Thursday, 13 August 2015

Madras Curry, and What it Means to be 'Authentic'

‘Authentic’ is a one of those words that’s thrown around a lot, but is surprisingly tricky to pin down. We want our recipes and restaurants to be authentic, in part I think because it demonstrates that we are discerning, educated consumers of food. We don’t often give much thought to the concept of authenticity because, to paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote about pornography, “we know it when we see it”.

But authenticity is a bit more slippery than that. It depends on culture – the culture of the person making the judgement, and the culture of the period and place they are comparing the item to. This might sound like I’m flinging us into the murky waters of complete subjectivity, but really I’m just asking for a bit of pedantry: be specific. An authentic bolognaise in Australia (real parmesan cheese!) might be somewhat different to that in Bologna.

With all that in mind, if I told you that today’s recipe was for Madras curry, which is a hot red curry which has its origins in the 1600s in the city of Madras in India, the word “authentic” would no doubt spring to mind. But what about if I told you that it was a recipe for a curry that was probably a British-Indian dish – and what’s more it evolved in Britain rather than India? Your enthusiasm might dim a bit, as the words ‘derivative’ and ‘authentic’ don’t sit comfortably together in our modern conception of food.

As a17th century Indian curry, Madras probably isn’t authentic. But as a British-Indian dish, Madras curry is a genuine cultural artefact.  British-Indian cuisine has been around for over 400 years, which for comparative purposes is as long as the Italians have been using tomatoes, and twice as long as European settlers have been living in Australia.

The popularity of Madras curry in Australia can be attested to by the fact that, to this day, you can purchase both curry powder and Madras curry powder from iconic brand Clive of India in Australian supermarkets. If you live in a country without the lingering supermarket-selection influence of the British Empire, you can make your own Madras curry powder by using one of these recipes.

This particular recipe produces a slightly tart curry of moderate heat. If you would like to try it but prefer a milder curry, you can slather it with yogurt, which is my wife’s go-to method of eating curry.

Here is the original 1896 recipe:

MADRAS DRY CURRY.—Cut 1lb. of meat into small pieces, slice one onion and fry it in butter to a light brown, then add one table - spoonful of Madras curry powder, one teacup- ful of water, one breakfastcupful of gravy, the juice of one lemon, and a little salt; stew all together till nearly dry, and send it up quite hot.    

RECIPES. (1869, March 6). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 7.


450g of beef
1 large onion, sliced finely
2 t butter to fry
1T Madras curry powder
500ml stock
Juice of 1 lemon (4T)
Pinch of salt

Cooking Time
40 minutes. Put the rice cooker on 10 minutes in if you’d like some rice on the side (and who wouldn’t?)

2 hearty serves, with rice and veg

Cut the meat into 1 inch cubes.

Melt the butter in a fryingpan, and when it begins to bubble add the sliced onion and beef.

Fry until both are light brown.

Add the madras curry powder, and stir it for a minute until aromatic. If you’re worried about burning it, you can take the pan off the stove for this step. (Burnt curry powder will go bitter. Now that I’ve said that, you’re probably worried about burning it, even if you weren’t beforehand. Sorry.)

Add the stock, lemon juice and salt, and stir to remove the fond from the pan. The fond it’s the delicious crispy bits of flavour that have stuck to the base of your pan. Unless you’re using a non-stick pan, in which case you’re seriously missing out.
Cook, stirring regularly, until the sauce has almost evaporated, and has stuck to the beef.

As in my second illustration, you can serve it with rice and some veggies. I steamed carrots, and then tossed them with 1 t honey and ½ t cinnamon. Then I attempted to ‘plate’ the dish like they do on Masterchef.  Needless to say I’m a better food historian than food stylist.