Hot under the collar

The centuries-old history of curry

Food
Chilli victim: Becky Sharp, played by Olivia Cooke, in “Vanity Fair” (©ITV)

Thackeray famously subjects Becky Sharp to a curry, made to the gourmand Joseph Sedley’s specifications, in Vanity Fair, set in the Napoleonic era. “His face quite red with the delightful exercise of gobbling,” Sedley announces, “Mother, it’s as good as my own curries in India.” (The scene is dramatised in the first episode of the recent ITV adaptation.) Meanwhile Becky, who is attempting to flirt, is “suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper”. Offered a chilli, and thinking it is “something cool, as its name imported”, she exclaims, “”How fresh and green they look,” and puts one in her mouth. Sedley, says Thackeray, “thought the joke capital”. Later  he “explode[s] in a fit of laughter” at the memory. For Sedley, liking curry is in some ways an affectation: Thackeray describes “his baggage, his boxes, his books, which he never read, his chests of mangoes, chutney, and curry-powders, his shawls for presents to people whom he didn’t know as yet”. You think of the modern stereotype of the Englishman in the restaurant who insists on ordering the hottest curry on the menu, or the post-gap-year student who declares himself the arbiter of authenticity in Asian food.

Thackeray, unlike Becky Sharp, must have liked it because he wrote a “Poem to Curry”, which is more or less a recipe put into metre, with quantities included: “Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,/ And chops it nicely into little squares.” (He also liked pilau rice. He proclaimed in Memorials of Gormandising, “A good pillau is one of the best dishes in the world”.) “To make a Curry the Indian way”, in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery — the first “curry” recipe in print — is very similar to Thackeray’s, except “curry-powder” has not been invented: both recipes include fried onions and meat stewed in milk, but Glasse spices hers with turmeric, ginger and pepper where Thackeray specifies curry-powder.

There isn’t really such a thing as “curry”; the word may have come from a Tamil word for sauce, “kari”, but there’s no Indian analogue for the way the word is used in English — a generic term, applied to pretty much any Asian recipe that involves spices and sauce. And not even just Indian: we talk about “Thai curry”, presumably because some English person couldn’t tell the difference. “Curry” is tautological: it’s the food made with curry powder.

So where did curry powder come from? Florence White makes a tantalising assertion in Good Things In England (republished by Persephone, £13), her 1932 compendium of English regional recipes: she claims that curry was known in medieval England and that Richard II’s cooks made it regularly. “Two ‘receipts’ for curry powders are given in the roll compiled by his master chefs around the year 1390.”

The “roll” she mentions is called, wonderfully, The Forme of Cury. I hoped for some kind of time-warp medieval-Indian adventure. But when I looked the book up on the online archive Gutenberg, “cury” turned out to be an Anglicisation of medieval French “cuire” — the title really means “the method of cooking”. So is Florence indulging in wishful thinking? Maybe not. The Forme of Cury does talk about “powder-douce” and “powder-fort” — “sweet” and “strong” blends of ground spices. These are not likely to have been standardised mixtures, but powder-fort is thought to have contained black pepper, cinnamon, ginger and cloves — not a million miles away from a garam masala. Although we learned about it in primary school it’s easy to forget that the spice trade was already hundreds of years old. (No chilli — it’s  a New World plant.)

But the British Library gives us probably the earliest advertisement for a commercially-made curry powder, from an issue of the Morning Post in 1784 (many years post-Glasse). Addressed to “Persons of Rank, Traders . . . and Servants”, it announces that “the invaluable rich Ingredient called CURRY POWDER” can be had from “Sorlie’s Perfumery Warehouse” in Piccadilly. “The celebrated East-India Dishes, and most sumptuous Sauces, are made with this Powder.” It goes on to hype up the health benefits: “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.” (Thackeray claims of his curry that “Tis, when done/ A dish for Emperors to feed upon.”) This is the beginning of curry becoming naturalised: Mrs Beeton and Eliza Acton both have chapters on it.

The Victorian authors proclaim their recipes are “authentic”.  Florence White’s recipes are taken from the man she describes as the greatest modern expert in Indian cooking (a retired colonel). But Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham (available second-hand) quotes Rakhal Halder, a professor of Sanskrit at UCL in the 1840s and ’50s:  English people were continually trying to give him curries “in consideration of my being an Indian”. But they were “as different from the genuine Indian article as two things could possibly be”.

It’s better to think of “English curry” as a fusion, distinct from Indian food. But then chilli came to India via the Portuguese from the Americas. “Vindaloo” is itself a 16th-century fusion: a Goan interpretation of a Portuguese recipe for meat marinaded in wine. Think of that when you have curry sauce on your (naturalised Sephardic Jewish) fish and chips.