Colonial Curry: 1950s Style

Unlike the chicken curry I wrote about in my post Colonial Curry: 1740s Style, this chicken curry does not come from a cookbook. It is a recipe, or rather a simple list of spices accompanied by verbal instructions, given to me by my mother-in-law many years ago. She, in turn, acquired it when she – as a young bride – was living in a British colonial outpost in Singapore during the 1950s. It is a tomato based chicken curry with numerous spices served with little side dishes of sliced bananas, cucumbers, salted peanuts, spring onions, mango chutney, and the like.

singapore_1950s1950s in Singapore

Surprisingly, I learned from a friend of mine that he makes a very similar curry with the same accompaniments. He learned it from his mother who used to make it while living in a British enclave in Nigeria in the 1950s. Both women were living (and cooking) in colonial situations around the same time, only in different places – one in South-east Asia, the other in Africa.

Coincidence? I’m afraid that I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do know that this is, quite likely, a dish designed for British tastes. Given the style of its service, it is also probably a product of its time. The little accompanying dishes were often served on a rotating table/tray (a “lazy Susan”) popular in households in the 1950s and 1960s.


Chicken Curry 1950s Style
Technically, this is a guest post. Since this is one of the first dishes my husband made for me when we first met all those many years ago, he couldn’t resist making it again now. The words are mine, but the cooking is his!

  • 2-1/2 lbs chicken pieces (We used boneless chicken thighs)
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
  • 3 medium onions
  • 1 stick cinnamon, 2 inches
  • 2 to 3 whole cloves
  • 2 to 3 whole green cardamom pods
  • 1 inch cube fresh ginger
  • 1 to 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 cup creamed coconut (or thick coconut cream)
  • 1 Tablespoon dry Sherry (optional)
  • 1 tin tomatoes (14 oz.)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Salt

Trim chicken pieces and cut into smaller pieces if large. finely chop the onions and set aside. Combine the crushed minced garlic with the grated ginger. Assemble your whole spices in a small bowl. In another small bowl combine the ground spices.


In a large heavy bottomed pot, heat your oil (or ghee) and sear the chicken pieces – just to seal the raw meat, not to brown. Remove the chicken from the pot. Add the chopped onions to the remaining oil in the pot. Stir and allow them to cook until translucent. Add the ginger and garlic, stir and cook for a minute. Add the whole spices and allow these to heat. Finally, add the ground spices, stir and let them heat.


Add the creamed coconut (a solid, dehydrated form of ground, unsweetened coconut meat) and allow the pieces to melt. If using coconut cream, simply stir in. Add the sherry, tomatoes and water. Stir to mix. Adjust seasonings by adding salt.


Put the chicken pieces back into the pot and cover with the sauce. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer and cover. Cook for about two hours, checking to make sure the curry does not go dry. Add a little hot water if necessary.

The curry is best if made the day before and reheated before serving.


Notes – Updates on Colonial Curry:
1. Since writing my post Colonial Curry: 1740s Style, Aneela from The Odd Pantry has reminded me that “curry” is a British invention. Indeed, it is a generic English word derived from a Tamil word for “sauce” and is used to describe a wide variety of spicy mixtures from Southeast Asia. Aneela has promised a post on the subject of curry, which I am eagerly awaiting!
2. Commercial curry powders were developed in the late 18th century for the British market, for Colonial governmental and military personnel returning home. I have since found reference to curry powder in a cookbook published in London in 1797 – The London Art of Cookery, and housekeeper’s complete assistant by John Farley (available to download from Internet Archive).


    • I’m not surprised it made its way to Australia. A number of Malaysian and Chinese doctors who worked with my in-laws in Singapore in the 50s ended up in Australia once Singapore gained independence. Where people go, recipes follow!


  1. Another great colonial curry! … You are exploring the british colonial curries through space and time! 🙂
    Many compliments to your husband too! 🙂


  2. This is not as Anglicized as the curry my Mum cooked, made with curry powder and a dollop of jam! Just last week I bought a lazy susan, our new, round 8 seater dining table was proving tricky when passing serving dishes, the cycle of style…


    • A dollop of jam!?!! I suppose it isn’t far off adding a slosh of sherry. 😉 I remember my mother-in-law saying that her Scottish & English friends found this curry to be exotic when she first came back from Singapore, so perhaps not your typical Anglicised curry! Lazy Susans have been around since the 18th century – only called dumbwaiters back then (term later applied to the elevator type of food conveyance). There are some lovely wooden antique dumbwaiters, only at a price!


    • I’ve noticed that recipes are usually packaged with people. There is such a lot of movement in British colonial environments post WWII, that it was likely that this recipe (and perhaps others) made the rounds. Once you sit down and think about it, it isn’t all that surprising! Will send regards to the chef!


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