Curry Powder Heroes

An advert for Vencatachellum’s curry powder from a 1930s recipe booklet, which warns against the perils of inferior curry powders.

Today we can be pretty snobby about curry powder.  How can a single blend of spices do justice to an enormous range of dishes from a huge geographical area?   Clearly it can’t, but curry powder did encourage the British to start cooking curries and for that Mr Sharwood and Mr Vencatachellum are heroes in my book.

Recipes for curry appear in 18th century British cookery books and Queen Victoria had Indian chefs working in the royal kitchens.  This early interest is hardly surprising given British activities in South Asia but, until the 20thcentury, curry was a minority taste.  It took some enterprising individuals to bring curry into mainstream eating.  The British Raj (1858- 1947) meant that plenty of British people returned home with a taste for spicy food. Some wrote Anglo-Indian cookery books, for example Col. Kenney-Herbert who wrote under the pen name of “Wyvern”.  His Culinary Jottings for Madras  was republished fairly recently.  Others opened restaurants, the Veeraswamy in London was one of the earliest and, many more followed in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1890s a salesman called James Allen Sharwood (1859-1941) realised that there was a market for exotic chutneys, pickles and spices.   One of the products to come under the Sharwood’s umbrella was Vencatachellum’s curry powder. The Vencatachellum business had been operating in Madras since 1860 and a British patent for Vencatachellum’s curry powder was registered in 1894.  This mixture of saffron, turmeric, cumin, coriander and chillies, was sold well into the 20th century before Sharwood’s replaced it with its own blend.

Towards the end of the 20th century it took other food heroes and heroines to teach us to appreciate the finer points of spices.