Thursday, January 31, 2013

SOME LIKED IT HOT! Cooking Curry in Jane Austen's Time

by Lauren Gilbert

On my first trip to England, one of the first things I wanted to try was Indian food, particularly curry.  I used to think that trying spicy food from other places was a modern taste, and it was not a concept that I associated with typical English cuisine of Jane Austen’s time.  However, history proves me wrong.  Cookbooks and recipes from the 18th and 19th centuries show that flavorful food was important, and herbs and seasonings were as important to cooks then as they are today.  Trade and colonies yielded new seasonings and tastes.   Travellers and immigrants had brought different seasonings and dishes into England, as did returning soldiers, sailors and traders.  Spices, especially pepper, at different times were an exchange item, valued as money.  Clearly, strong, distinct, spicy flavors had been incorporated into the culinary landscape, and hot seasoning was a part of that.  I had intended to present a broad overview of the use of herbs and spices in cooking during Jane Austen’s day.  However, I was distracted by Martha Lloyd’s curry recipes, so today our focus will be curry in Jane Austen’s time.
           There is a perception that the popularity of spices in earlier times was based at least in part on their value as preservatives, which is actually not correct.  It was driven by flavor and medicinal values.  Lack of refrigeration resulted in the “high” (tainted) flavor of meat, fish and poultries, so seasonings were used to disguise the taste.  (Spices were not effective as preservatives, and were too expensive to use in a quantity required for preserving, the way salt is used).  Cubeb and cayenne are both hot and spicy, and are listed in Culpeper (which indicates they could be grown in England). Uses of sauces and strong tastes, such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon etc. produced complex, sophisticated flavors that appealed to the wealthy.  When combined with the supposed medicinal values (hot spicy seasoning balanced cool moist humours of meat and fish), we can see how the desire for spices grew.
            Before 13th century, the taste for spice came back with the crusaders. Originally, the spice trade was controlled by the Arabs in the Middle East, but the Dutch and Portuguese became competitors, with the Dutch ultimately assuming control.   In order to participate in (and to try to ultimately control) the spice trade, the British East India Company was formed in 1600 to compete with the Dutch.  In 1608, the British East India Company established its first base in India, and, for the first time, Britain had access to spices that were not controlled by the Dutch.  Spice trade was driven by the craving for varied and exotic tastes as well as the medicinal values of various spices (spice was the first globally-traded commodity, one of the first pushes to globalization).  It is interesting to note that hot peppers (capsicum-cayenne peppers) were introduced into Asia by European traders after they were found in the New World (the name “Indian peppers” relates to the New World, not India).  English traders began to settle in India in the early 1600’s. 
           Indian seasonings gained increasing popularity in England as their flavors were brought with returnees from India who desired to recreate flavors they had come to enjoy, and shared them.  The cost of spices remained high in spite of English control of spice trade-almost constant warfare disrupted trade and consequently affected cost and availability.  There is disagreement on the origin of the word “curry”, but it was applied to Indian dishes with spiced sauces by the English in the 17th century.  The Hindostanee Coffee House was opened by Dean Mahomed in London in 1809, advertising Indian dishes better than any curries made in England before. (Hookah pipes could also be smoked there.)  Although Mr. Mahomed went bankrupt in 3 years (people did not dine out then as commonly as now), this restaurant remained open for some years under various owners.  Popularity spread to middle classes, in spite of cost.  (Note that the cachet of spices lessened somewhat as their perceived medicinal value declined due to improved modern medical knowledge, a loss of status which may have resulted in a slightly reduced monetary value that may have allowed them to be a bit more easily purchased by other than the wealthy classes. However the cost did not reflect any significant decline during the Georgian era, thanks to war, blockades and piracy.)  
          Curry was an established element of English cooking in the Georgian era.  In the 1st edition of of Hannah Glasse’s THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY, she included a recipe for “Fowle Rabbit Currey” in which rabbit is stewed with rice flour (thickener), coriander seeds and black peppercorns, which would have been very mild (in the 4th edition, ginger and turmeric are included).  Hannah Glasse’s original recipe may have been one of the earliest examples of changing a recipe to suit a different population’s taste.  The 1774 new edition contains a recipe for “To make a currey the Indian way” (chicken with turmeric, ginger, salt and pepper) and for “A Pellew the Indian Way” (rice pilau with pepper, mace and cloves) on page 101.  
           John Mollard’s THE ART OF COOKERY Made Easy and Refined, 2nd edition had a recipe for “currie” (curried chicken) on page 81, referring to 2 T of “currie powder”, and cayenne pepper to taste, which seems to indicate an increasing fondness for the Indian spices and for heat.  There is also a “Currie of lobster” on page 83 and “A Peloe of rice” (pilau of rice) on page 95, while on page 254 there is a recipe for Currie (Pepper Water) which is apparently a version of what became known as Mulligatawny Soup.  Available information indicates that curry powders were widely known and subject to individual tastes; recipes for curry powder were highly variable.
           Curry is mentioned in Martha Lloyd’s household book: curry powder, curry soup, curried chicken. Martha was Jane Austen's friend, and lived with Jane, her mother and sister, before she finally married Jane's brother Francis.  It is safe to assume Jane Austen would have had curry dishes.  Note that Martha mentions use of cayenne and black pepper “to your taste...” so it seems evident that the heat level was a personal matter even then.  Martha’s recipe for curry powder contains turmeric, galangal (a ginger relative), cayenne pepper and rice flour.  (The use of few spices could be a matter of taste or a matter of cost, or elements of both.)   I made it up and used it in a dish similar to “A Receipt to Curry after the Indian Manner” from THE JANE AUSTEN COOKBOOK.  It is very mild, and has a nice flavor, perfect for someone who has never tried curry or for someone who doesn’t care for a strong or pungent curry.  The flavor could be deepened by increasing the turmeric and/or galangal, or by adding other Indian spices, such as cumin, coriander, or other spices.  One source indicated the rice powder would be a thickener of the sauce but I noticed very little thickening effect.  
           Curry maintained its popularity through the 19th century, coming to a peak in Victoria’s reign.  It declined in the early 20th century, but has become a staple of British cuisine again.  While the flavors may be somewhat different than those with which Jane Austen and her family may have been familiar, the concept and the spices combined to make curry would not be foreign to her.

