A cut-up whole chicken, simmered in an herb and spice-laden tomato-based curry sauce containing onions, green peppers and garlic, topped with currants and toasted almonds, is what comprises an American classic dish known as Country Captain. Considered traditional lowcountry fare, the origins of Country Captain remain highly speculative, even mysterious. (The New) The Food Lover’s Companion, second edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, indicates that Country Captain got its name “from a British army officer who brought the recipe back from his station in India.” And, in her book, “Colonial Cooking: Exploring History through Simple Recipes,” Susan Dosier writes of Country Captain: “A southern colonial rice dish. This recipe probably received its name from sea captains or trading ships.” In its original form, Country Captain purportedly cooked with chicken, chili, garlic, lemon, onion and some Indian spices, dates from the eighteenth century during the days of the British Colonial Rule of India – known as The Raj. Some food historians believe, however, that the recipe made its way south via Philadelphia and New York due to the discovery of Country Captain appearing in cookbooks such as “Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book, by Eliza Leslie, published in Philadelphia in 1857 and also in “The International Cook Book,” by Alexander Filippini – a chef at New York’s Delmonico’s Restaurant in the second half of the 1800’s– published in 1906. With its enigmatic history, profusion of diverse, complex flavors and proclivity for being served only with rice (Carolina, of course), I’m finding it reasonable to support the view that Country Captain originated in the Lowcountry by way of shipping ports for the spice trade, such as Savannah or Charleston.
No matter how Country Captain found its way to our table, rejoice. Dishes like these aim to please – from one century, straight through to the next.