Country Captain

Bill Neal, in his book on southern cooking, says that he has heard this dish claimed by an inhabitant of every large southern seaport. Country Captain is a fairly straightforward chicken “curry” from northern India. You find the dish throughout the British Isles as well, but the recipe often calls for “curry powder”—much admired in Britain but unheard of in India. In Charleston fresh exotic spices have always come through our port from afar, so we’ve always had the luxury of the intense flavor of freshly ground and roasted spices.

If you usually rely on curry powder, you’re in for a great treat if you’re willing to spend a little extra time. Go to your local natural foods store and buy small quantities of bulk spices, then roast and grind them at home yourself. You will be stunned by the complexities and subtleties on the palate. The East India Company’s long history of “country captains” commanding spice ships is preserved today in this legacy of British taste in the Lowcountry. Alfred Huger, a prominent Charleston maritime lawyer, married Margaret Mynderse, whose family had owned the East India Company, in the late nineteenth century. Their son Alfred became a harbor pilot, a modern-day tugboat captain.

Start this dish several hours or the day before.

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To Prepare the Chicken and the Stock

  • 1 3½ - to 4-pound chicken salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
  • 3 quarts water
  • 2 to 3 celery ribs, broken into pieces
  • 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 carrots, broken into pieces a few fresh thyme sprigs and other fresh herbs of your choice

For the Curry Mix

  • 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds or teaspoons ground 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes or 1 large dried pod
  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon (about 12 ) whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 bay leaves, crumbled

To Assemble the Dish

  • ½ cup blanched and slivered almonds
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil or clarified butter
  • 2 large onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
  • 2 large green bell peppers, chopped (2 to 3 cups)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes with their juice
  • cups reserved chicken stock
  • 4 cups reserved chicken meat
  • ½ cup dried currants

To Finish the Dish

  • cups long-grain white rice, preferably a Basmati type remaining 3 cups reserved stock
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • chopped parsley for garnish reserved roasted almonds for garnish


Rinse the chicken in cold water and pat dry. Sprinkle it all over with salt, pepper, and cayenne. (I put several peppercorns in a spice mill and grind them, then pinch the freshly ground spice between thumb and index finger, rubbing it all over the bird.) Put the chicken in a large stockpot and cover with the 3 quarts water. Add the neck and other giblets (except the liver) if they are included. (I fry the liver in a little butter as the cook’s bonus.) Add the remaining ingredients, bring almost to a boil, reduce the heat, and allow to simmer until the meat is cooked evenly, about 1 hour.

Remove the chicken and allow to cool. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard, then pull the chicken meat from the bird, tearing it into small pieces. Put the meat in a covered dish in the refrigerator. You should have a pound of meat, about 4 cups. Crack the bones of the carcass with a meat cleaver and return them to the stockpot. Continue simmering the mixture until it has a distinct chicken flavor (about 30 minutes to 1 hour more), then strain all of the solids out of the stock. Allow to cool, then refrigerate the stock. Remove any congealed fat from the surface of the stock before using.

Roast the whole coriander and cumin seeds in a heavy Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they begin to darken, 2 to 3 minutes. If you are using ground cumin, add it about a minute after the coriander. Remove to a spice mill or blender. Add the rest of the dried spices and bay leaves to the spice mill and grind thoroughly. Dump them out onto a plate; you should have about ¼ cup of the curry mix.

Add the almonds to the pot and roast, stirring constantly, until they are browned evenly. Remove and set aside.

Add the oil to the pot. Add the chopped onion, bell pepper, and garlic to the oil and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onions begin to get transparent, about 10 minutes. Put the tomatoes in a blender or a food processor and puree. Add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture, and cups of the reserved stock to the onion and bell pepper mixture and simmer, uncovered, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes so that the vegetables do not stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 30 to 45 minutes or until almost all of the liquid is cooked out.

Add the reserved chicken meat and currants and stir all together thoroughly, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Store the remaining curry mix in a jar in a cool, dark, and dry place for use in other recipes.

Thirty minutes before serving, add the rice, remaining stock, and salt to a stockpot that has a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil, immediately reduce the heat to a simmer, and cover the pot. Do not stir and do not lift the lid. After 13 minutes, remove from the heat and set aside for 12 more minutes. Meanwhile, reheat the chicken. When the 12 minutes are up, fluff the rice with a fork and spread on a platter, top with the chicken mixture, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and almonds. Serve with Ats Jaar pickles, Dilly Beans, fried eggplant, and traditional curry accompaniments such as roasted peanuts, freshly grated coconut, and a chutney such as golden pear or peach.