Sure enough there it was Sahib Eight Boy Chicken Curry.

To my utter delight, there was an explanation as to the origin of the dish tucked right beside it. But first, from the introduction to the recipe:
The culinary authority in India for the British was a man with the pen name of Wyvern, who was in reality Arthur Kenney-Robert. He had not been in India long when he spoke out with authority in a book entitled Culinary Jottings from Madras,published in 1882. At the time this journal was published, Madras was the center of British activity there.
My first reaction evoked all things negative that come to mind when I think of Americanized curry. (You know, that yellow powder you might find on a grocery store shelf a most distasteful interpretation in the history of curry.) I'm sure the title of the dish was the bookmark grabber. I have a tendency to gravitate toward recipe names I'm not familiar with. I want to know about them. However, first, I was curious as to who this Wyvern guy was and what provoked his publication?
Biographical sketches about the "King of Curry," another nickname attributed to Wyvern, were easy enough to unmask in the numerous reviews I encountered about his books. However, locating a specific date of birth just wasn't possible, although, I spent countless hours trying. Here's a portion of one book which includes a chapter from his book; The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Books and Curry Cooks found @ In Mamma's Kitchen.
...Progressing through time in a gentle amble, the authors glimpse the clubs "for officers and gentlemen," many of which became most famous for their curries. Here we discover the division in Indian cooking between "Mussulmans and Hindoos."  Not only does knowledge deepen, but the recipes grow more authentic, though still not as nuanced as a true Indian cook would have it.   They peer into the Officers' Mess where curry was the standard lunch, and introduce us to the "Escoffier of the Raj," Arthur Kenney-Herbert (aka 'Wyvern') who wrote a column for a local Indian newspaper and was the most influential contributor to curry literature by an English writer. Here we must smile, for Wyvern, writing in 1878  was struggling to find authenticity while complaining that many of his contemporaries were not taking as much care in preparation as the preceding generation.  Like many of today's cooks who will buy a prepared ragu and doctor it to their own tastes, he reluctantly allows a 'stock' powder as it may be doctored to taste and glory.
With supporters such as Elizabeth David, the Colonel marched into Victorian homes with his publication of Jottings for Madras which by the way is available online for free. There's also a quick review @ Prospect Books

Sahib Eight Boy Chicken Curry

Back to Mr. Wade and the boys:
In Wyvern's day, succulent curries were conjured up with great canning, and curries-eight or nine-were served at one dinner. A different servant would bring in a different choice of curry-one would serve fish, one rice, one chicken, and so on.This custom came to be known as Seven Boy Chicken Dinner, or Nine Boy Chicken Dinner and it meant literally that seven or nine boys would serve seven or nine curries. If you especially enjoyed a curry and wanted a second helping, then you'd call that boy back to serve you again. An assortment of chutneys also accompanied such dinners and little vituals of fishes, or meats.
Do I hear the makings of a Curry Blog Party in the atmosphere? Mr. Wade continues:
The most precious ingredient of the curry is, of course, the curry powder or paste. Wyvern gave his favorite as the curry powder of the Sahib in India. The recipe is in pounds which obviously will make quite a lot. His formula--
turmeric, four pounds;
coriander, seven pounds;
cumin, two pounds;
poppy, one-half pound;
fenugreek, two pounds;
dry ginger, one pound;
mustard seed, one-third pound;
dried chilies, one pound;
black pepper, one pound.
This, he emphasized, was the basic curry powder. The flavor could be changed by the addition of of other spices of clove, cinnamon, cardamom, etc. Or by adding seasoning leaves such as bay leaf or fennel. As the curry is prepared, other ingredients are added, such as coconut milk and onions and the leaves mentioned before, but these were to be fresh and the cook added them before serving. A modest spoonful of this basic curry powder would suffice for a quantity of curried rice, for instance.
Mr. Wade's notes on rice:
For many thousands of years rice has kept the large population of the world alive. They have done ingenious things with it though, and what the Indians did with it was curry it. The Sahib, back in his native country and dining at his club in London, remembers most his tour of duty and probably "curry and rice." There are clubs in England which serve curry and rice a day every week for those who have cultivated the taste in the service of Her Majesty. And Memsahib herself bought some of the curry reipes home with her, and no doubt the journal. Culinary Jottings from Madras, the ultimate curry authority for the British.

One of my favorite curry powder blends comes from the distinguished food editor and restaurant critic of the New York Times; Craig Claiborne. From the The New York Times International Cookbook. In his words:
Curry Powder
Whenever a recipe for a curry appears, if curry powder is not listed among the ingredients there are always letters and telephone calls protesting the supposed omission. It may be laboring the point, but we will say again that the best curries have never known the commercial mixture called curry powder. There is no such thing as a curry bush or curry tree; curry powder is a blend of spices, as you will see in the recipe below.
1 pound coriander
1/4 pound small cumin seed
1 tbs. sweet cumin seed
1 tbs. black mustard seed
1 1-inch piece cinnamon
2 cardamon seeds
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper.

1. Preheat oven 250 degrees.
2. Put all ingredients in a baking pan and bake about 15 minutes. Grind while hot in an electric blender or mortar with pestle.
Note: This curry powder will keep six months in an airtight jar.

1. David Wade: Rembrandt of the Kitchen (a blog review)
2. Who's Who, Volume 59 (1907) @ google books
3. How did the word Curry evolve or originate?
4. The Origins of Curry
5. Seven Boy Chicken Curry Recipe @ Taste of Home
6. The Return of Culinary Jottings for Madras
7. The Colonel's Curry may be available @ a shop near you or online @ Chiman's
8. Chiman's purveyor of Indian Spice Blends