In Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray ‘s razor-sharp satirical look at 19th century society’s manners and morals, orphaned protagonist Becky Sharp displays a most unpleasant character. A social climber ready to use any means to advance herself, she begins the attempt by setting her cap at Joseph Sedley, brother of her school friend Amelia. After
all, she would rather marry wealth than be forced to take up a job as a governess.

During a visit to Amelia’s family at their well-appointed London house, Becky has her first taste of curry.  Politely pronouncing it “excellent” even though Thackeray reveals she is suffering more than somewhat from its cayene pepper, Becky thought the proffered chili would cool her mouth.

Alas, she was mistaken.

The first curry I encountered was at school dinner one day at Brighton Avenue Junior School in Gateshead, northeastern England. It was egg curry, or as some would call it curried eggs, and considering how many children sat down to eat at the long tables set up in the assembly hall the red-faced,cheerful dinner ladies wielding big ladles must have boiled the necessary number of eggs in wash coppers.

We were working class, but curries of various sorts were popular among the l9th century upper crust, perhaps in a gustatory homage to the glories of the British Raj, which was then in its heyday. Even so, not everyone feted Indian cuisine.

Consider the warning sounded by Mrs E. E. Kellogg in her 1898 work Science in The Kitchen, wherein she stated diseases of the liver were common in countries where curry powder and similar condiments were used.

There may be something in her theory, for the brother of Becky Sharp’s friend has returned after eight years in India, working in Bengal as a collector of revenues for the East India Company. And why was he back in the old country? To be cured of a liver complaint with which he had been stricken during his time in Bengal!

While cooks can and do curry most animal, bird, fish, crustacean, or vegetable life, the 1860 edition of Mrs Isabella Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management treats of curries the likes of which were undreamt of in Brighton Avenue, including curried oysters, salmon, and lobster.

Mrs Beeton’s mode of cooking curried beef is of historical interest, given it mentions 4d (fourpence, twelve old pence making a shilling at the time) and cooking over a brisk fire. Here are her instructions:

INGREDIENTS.–A few slices of tolerably lean cold roast or boiled beef, 3 oz. of butter, 2 onions, 1 wineglassful of beer, 1 dessertspoonful of curry powder. MODE.–Cut up the beef into pieces about 1 inch square, put the butter into a stewpan with the onions sliced, and fry them of a lightly-brown colour. Add all the other ingredients, and stir gently over a brisk fire for about 10 minutes. Should this be thought too dry, more beer, or a spoonful or two of gravy or water, may be added; but a good curry should not be very thin. Place it in a deep dish, with an edging of dry boiled rice, in the same manner as for other curries. Time.10 minutes. Average cost, exclusive of the meat, 4d.

Mrs Beeton helpfully provides instructions for making curry powder, based on Dr Kitchiner’s recipe, though stating she thinks curry powder purchased in a respectable shop is both superior and usually more economical. Here is her version of this vital mixture of spices:

INGREDIENTS.–1/4 lb. of coriander-seed, 1/4 lb. of turmeric, 2 oz. of cinnamon-seed, 1/2 oz. of cayenne, 1 oz. of mustard, 1 oz. of ground ginger, 1/2 ounce of allspice, 2 oz. of fenugreek-seed. MODE.–Put all the ingredients in a cool oven, where they should remain one night; then pound them in a mortar, rub them through a sieve, and mix thoroughly together; keep the powder in a bottle, from which the air should be completely excluded.

Here for comparison is the curry powder recipe from the seventh edition of Dr William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle and Housekeeper’s Manual (1830). Dr Kitchiner declares his book is “a bona fide register of practical facts,—accumulated by a perseverance not to be subdued or evaporated by the igniferous terrors of a roasting fire in the dog-days,—in defiance of the odoriferous and calefacient repellents of roasting, boiling, frying, and broiling;—moreover, the author has submitted to a labour no preceding cookery-book-maker, perhaps, ever attempted to encounter,—having eaten each receipt before he set it down in his book.”

Dr Kitchiner’s curry powder recipe (the number on the right lists the cost of ingredients) runs as follows:

Put the following ingredients in a cool oven all night, and the next morning pound them in a marble mortar, and rub them through a fine sieve.

Coriander-seed, three ounces    3Indian Spices
Turmeric, three ounces    6
Black pepper, mustard, and ginger, one ounce of each    8
Allspice and less cardamoms, half an ounce of each    5
Cumin-seed, a quarter of an ounce    1

Thoroughly pound and mix together, and keep them in a well-stopped bottle.

According to Dr Kitchiner “the most profound palaticians have pronounced it a perfect copy of the original curry stuff.”

Almost seventy years later India was still a blazing jewel in the British crown, and palaticians had become ever more adventurous, as recognized by the
anonymously-penned 365 Foreign Dishes: A Foreign Dish for Every Day In The Year (1908). It provides the following recipe for India Curried Eggs:

Cut hard-boiled eggs in halves; then fry 1 small chopped onion and 1 chopped apple in hot butter; add 1/4 cup of pounded almonds and 1 pint of milk, mixed with 1/2 tablespoonful of cornstarch. Season with salt and a dessertspoonful of curry-powder. Let cook ten minutes; then add the eggs. Let all get very hot. Serve with croutons; garnish with fried parsley.

Though there are similarities, our house recipe for egg curry is simpler as lacking croutons, almonds, cornstarch, and fried parsley. In fact, it barely exists at all! Here’s how we make it:

Hard-boil and slice 2-4 eggs. Slice and fry 2 medium-sized onions. Mix 15 oz of milk and 15 oz tin of tomato sauce. Peel and dice two cooking apples — we recommend Granny Smiths — and add to milk and tomato sauce mixture. Add 4 tablespoons curry powder or to taste to mixture and simmer until diced apples start to soften. Add fried onions and hard-boiled eggs, simmer until eggs are thoroughly heated, and serve with rice. We garnish ours with sliced bananas and pineapple. If you prefer to substitute croutons and fried parsley, go fEight for Eternity by Mary Reedor it!

Since tomatoes were not known to the Constantinople court of Justinian I, in and around which our historical mysteries are set, the imperial couple could not have enjoyed a dish of curry despite their fabulous wealth. Fortunately our protagonist John, Justinian’s Lord Chamberlain, is happy with plain fare such as bread and cheese.

Eight For Eternity, his latest adventure,released April 2010 from Poisoned Pen Press. Set during the violent Nika Riots of 532 AD, when the mob ruled Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire. John must find those seeking to use the riots to dethrone Emperor Justinian and untangle a web of intrigue in a city where death holds court at every corner amid raging fires, igniferous terrors that might have given even Dr Kitchiner pause.