Curry and currants aren’t the usual suspects found in Southern dishes, but you’ll need to stock up on both if you want to experience the joys of the enigmatic Country Captain. While it might be the least famous of Southern chicken and rice dishes, it has graced many fine South Carolina tables and is even rumored to have found favor with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The curry capital of India is two oceans away from South Carolina, but it is widely thought the country’s exotic spices made the crossing during Colonial times. Some historians agree it was a British sea captain who originally introduced the dish in Charleston. Others insist the first introductions went down in Savannah. The fact that there’s no consensus means Country Captain is as steeped in mystery as it is in spice. One thing is certain: At some point, South Carolinians gave the dish a gracious welcome, promptly paired it with regionally grown rice, and adopted it as one of our own.
The unusual name raises even more questions, though it might refer to 1800s Indian merchant ships, or “country ships,” commandeered by sea captains who were often referred to as “country captains.” There is some documentation of a spicy chicken and curry concoction that was a staple on these trade ships – perhaps a direct reference to the origins of the dish.
Country Captain isn’t a traditional chicken curry, though; think of it as an Americanized version. While it can be found in US cookbooks dating back to the 19th century, South Carolinians today largely base their recipes on one appearing in a 1950s Charleston Junior League receipt book. Variations cropped up in the ensuing decades, some of which were deemed delicious enough to earn a page or two in other cookbooks.
The basics in each recipe are pretty much the same: Chicken pieces are fried in bacon drippings or butter, and then baked in a casserole dish with a seasoned mixture of tomatoes, onions, celery and green peppers. Thyme and bay leaf are commonly used in addition to the obligatory curry powder, which can either be store-bought or put together using ingredients from your spice cupboard. Some cooks add currants to the pre-baked dish and others serve them on the side along with toasted almonds, yogurt, parsley, chutney, chopped bacon and other toppings. In every instance, the finished product is served atop a bed of rice, with Carolina Gold being the preferred variety for its aromatic qualities.
If your taste buds are tantalized by the thought of combining these intense flavors into a single dish, it might be time to take the sea captain’s lead and introduce this Indian/Southern mash-up to your family or dinner guests. Recipes abound online – some from well-known culinary sources and celebrity chefs – and often can be found in community cookbooks. Choose the version that suits your palate and skill set; most recipes are fairly uncomplicated and can be executed in a reasonable amount of time.
Then, be prepared for the accolades. When you present the colorful, aromatic platter at dinner time, Country Captain is sure to command the attention and admiration of all who gather around your table.
Here is a version of Country Captain from Charleston natives Matt and Ted Lee:
Total Time: 2 hours
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dried currants or raisins
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1/4 pound slab bacon or fatty country ham, chopped
12 chicken thighs, skin on, trimmed of excess skin and fat
1 large flavorful dried chili, such as guajillo or pasilla, split, seeds removed
2 1/3 cups peeled and sliced carrots (1/4-inch thick rounds), about 1 1/4 pound bunch weighed with tops
2 cups diced yellow bell peppers, about 2 peppers
2 cups diced yellow onions, about 2 medium onions
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, with juice
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
4 cups cooked white rice
2/3 cup slivered toasted almonds, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Pour the broth into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Put the currants in a small bowl and pour enough broth over them to cover. Set aside. In another small bowl, combine the curry powder, garam masala, salt, and black pepper and reserve.
Scatter the bacon in a 4 to 6 quart enameled cast-iron pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Stir the pieces around occasionally until the bacon is firm and just golden brown, about 5 minutes. With the slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small bowl and reserve.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pot, reserving the excess fat in a small bowl. Brown the chicken thighs in batches over medium-high heat, taking care not to crowd them in the pot, until they are golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Add the reserved bacon fat, 1 teaspoon at a time, if the pot becomes too dry. Remove the chicken and reserve in a medium bowl.
Add 2 teaspoons reserved bacon fat to the pot (if there is none left, use 2 teaspoons canola or vegetable oil). Add the chili and toast the chili in the fat, about 30 seconds per side, until very fragrant.
Add the carrots, bell peppers, onions, and garlic and cook until slightly softened, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, spice mixture, ginger, and the currants and their broth. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the tomatoes have cooked down to a puree and the sauce has thickened around the vegetables, about 8 minutes.
Nest the chicken thighs gently in the vegetable sauce so that the skin side faces up and is above the surface of the gravy. Tent the pot loosely with foil and transfer to the middle rack of the oven. Bake until the country captain resembles a roiling stew around the chicken thighs, about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the sauce has thickened further and the chicken skin is just beginning to crisp, about 15 minutes more.
Remove from the oven, skim any excess fat from the surface, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard the chili. With tongs, transfer 3 thighs to each of 4 wide, deep bowls filled with 1 cup hot white rice. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and the rice and garnish with the reserved bacon, almonds and parsley.