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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Captain Goes Down With The Ship

I'm not a world traveller.

Not by far. I've been to New York once, Tijuana briefly, and to the UK for 2 weeks.

I loved England and Wales. If I wasn't going back to the South this summer on what will be a Southern-Fried Bar-B-Q roadtrip with Bruce, I'd go back in a flash. England was cool, and Bruce and I quickly adapted to the local culture – you wouldn't believe how many bad drivers we gave the finger to!

L: Safeway in Tewkesbury, R: The town of Ledbury

Of course, we tried to blend in with the locals as much as we could, even going to the local Safeway in Tewkesbury to grocery shop. The English Safeway had some similarties with the ones we have here, but with a few obvious differences; I think of it as the uncircumsized British cousin who likes Gunther and wears trainers. Besides the fact that you could readily buy black pudding and Scotch ("picnic") eggs or that the cashiers sit down, your Safeway Club Card doesn't work, and they don't even accept coupons (what the fuck?!), there were tons of unusual canned foods, such as Chicken Tikka Masala; furthermore known as CTM.

Before we arrived in England, I had no idea the grip CTM had on the British palate and psyche. I'd always regarded the dish as a great Indian restaurant standard - like Saag Paneer - but little did I know that CTM is the British equivalent of Mac and Cheese. Or, actually, their CTM is our Sweet and Sour Pork. Except, more so.

I'm finding it difficult to analogize.

Anyway, other things are different as well, such as if you or parents are originally from the Indian Subcontinent you are often referred to as "Asian", whereas Asians to us are those wacky and lovable folks of which some are currently getting their Gung Hay Fat Choy on.

Happy New Year, yall!!!!

The majority of immigration from the Indian Subcontinent to the United States has historically been Punjabi (and those who identify with pre-partition India), while immigration to Britain has historically been Pakistani (also Punjabi) and Bangladeshi. In the popular Western mind, the people of Bangladesh are famous for two things: 1) a bad ass, all-star benefit concert organized by George Harrison that would inspire dozens of future imitators, and 2) working their powers of fusion cuisine to come up with a dish that would lure drunken British yobboes into their Brick Lane restaurants long enough to a) sell more alcohol, b) pass off expired chicken covered in a thick and spicy gravy, and c) seek revenge on those white bastards for bringing their shit into Southall.

Okay. I may be embellishing that last part.

Still, what's not an embellishment is the fact that Chicken Tikka Masala was Made In England, not the cities formerly known as Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. And yet, the Brits aren't alone in their love of bastardized chicken curry dishes because while I say "toe-may-toe" and you say "toe-mah-toe", Brits say Chicken Tikka Masala and we say Country Captain.


I said Country Captain.

That's right: long before the Brits were claiming CTM as their national dish, black and white cooks in the American South were slangin' and servin' chicken curry...Lowcountry Style, beeyatches! This is no "which came first: the CTM or the Country Captain" debate. CTM wasn't even a blip on Churchill's radar when a Mrs. Bullard of Warm Springs, Georgia was knocking FDR's socks off with a hot and hearty dish of Country Captain.

What is arguable is the origin of Country Captain and who first gave it that goofy sounding name.

What we do know is that the dish known as Country Captain likely originated during the time Charleston and Savannah were two of the major Atlantic ports of entry for everything from slaves to spices. Starting in the late 17th century, international trade made Charleston (and later Savannah) into one of the wealthiest cities in America. British trade routes to India, in particular the city of Madras, introduced exotic spices to the New World through these ports; spices which found their way into the regional, indigenous cuisine.

A Country Captain, according to the research of Linda Stradley, was a British Army officer stationed in Bengal, India of which a dry chicken curry, made with onions and curry powder, is named for. Curry powder, like CTM, is also a British creation and likely one of the first convenience foods brought back from India by returning soldiers. After the invention of curry powder, canned CTM was just one slippery slope away.

Technically, then, Country Captain was and is the British-American predecessor to CTM since both Savannah and Charleston were once British colonies – Charleston being the namesake of King Charles II (unfortunately, not one of England's most stellar monarchs – rather like the Bush of his day).

For the most part, it never really left where it took off. To this day, Country Captain remains a dish most Americans, even most Southerners, have never heard of. It is a lowcountry specialty that, at one time, spread throughout the South but, like many old-timey recipes, has diminshed in popularity. Eerily, the largest consumers of this colonial-era, military dish may be perhaps our own Armed Servicemembers consuming Country Captain in the form of MREs ("Meals Ready-to-Eat") while stationed in Iraq.

Is it just me, or is that a little weird?

Right. Just me.

To prepare myself for our upcoming Southern-fried roadtrip, I've been preparing some of these Southern and lowcountry specialties and when I came across the name Country Captain, I just couldn’t' resist.

