Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heaved an exasperated sigh and declared, “I wish I had a mortar and pestle!”
Sometimes a mortar and pestle is just the right tool, particularly when grinding spices. Without one, I’ve been endangering myself with makeshift implements of destruction: rolling pin vs. plastic baggy of spices; liquor bottle bottom vs. mixing bowl. None of them worked as well as the real thing. The final straw was when I started investigating making my own curry powders, and grinding the odorous spices by hand seemed like a must. So, to Etsy! — where I paged through mortar and pestles large and small, wood and metal, vintage and new — all to find one that was not just practical, but beautiful, too.
My heart knew it was right when I saw a bright blue glazed mortar made from sturdy ceramic, with a pestle to match. After it arrived, I knew I needed to christen it with not just any curry, but THE curry: the first curry recipe to appear in the English language.
Curry has been prepared in India for thousands of years, but the Western world got a taste of it thanks to England’s merchants and sailors, who established trade routes to India as far back at the 1600s. The seamen had a penchant for the local food, which they generically referred to as “curry” — but could be any of the highly spiced and complex meat or vegetable dishes for which Indian cuisine is known. They brought both their taste for these dishes, and the spices to make them, home to Britain. The first recipe for a curry in the English language appears in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a British cookbook by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747.
Glasse’s Indian curry is simply spiced. While contemporary curries can have a dozen or more ingredients, hers uses only three: turmeric, ginger, and black pepper. We could assume her curry is an Anglicized version of the original, dumbed down for English cooks.
Actually, Glasse’s English curries may be one of the most authentic curries on record. Recent scholarship in India has uncovered clay pots, tandoori ovens, and human teeth at ancient archaeological sites in India. Examined on a molecular level, these dirty dishes can reveal tiny traces of what an ancient Indian had for dinner; many of these cook pots contained traces of turmeric and ginger, ingredients in what scientists are now calling a “proto-curry.”
And while a modern curry uses chilies, which are native to the Americas, Glasse uses black pepper, a vine native to India. Glasse’s simple three-spice curry is true to historic Indian curries and was an authentic taste of the exotic for English, and American, cooks.
In recreating Glasse’s curry, I ground ginger with cracked peppercorns in my mortar, and literally beat the turmeric — a rhizome related to the ginger family; it’s one tough cookie when dried. I cracked it repeatedly with blunt force from my pestle before grinding it fine. When I was done, I had never smelled turmeric so pungent and floral. The mortar and pestle had brought the true flavor of the spice alive.
After simmering on the stove, my first bite of chicken and sauce was thrilling: finished with cream, it had a rich mouthfeel, and the fairly modern touch of adding lemon juice brightened the flavor. Its taste, and even its bright color, was the perfect remedy for a gray February day.
Hannah Glasse’s Three-Spice Currey
Adapted from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747
1 chicken, skinned and broken down to breast, wings, and thighs
3 medium onions
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon each pepper, ginger, and turmeric, ground fine
½ cup heavy whipping cream
2 small lemons
In a large pot, cover chicken with 1 quart of water. Bring to a simmer, and cook for five minutes. Turn off heat.
Melt butter in a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add onions, cook until soft, 3 minutes. Add chicken and cook on each side until brown and seared. Sprinkle with spice mix and cook 30 seconds, then add water. Stew, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
Add cream and lemon juice; stir. Serve hot over rice.