Curry chemist-ry

An advertisement for curry powder sold in Senior's Pharmacy

Advertisement for Senior's curry powder in Hannah Maclurcan, Mrs Maclurcan’s cookery cook, George Robertson &​ Co, Melbourne, c1905. Rouse Hill House & Farm Collection

This advertisement was published in Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book c1905. The book contains several curry recipes, including Mulligatawny soup and curiously but possibly delicious, Curried Green Bananas.

The apothecary’s craft

Indian curry powders became all the rage in the Victorian era and while spices such as pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg were everyday pantry items in the nineteenth-century, curry spices like turmeric, cumin, cardamom were still highly ‘exotic’.

Historically, spices were the  apothecary’s craft, and could still be purchased from chemists shops such as Senior’s Pharmacy, which was quite an institution on George Street in Sydney.

There are as many curry powders as there are curry makers (all of them authentic of course!) and chemists and specialty grocers created  their own signature blends. Keen’s curry powder originated in Hobart, Tasmania in the 1860s and is probably the only Australian version to survive commercially.

A container of Keen's traditional curry powder

Reproduced courtesy McCormick

Another Tasmanian, Edward Abbott, is credited with publishing the first Australian-authored cook book, the quaintly titled English and Australian cookery book, for the the Many and the Upper Ten-thousand in 1864. Sensibly, his curry powder recipe used common pantry spices along with the key Indian curry ingredient, turmeric, which householders would need to purchase, probably from their local pharmacist, for this purpose:

mustard seed 1 & 1/2 oz; coriander seed 4oz; turmeric 4 & 1/4 oz; cayenne & black pepper each 1 & 1/4 oz; ginger 1/2 oz; cinnamon, clove, mace each 1/4 oz.

The recipe makes about 375 g which is a large quantity for domestic use, though perhaps suggests the volume a household might require when curries were de rigueur. With its high proportion of turmeric and coriander (which were cheap) it’s very much what we would call a Madras-style curry powder, with the turmeric giving a wonderful yellow glow, it’s ideal for a kedgeree.

Kedgeree decorated with a St Andrew's Cross, parsley, eggs and lemon.

Kedgeree. Photograph Scott Hill © HHT

Kedgeree

Allergy Egg, Fish
Meal type Breakfast
Region Indian

Ingredients

  • 1 onion (sliced)
  • 2 tablespoons ghee (or butter)
  • 3 cups cooked basmati rice (cook 200 g or 1 cup of rice the day before and refrigerate)
  • 3 teaspoons curry powder
  • salt, pepper, cayenne pepper (optional), to taste
  • 2 tablespoons currants (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted (optional)
  • 200g hot-smoked trout (or salmon), skin and bones removed
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved or sliced
  • dill or mint leaves (to garnish)
  • Indian-style chutney, plain yoghurt and lemon wedges (to serve)

Note

Kedgeree was a popular Anglo-Indian breakfast dish in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was enjoyed as a light lunch or supper dish in the 20th century.

Serves 4 as a light meal

Directions

Gently sauté the onions in the ghee or butter in a large frying pan over medium heat for 10–15 minutes or until the onion becomes translucent and golden, adding a tablespoon or two of water if the onion is burning or sticking to the pan.
Add the cooked rice and curry powder, along with 125 ml (1/2 cup) of water to moisten the rice and prevent it from sticking to the pan.
Add the cayenne pepper, currants and almonds, if using, and stir through the rice. Season to taste. Once the rice is warmed through and the liquid has evaporated, taste to see if more seasoning or curry powder is needed.
Transfer the rice mixture to a serving platter. Break the fish into bite-sized pieces over the rice and arrange the eggs decoratively. Garnish with the dill or mint. Serve with your favourite Indian chutney, plain yoghurt and lemon wedges.