While there are a lot of recipes out there, I finally decided on going with the recipe in the book The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. Edna Lewis, who passed away at the age of 89 a year ago this month, was one of the greatest transplanted (to NYC) Southern chefs around while her co-author, Scott Peacock, is an impressive Southern chef in his own right.

Before I get started on the recipe, I should warn you that I didn't follow it precisely. Don't be surprised. Do most people follow any recipe precisely?

If there was a Family Feud category where you had to name the top three types of instructions people partially follow, recipes and diets would rank second and third, respectively. At number one would be – survey says – "lay the weapon on the ground, step away, and keep your hands where I can see them."

However, I do recommend checking out the book and following their recipe precisely. And while you're at it, check out the others because this is a really great book.



1 4-5 pound chicken, cut into pieces
1 tsp thyme
1-2 tsp salt and pepper
6 slices of bacon
2½ cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery (keep the leaves for later)
2 cups diced green bell pepper
1 Tb chopped garlic
2 14-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
2½ Tb curry powder
1/3 cup currants
2 bay leaves

First, if you don't have curry powder, I suggest you go to your local South Asian or Middle Eastern grocery store and buy some. You could make your own, and if you do – well aren’t you just fucking special. However, I keep curry powder around for in a pinch (pun alert). The last curry powder we bought was from a fabulous Assyrian grocery store in Modesto called Babylon Market - up there with my all-time favorite markets. The curry powder is called "Ship – Madras Curry Powder" and comes in a little green can.

The label on the can is written in both English and Arabic, but don't let that tempt you into believing this is something exotic. When read properly, the Arabic side of the can translates into "Mrs. Dash".

The side of the can lists the ingredients, just in case you need to know if one of them will screw with your allergies. By the way, cassia is just another word for cinnamon and if you eat this curry powder raw, you will die a horrible, painful death – but not before you bleed out the eyes first.


So, let's start by cooking our bacon. The bacon will later be sprinkled on top of the finished dish, but while we're cooking it, it doesn't make sense to me to throw out all of that good bacon grease. After it's finished getting all good and crispy, reserve the bacon to a papertowel-lined plate and add a little bit more vegetable oil (or bacon grease if you have it) to the pan. On medium-high, brown your chicken pieces without crowding the pan. This will be done in several batches.

Once the chicken is browned (but not cooked all the way through), reserve it to a plate and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.

Now it's time to make the curry sauce. Pour out most of the grease from the pan (here, I'm using a cast-iron, enameled dutch oven), saving a tablespoon or so in the pan. Toss in your onions and cook for several minutes until soft. Next, throw in your celery and peppers and cook for another 5 minutes. Then in goes your garlic – again, cook and stir for another minute.

Next, add your 2 cans of chopped tomatoes (I use an organic "no salt added" variety), plus half a can of water, and stir. Partially cover your pan, pot, dutch over, whatever and simmer on medium-low for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When your 10 minutes are up, stir in your thyme, curry powder, salt and pepper, bay leaves and currants. Cover tightly and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Somewhere close to the end of this period, heat your oven to 350F (180C, or gas mark 4, if you wear trainers).

Your sauce is done when the neighbors upstairs are pounding on the floor, begging you to stop killing them with the aroma of fragrant spices as they drown in a pool of their own saliva.

The next part is simple: take your chicken pieces and fit them into the dutch oven, making sure to cover them as much as possible with the sauce. Once they're arranged, cover them and bake for approximately an hour and a half. During this time, wash your rice and have it ready to start 25 minutes or so before your chicken is done. Also, bring your chutneys out of the refrigerator and let them warm to room temperature.

I think you'll be pretty happy when you see the results. If you have guests around, this makes a perfect one-pot dish to serve up. In fact, you could probably make this in advance to take to a potluck where you'll both wow and amaze your friends with this tasty, but mild, chicken curry that has such an interesting story behind it.

But the real test is whether or not it's any good, so let's serve some up, shall we? First, spoon up a serving of basmati rice – I'm lovin' that basmati rice (carbs and all). Then spoon over a little bit of sauce, a chicken piece, maybe a little more sauce, a little bit of sumpin sumpin, some chopped bacon pieces, and some chopped celery leaves.

Maybe a little bit of Madras Onion and/or Mango Ginger chutney on the side...

Yeah, that about does it.

Down the hatch!


PS - Again, Happy Chinese New Year! It is the year of the Pig, and we at Bacon Press plan on going HOG WILD this year! Our birthyear is in the sign of the Ox, which we already read means will travel a lot and make lots of money, but will spend most of it. I'm okay with that!

PPS - If you're wondering where the hell I've been, you probably don't read my other blog – of which I'm close to being finished with my current series and will probably start writing more here.

PPPS - Just because I can.