Black,Maggie & Le Faye, Deirdre.  THE JANE AUSTEN COOKBOOK.  1995 : McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, Canada. 
Hickman, Peggy.  A JANE AUSTEN HOUSEHOLD BOOK with Martha Lloyd’s recipes.  1977: David & Charles Inc., North Pomfret, Vermont.
Tannahill, Reay.  Food in History.  1988, 1973: Three Rivers Press, New York, New York. THE ART OF COOKERY Made Easy and Refined.  By John Mollard.  2nd edition, 1802.  THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY.  By Hannah Glasse.  A new edition, 1784.
A History of Curry.  (Undated, no author shown.)
BBC News Magazine.  “How Britain got the hots for curry”, by Rumeana Jahangir.  (Page last updated 11/26/2009) 
National Bureau of Economic Research website.   “The Worldwide economic impact of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars”  by Kevin H. O’Rourke.  May 2005.  Dept. of Economics and IIIS, Trinity College, Dublin, and CPER and NBER.
The Curry House Online.  “A History of Curry” by David W. Smith, 2012.
The East India Company website.  “East India Company Timeline”. Undated and no author shown.
 YaleGlobal Online.  “SPICES: How the Search for Flavors Influenced Our World” by Paul Freedman, posted March 11, 2003.

Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband, who has actually eaten and survived vindaloo curry.  She is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, her first published book.  Her second novel is due out later this year.  Visit!


  1. Great resources. Thank you. One of my favorite dishes is muligatany stew (made with curry).

  2. Oh, you have made me hungry after reading your post. That is fascinating about the history of the spice trade and cooking with spices. Its neat to think that Jane Austen was eating dishes with curry like it was common and ordinary just like us.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. It's very odd to think of curry apparently made without chilli..?

  4. Hi, Anne! Apparently hot peppers were a late addition, but the heat became extremely popular in Indian and Asian cooking very quickly! By Jane Austen's time, cayenne pepper (also known as guinea pepper in Culpepper's COMPLETE HERBAL) was a well-known ingredient, used "to taste." However, even without the hot peppers, the spices used in curry would have resulted in a very flavorful dish, well able to disguise a slightly "off" taste.

  5. Fascinating post! I find it all the more enjoyable because of an episode of Red Dwarf in which curry-loving Lister and his shipmates visit Jane Austen World and introduce the Bennets to curry. :-) looks like they would already have known, eh?(g)

  6. Thanks so much for this. The one food I miss from living in England is curry.

  7. Some of the best curry can be found in London today so it is not surprising curry came to England long ago. Fascinating article--thanks!