Country Captain Chicken Curry is like slice of history served in a bowl.
A rustic chicken curry dish with few basic spices, but with a technique that is so distinctive of British cuisine in general, was hugely popular chicken curry among Anglo Indian communities of then Calcutta.
With time this country captain chicken curry had metamorphosed into something new and imaginative, with creamy gravy adorned with almonds and pistachios (one school of thought claimed this version as original, but the historical facts does not comply with this), that has little or no connection with the original one.
Most of the Anglo-Indian heritage recipes are lost with time, with no clear documentation exists but in some parts of Bengal and Bangladesh, they still exists in some form as a relic of the imperial colonial past.
Before heading towards the recipe, here is a little piece of history that will shed enough light on – how country captain chicken curry originates and why it used to be cooked like this and not the other ways.
“At the dawn of 16 th century, strange things began to happen on Bengal shores. The quest of spices from Asia eventually brought Portuguese to Indian shores of Calicut. Few decades later those carracks moved eastward, into the bay of Bengal.
Locals were in awe, kind of reverential mixed feelings of amusement and horror. Horror because they brought with themselves “never before seen objects” , objects of religious nature, food, wine, vinegar and above all the strange language they spoke. They were not the regular Arab traders as evident by their fair skin and blue eyes. They were different.
They were the Portuguese. The first Europeans to land on the Bengal shores.
The conquests of Malacaa paved inroads into the Bay of Bengal for the Portuguese, and many came as private merchants boarded in Moorish ships in pursuit of rice and textiles. Two decades later, official envoy of fleet of four ships from Goa moored on the shores of Bengal. The increase commerce brought many peoples from bureaucrats, merchants, missionaries to pirates and soon Portuguese trading posts began to flourish along the shores. Lands were granted to the Portuguese traders by the then Sultan of Bengal, at one of the important ports of Bengal, Chittagong.
But Chittagong was always a bone of contention between Bengal Sultan and Arakanese Empire of South, Burmese king of North and Tripura.
With the unification of Iberian Peninsula between Kingdoms of Portugal and Spanish crowns, many things began to change which eventually shift the course of Bengal adventures for these Portuguese. The trade merchants were now pretty much on their own, not bounded by the laws of any governor. Bay of Bengal in those days was hotbed for pirates of all nationalities, Arakanese, Portuguese, Dutch and sometimes French too.
Lush verdant green hill tracts of Chittagong were plundered by the Portuguese and the Arakanese empire, an attempt to reclaim Chittagong as part of Arakanese empire. The tribal mogs / mawgs were abducted and enslaved in the Portuguese galley ships. But the reputation of these mogs as “food wizards” superseded everything else and soon they were appointed as cooks on the Portuguese ships. Mogs quickly learned the cooking techniques of their master, use of vinegar and tamarind to induce sourness in the dish, so that it can stay good for long, and traditional fish stews that are being prepared with limited ingredients available on the ships pantry, and in no time mastered the art of Portuguese cooking.
The reputation of these gifted and talented mog cooks spread throughout the Bengal region and they were in much demand for their culinary skills, from Bengal nobility to English genteel, all look forwarded to them to entertain their esteemed guests on special occasions.
Under the British tutelage the mogs learned how to bake and roast, like hard ship’s biscuits of earlier days. They were also an expert in hijacking recipes of different cuisine and culture, like Muslim boatmen’s country fowl recipe (that famous goalando steamer curry), their own British master’s recipes and cooking techniques, that eventually get mixed with their indigenous flavours, and dished up an entirely new dish with a taste of sourness as relict of their Portuguese past.
Thus born the country captain chicken curry. A hugely popular Anglo-Indian chicken curry with many stories claiming its origins in myriad and mystic ways.”
The term “country” in the dish’s title possibly refer to then British EIC trade ships, or the “country”river steamers that used to operate between Bengal and Burma through hooghly river, and their captains known as “Country Captain” or kountry kooptan and this particular dish made with country fowl or duck was supposedly a popular item on the menu at the Captain’s table.
The famous IGN (Indian General Navigation) – RSN (River System Navigation) Country captain chicken curry along with cream of chicken soup, fried bekti and caramel custards was regular dishes on the menu of those steamers that used to ply between Goalundo – Dacca and Goalundo – Chandpur routes as mentioned in the book by Ashok Mitra – Towards Independence 1940-1947 : Memoirs of an Indian civil servant which validates this story.
If this little piece of history does not entice you for a culinary adventure, a heritage recipe in all its full glory then what it would be. This and many such stories now a days sounds much like fables, difficult to fathom for those who did not lived through that part of history.
- Chicken / country fowl : 1 kg
- Ginger paste : 2 tbsp
- Garlic paste : 1 tbsp
- Red Onions : 3 big sliced
- Turmeric powder : 1 tsp
- Red chilli powder : 2 tsp
- Salt to taste
- Refined oil : 4-5 tbsp or as required
- Black peppercorns : 5-6
- Cinnamon sticks: 2
- Cloves : 4-5
- Dry red chillies : 2 finely chopped
- Tamarind water : ½ cup (optional)
- Wash and clean the chicken very well.
- Now marinate the chicken with salt, turmeric, red chilli powder, ginger paste, garlic paste for about one hour.
- Heat the oil in a pan, and fry the sliced onions till light brown in color.
- Add the marinated pieces of chicken and roast the pieces till nicely browned from all sides.
- This will take around 20 minutes.
- Once browned. add rest of the ingredients listed, add 2 cups water, bring to boil.
- Cover and cook till done.
- Serve with Anglo-Indian yellow rice or with plain rice.
This recipe has been adopted from Bridget White Kumar’s recipe book. Some versions also use tomatoes. Tomatoes were very expensive in those days, and was largely an import product. So I doubt that would be readily available on steamers and ships.
I have added tamarind water in the recipe, as this was mentioned in the food history book “Calcutta Cookbook”. Tamarind gives a very distinct touch to the dish, like many other Anglo-Indian dishes with a hint of sour notes. Roasting the meat is a technique which is integral to traditional British cuisine and in this recipe, roasting brings out a distinct flavour to the dish. So do not skip that part.
Country captain chicken curry had traveled all the way from Indian shores to America in mid 19th century and the story goes that the ship’s captain had possibly introduced this dish to southerners via the port of Savannah or Charleston. In America, this recipe got a major transformation, bell peppers were added along with almonds, raisins and later cream also. Now it is regarded as one of the Southern classics.
Have a fabulous day!