 

Edward Abbott’s curry powder

Ingredients

  • 80g turmeric (or to taste)
  • 70g coriander seeds, finely ground (or to taste)
  • 40g black pepper, finely ground
  • 30g mustard seeds, finely ground
  • 20g cayenne pepper ((for milder result substitute all or part with sweet paprika))
  • 10g ground ginger
  • 5g ground cinnamon
  • 5g ground cloves
  • 5g ground mace* (available from good spice shops)

Note

Edward Abbott is credited with publishing the first Australian-authored cookbook, The English and Australian cookery book, for the many and the upper ten-thousand (1864). His curry powder recipe used common pantry spices along with the key Indian curry ingredient, turmeric, which householders would purchase, for this purpose, from a pharmacy or specialty grocer. The pepper and cayenne can dominate (perhaps they were milder in 1864!) so you may want to modify the ratios to taste.

Directions

Combine all the ingredients and blend together thoroughly. Store in an airtight container for a few days before using, to allow the flavours to meld. Keeps for up to 12 months.
*If you can't find ground mace, substitute with 5g ground nutmeg.

This recipe makes about 375 g, so consider making a half quantity to try it out, or pass on extra to friends as a gift

*Note: In the 1840s Senior’s Pharmacy was  located at 252 George Street North, where the ‘establishment’ entertainment complex now operates. The business moved to 246 George St in the 1890s as the advertisement above indicates. The original site was redeveloped as an ironmongers and household goods emporium, and its elegant first floor gallery  is now home to the three-hatted ‘est’ restaurant.

  • Bruce Baskerville

    Green bananas are used in some curry dishes on Norfolk Island – the cooking usually brings out a sweetness in the banana pieces, and being green they hold together, but they can also quite bland. The islanders use them as a vegetable in this way, and they usually add a nice texture even if sometimes tasteless.

  • The Curator

    Hi Bruce,
    I wonder if they’re plantains, which are best cooked when they’re green? Do you remember them as being larger than everyday bananas? On my kitchen table at home right now I actually have some plantains that I’m going to try cooking for the first time. I’m thinking in a curry, so any tips gratefully received!
    Cheers, Scott

  • The Cook

    HI Bruce, the early journals often make reference to harvesting the wild (therefore native?) bananas on Norfolk. I doubt the convicts were making curries, but they certainly would have provided valuable nutrients and welcomed variety to their diet. sadly, no references as to how they were prepared – cooked in with rice or added to stews? Roasted in their skins? It’d be fun to experiment with them.
    Thanks for responding to the story! Jacqui

    • Bruce Baskerville

      In Norf’k language bananas are called ‘plan’ or ‘plun’, presumably an abbreviation of plantain, although some people distinguish between plun and plantain. They aren’t native to the island, but were taken there by Polynesians about 600-800 years ago. Lt Gov King found them growing in Arthurs Vale in 1788, but I haven’t noticed how they ate them then (raw or cooked). The islanders today use them in all sorts of ways, I have some Norfolk cook books with banana/plan recipes. The plan today are much smaller than you get on the mainland, usually with lots of blotches and blemishes on the skin, various shades of green and yellow skins, sometimes red, and a beautiful sweet taste and creamy texture when ripe, much nicer than the great big bright yellow ones you get here that leave an unpleasant film on your teeth! One of my favourite island ways was little pancakes or pikelets into which slices of ripe plun were pushed while cooking, and then served hot with honey and/or porpay jelly (made from wild red guavas) – delicious with coffee, and probably not from the convict period!

      • The Cook

        Ok Bruce, enough! you’ve got us salivating! Clearly a trip to Norfolk Island is required to investigate the local fare. I’m very sure pancakes would have been on the colonists menu at least occasionally, cooked on shovels probably! As there was no sugar in their rations, the fruit would have provided a rare opportunity for a sweet treat.
        Perhaps they had them with ‘coffee’ too – the early colonists made a mock coffee by roasting wheat grains – a process still used today in some caffeine free coffee alternatives. I’ll stick with tea!
        cheers, Jacqui