My Citizens, I am honored to share your journey as you follow my lead – like Dante walking in the steps of Virgil – into the subtleties of preparing British Indian Restaurant (BIR) curries! We have already learned how to make the mandatory curry base and the deadly phall – the most lethally spicy curry on the planet! – and now we move on to the middle-of-the-road Madras Curry! 🙂
Madras curry or Madras sauce is a fairly hot curry sauce, red in color and said to have originated from the south of India. It received its name from the city known as Madras when English merchants arrived there in 1640 (now Chennai).
However, the name ‘Madras Curry’ is not used in India, but was actually invented by restaurants in Britain. The spicy Madras curry served in British restaurants is quite different from authentic Madras curries, with the British variation originating from British Bangladeshi restaurants in the 1970s.
Learning to achieve that proper BIR flavor is what this series is all about, and you can do no better than to start with this tutorial – it is authentic in every way! 🙂
Madras curry powder is not an Indian spice blend, although it does use Indian ingredients. It is a formulation of ingredients designed to suit English tastes and differs significantly from the spice blends used in Madras. My version of this curry powder is almost exactly based on one I found at food52.com, although I have made a few small tweaks.
As noted in an interesting article on Quartz India:
Victorian cookbooks served a particularly important purpose in the colonisation process. Susan Zlotnick, in a fantastic essay, describes how the cookbook became the way India was assimilated into the Empire. British women were given the task of bringing imperialism home in an easy-to-swallow manner.
They used the medium of cookbooks and “incorporated Indian food, which functioned metonymically for India, into the national diet and made it culturally British”.
Acton does this quite clearly in her Modern Cookery for Private Families. She begins by bemoaning how English food is “far inferior to that of nations much less advanced in civilisation”, and thus provides easy curry recipes to make it more exciting.
The key to making curry for her is “curry powder”—a British concoction that blends large amounts of turmeric with mainly cumin, chilli and fenugreek, and has little resemblance to anything you would get in India.
All of Acton’s dishes use it—a curry powder-infused mulligatawny soup, which she says is “much recommended by persons who have been long resident in India”, veal cutlets à l’Indienne that are to “have a good currie sauce ready prepared to send to the table” and fried chicken à la Malabar, which is fried chicken coated in—you guessed it—curry powder.
This use of curry powder as the ingredient that makes a dish Indian is a common feature in many other British recipes of the time. The bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1888) uses this strategy to make curried beef. An Indian recipe from a Victorian manor in 1890, discovered in early 2015 at the East Riding College, reveals the same idea—chopped onions, lamb and a heap of curry powder.
Subsequently, by the time the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, curry and curry powder became established signifiers for Indian food, but on entirely British terms.
Walk into a grocery store in India and you find that the singular curry powder does not exist, neither as material nor idea. In India, we use endless varieties of spice mixes instead. Uma Narayanan writes that British curry powder replaced varied local masalas and distinctive eating cultures and fabricated a homogenous notion of Indian food, in much the same way that the British rule fabricated a unified India.
Citizens, while this Madras curry can be quickly made once you have prepared all the spice powders, you will have to take some time – just once! – to make these spice blends. You can store them afterwards and make this recipe in a flash!
You can buy excellent ghee here, Kashmiri chili powder here, whole Kashmiri chilis here, fresh curry leaves here, dried fenugreek leaves here, Maharaja-style curry powder here, and Ceylon cinnamon sticks here. This recipe is also a bit unusual in that it calls for sweet and sour Mango Chutney in the curry itself – another Anglicized change to the classic Indian Madras recipe.
This is one of my all-time favorite BIR curries, Citizens! Just grab some naan from the grocery store, freeze the curry base and you can easily whip this up anytime you’re in the mood for a proper curry feast!
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