The Southern Curry

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up thinking of curry powder as a singular seasoning, not as the blend of herbs and spices it actually is. Even after I discovered that curries are spice blends, I was still unaware of the incredible number of varieties until my cousin Paige, who married into an Indian family, sent me Madhur Jeffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking and Ruta Kahate’s 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. Granted, I knew enough history to know that India is not so much a country as it is a sub-continent with an astounding number of peoples spread over one and a quarter million square miles, but still the intricacies of the cuisines left me reeling. Then there is curry powder itself, about which Jaffrey in her introduction on how to produce “that genuine flavor” says, “Let me start negatively by saying that what you don’t need is curry powder.” Curry, she says, is “a British oversimplification for what is universally regarded as a richly varied cuisine,” as degrading as “chop suey” for Chinese cooking. As no stranger to defeat, I knew that I was in way over my head.

I’ll keep working on the cuisine of Delhi, which is Jeffrey’s specialty, but while I’m still learning, I can always fall back on the one curry dish in the Southern repertoire, Country Captain, which is a chicken curry (there’s really no other way to describe it) from South Carolina. While Jeffery’s recipes will include precise measurements for seasoning mixtures (dare I call them curries?) with as many as eight or more herbs and spices, most recipes you’ll find for Country Captain simply call for “curry powder”, which is available in any supermarket. I used the McCormick blend with coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, celery seed, nutmeg, cloves, onion, red pepper and ginger, which I’m content to consider a reasonably complicated if not authentic amalgamation. The recipe I used is a riff off Winifred Green Cheney’s in her Southern Hospitality Cookbook, which she, being a woman of A Certain Station and Age, assures us is a direct replica of that served by Mrs. W.L. Bullard of Warm Springs, Georgia, who “often served her famous dish to the late Franklin D. Roosevelt”, but you can find a good recipe for Country Captain in any Junior League-style cookbook.