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A Riff on Country Captain, a Storied Southern Dish with a Far-Reaching Past

An inspired rendition.
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Published Dec. 4, 2023.

Country captain is a Southern icon. Yet the highlights of its history are a series of riffs on a song written in India. And even though I didn’t write the original, I’d like to play a rendition for you that’s got me really excited. 

It starts with sizzling bacon in its own hot fat and then frying seasoned chicken pieces in those drippings. You lovingly set aside a portion of the smoky fat to use later, and you add a mix of chopped onion, bell pepper, fresh ginger, and garlic to the pot to deglaze the flavorful fond and create a strong foundation for a curry‑spiced, raisin‑studded tomato sauce. 

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Finally, after the chicken has braised in the sauce until meltingly tender, you set it over rice and top it with sliced almonds, flaked coconut, and whole cumin and coriander seeds that you’ve fried in that reserved fat until crisp and toasty. 

But this is not my recipe.

The recipe for country captain doesn’t belong to me because there were many versions that came before mine. In cooking—and music, and life, and art—old ideas are perpetually given new life and a fresh perspective in new hands. And if I’m going to play my own version of country captain, I want to pay respect to my inspirations. 

As a dish, country captain has changed and evolved dramatically over the years, with the only constants being the chicken, the curry powder, and the onions. This recipe is another step in that evolution, turning the volume up on some tracks and muting some others, and splicing in some new samples while keeping the melody of the song—its heart—intact. 

Country Captain History at a Glance

The First Published Country Captain Recipe 

Most modern versions of this dish in the present-day South bear little resemblance to the earliest published rendition. That one’s in Eliza Leslie’s Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book (1857, in Philadelphia), and it begins with this: “Having well boiled a fine full-grown fowl, cut it up as for carving . . .” It continues by calling to season the chicken with curry powder, fry it with sliced onions in plenty of lard and with a few tablespoons of grated coconut, and serve it over rice. 

If you had enjoyed a contemporary version of country captain in Lowcountry South Carolina or Georgia (where it’s now settled into its status as an old standard) and you tasted Miss Leslie’s 1857 version, you’d take one bite and say “That’s not country captain.” But it is. It’s the original.

Eliza and her new cookery book. Credits: Eliza Leslie portrait © Pennsylvania Academy purchase, Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book © Creative Commons

Country Captain’s Path from India to England

But that doesn’t mean the recipe didn’t exist before Miss Leslie wrote it down and published it. The headnote to her recipe says that the term “country captain” would have referred to an Indian officer of local troops under British command (called sepoys). Speculating on the origins of the recipe, she adds that “probably this dish was first introduced at English tables by a Sepoy officer.” 

The exact origins of the name are still debated, but according to Charleston-based food historian Robert F. Moss, at least the “country” part of the name is “clearly Indian,” and even reaching into the 20th century the dish would have been considered by Americans to be Indian food. 

So the first published recipe for country captain is a cover of a British trader’s approximation of chicken “curries,” like the ones they encountered while colonizing India. The inspiring Indian dishes the British enjoyed planted the seeds for a whole genre called “curry” that has captivated the globe. Raghavan Iyer sums up the exchange admirably in his book On the Curry Trail (2023):

“The British took the names of many of these individual dishes—like korma with saffron and nuts, potent onion-soused dopiazas, and heady black cardamom-scented and cockscomb-colored roghan josh—and grouped them in one swooping word: curry. It was a catchall for any dish that was Indian. They had their bawarchis (cooks) combine a specific array of spices and pound them into a more submissive mélange they called curry powder—mellow in heat and scented with the spices they traded across the world . . . They instructed their cooks to anglicize the curries, fashioning rich roux-style sauces that swathed their meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables—all topped with sweet-tart apples, sugary mango chutney, desiccated coconut shreds, and sultanas (golden raisins).”

Country captain is the direct descendant of such anglicized dishes, and the early versions of it would have borne remarkable resemblance to other dishes that were often just called chicken curry.

American Iterations of Country Captain

But in America other virtuosos picked up Miss Leslie’s tune and decided to add some flair. 

Alessandro Filippini, the Swiss-born chef of New York’s Delmonico restaurant, published a decidedly novel (and popular) take on country captain in his International Cookbook (1906). His version added green peppers, garlic, fresh tomatoes, and herbs to the mix. 

Filippini and his International Cookbook. Credits: The International Cookbook © Alexander Filippini, Alexander Filippini portrait © Creative Commons

But credit for the most well-known rendition of all probably belongs to Arie Mullins, a Black cook working for Columbus, Georgia, socialite Mary “Miss Mamie” Bullard. Mullins and Bullard started with Filippini’s version but replaced the fresh tomatoes with preserved. Then they played what must have been a truly inspired performance of it for Franklin D. Roosevelt and General George Patton (who routinely visited their area and the nearby army base), thereby hugely amplifying the dish’s fame. This version (which became a popular entertaining dish for army wives throughout the South) still more or less holds sway over the South, with a few notable variations. 

In keeping with the Southern tradition of starting with cured pork drippings, celebrated chefs and cookbook authors Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock stirred bacon into the pot, using its rendered fat to sauté the usual aromatics. They also added a big band ensemble of garnishes to the traditional almond, coconut, and parsley: thin onion rings, boiled egg, scallion, chutneys, chopped peanuts, etc. 

The Gift of Southern Cooking
The Gift of Southern Cooking. Credit: Knopf Doubleday Publishing

Matt and Ted Lee, Charleston cookbook authors, published a country captain recipe that used all chicken thighs and brought some South Asian instruments back into the group: whole dried chiles, fresh ginger, and garam masala. 

 Lee Bros cookbook
Lee Bros cookbook. Credit: W. W. Norton & Company

The point here is that lots of musicians have played this song, but the ones we remember most made it their own. And the only way to ensure that country captain doesn’t stagnate and fall out of favor is to continue the long tradition of making it new. Given that there’s nothing new under the sun, making it your own might just mean sampling someone else.

A New Version of Country Captain, with Echoes of its Origins

For my recipe, I start by rendering cured pork so that I can fry my chicken in flavorful fat as Miss Leslie did. That my pork of choice is bacon, with its bass line of smoke, I owe to Lewis and Peacock. The canned whole peeled tomatoes pay homage to Mullins. The fresh ginger? That’s a hot trumpet lick from the Lee brothers.

Recipe

Country Captain

Riffing on a storied Southern dish with a far-reaching past.
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But with the garnish, the crescendo that ends this particular version of the song, I have taken some liberties. By incorporating the traditional toasted almond and coconut into a cumin, coriander, and curry powder–laced tadka—a blend of spices bloomed in hot fat that’s often used as a garnish in South Asian cuisine—I’m sampling Nik Sharma, a molecular biologist turned cookbook author who hails from Bombay and who’s written extensively on the art and science of making the tadka. Of course, Sharma is riffing on the delicious work of countless South Asian cooks before him, some of whom might just have been the first to make the true original country captain.

So Is Country Captain Really Southern?

It’s often considered Southern, but it’s complicated. The late Cecily Brownstone—Associated Press food editor and staunch country captain traditionalist whose recipe appears in The Joy of Cooking (1964)—always insisted on the Northern provenance of the dish, pointing to Leslie’s and Filippini’s books, which were published in Philadelphia and New York, respectively. 

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