TT: Favouring Curry

Alan and I would both like to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving…  Now, a discussion that may inspire you (as it already has Jim) as to a way to deal with your leftover turkey!

A Few Curries

JANE: Last time you promised to tell me about Terry Pratchett’s Jingo curries which were described as “Containing yellow curry powder, big lumps of swede, green peas, and soggy sultanas the… size of eggs.”

ALAN: So I did… But in order to do so, I’m going to need to give you some history about curry.

JANE: That’s great!  I know nothing about curry, except that I like it.

ALAN: Curry powder was invented by an anonymous employee of the East India Company sometime around 1747 (that’s when it was first advertised for sale). I imagine that it was designed to make the cooking of curries less complex for the average English cook who often found the idea of selecting a range of spices for adding different flavours to their dishes to be rather frightening. Many of the cheaper curry powders contained an over-abundance of turmeric and were therefore very yellow in appearance. If you didn’t like the taste of final dish that you cooked with it, you could use the meal to dye your underpants and socks a fetching shade of yellow instead. Very economical.

JANE: Indeed!  And now that turmeric is being touted as a health food, you could add medicinal value to your list of reasons for using yellow curry powder.

As a small aside, I’d say most American cooks also start with pre-blended yellow curry powder which is what you’d find in most grocery stores.  Specialty stores will carry other types.  Jim and I bought a book that contains recipes for various curry powders, and sometimes we blend our own.

But back to your discussion of British curry.   I can sense something ominous building.  Go on…

ALAN: The British took to curry powder with great enthusiasm and invented kedgeree and mulligatawny soup, both of which can actually be quite nice when properly prepared (though I make my kedgeree without eggs, for obvious reasons). But they also invented the dreaded British curry…

JANE: Oops…  I don’t know what kedgeree or mulligatawny soup are.  Remind me to ask you.

ALAN: There’s no time like the present – kedgeree consists of boiled rice cooked with curry powder. Flakes of fish (generally haddock and often smoked) which has been cooked in milk and hard boiled eggs are stirred in to the cooked rice. If you are feeling adventurous, you might sprinkle it with parsley. Kedgeree is only ever eaten at breakfast time.

JANE: Urrgh…  I’ve never been a fan of sweet breakfast foods, but maybe this tastes better than it sounds.  Do you like it?

ALAN: Yes I do – as long as it doesn’t have eggs, of course. Kedgeree is really a sort of risotto or biryani, so it’s quite a respectable dish with an impeccable pedigree. I have no idea why the British restrict its consumption to breakfast. I’d happily eat it at any meal.

JANE: Very well!  If I’m given the opportunity, I will try it!  Now, how about the soup with the long name?

ALAN: Mulligatawny soup is made by frying onions, garlic, carrot and celery in butter. When the vegetables are softened, add pieces of apple and a couple of teaspoons of curry powder. Stir, add stock, tomato puree and mango chutney. Simmer until the veges are cooked. Stir in a cup of cup cooked rice. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt or cream. If you aren’t a purist, you might want to add some cooked chicken.

JANE: This sounds better.  I might look up a recipe, and try it sometime.

ALAN: Now, getting back to curry… I don’t know how it happened, but generations of British housewives, none of whom had ever seen or tasted an authentic curry, somehow got it into their heads that all you had to do to make a curry was toss some curry powder into a stew and then boil it to bits.

And the stew had to have sultanas in it. The more the merrier. Presumably that made the dish more exotic (it certainly made the thing sweeter). Such a “curry” was a staple of school lunches and suburban dinner tables, probably until the late 1950s when Indian restaurants started to flourish and the British finally found out what a real curry tasted like and realised that they’d been doing it wrong for two hundred years.

JANE: Ah-hah!  Now I understand what sort of curry Pratchett was alluding to in Jingo.  I must ask, although I fear I will find the answer unsettling…  When you say “stew,” what do you mean?  To me (and I’d hazard to most Americans) a stew is usually built around chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, onions.  This is slowly cooked until there’s a nice brown gravy, the meat is tender but has not cooked to shreds, nor have the vegetables become mush.

Did they add curry powder and sultanas to this?

ALAN: In a word, yes. In two words, yes but…

The stew you describe is an ideal stew and, properly prepared, is a gastronomic delight. British versions are often less than ideal and, particularly when prepared by indifferent cooks, are thin and watery. The mystery meat in them is generally tough and gristly, particularly when mass produced for serving to institutional hordes such as schoolchildren or prisoners. Curry powder and sultanas can only be an improvement to such a dish.

JANE: I agree!

ALAN: But not all British stews are necessarily bad. My friend Ian lived with a stew called Albert. Albert sat in a large pot on the back of the stove and grumbled away to himself day and night on a very low heat. When Ian was hungry he’d eat a bowl of Albert. When Albert started to get a bit low in the pot, Ian would throw in whatever was selling cheaply in the market and Albert would slowly assimilate it. He was one of the tastiest stews I’ve ever eaten. Adding curry powder to Albert would have been an insult.

JANE: Ian clearly knew what to feed Albert to maintain his health.

ALAN: Indeed he did.

Ian too was a curry fan and in 1976 he gave me The Complete Book of Curries by Harvey Day as a housewarming present. At the time, it was the definitive curry book, and had been since the mid-1960s. It has now been somewhat superseded by Madhur Jaffrey’s books and unfortunately it appears to have gone out of print. I think that’s a shame.

JANE: Thanks for the titles!

There’s an ominous aspect to cooking we haven’t addressed, but I’ll save asking you about it for next time.

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4 Responses to “TT: Favouring Curry”

  1. JM Says:

    Speaking of stew, I’ve read a novel by Kevin Hearne in which the narrator character bemoans the bad fantasy novels in which a stew is prepared in half an hour after a hard day of traveling. Stew takes time (although I’m not sure what he’d think about Albert). The narrator and his companions then settle down and tell stories (background for why they’re on this suicide mission) while the stew cooks away for the necessary several hours.

    As a different tangent, Albert reminds me of a witch’s cauldron, always bubbling, containing who knows what, but definitely magic.

    Thanks for sharing these tangents all year.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’d guess that Hearne has read Diana Wynne Jones TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND in which the same commend is made. It’s a sort of “go to” for fantasy cliches. I often recommend it to new fantasy writers, especially those w/o much experience in either life or the history of the field.

  2. futurespastsite Says:

    We opted for beef stew for Thanksgiving this year instead of turkey. (At least that one turkey got pardoned.)

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