When we think of Southern food, we normally picture chicken fried steak, biscuits and peach cobbler. Curries and spices aren't typically part of the equation. However, one iconic Southern dish that defies expectation is country captain, a curried chicken dish beloved throughout the south.

Many who try this dish are intrigued by its seemingly random placement in the category of Southern food. However, country captain has been in American cookbooks since the 1850's, and can be found in Southern restaurants throughout South Carolina, Georgia, or Mississippi.

The history behind this curried chicken dish is hard to define, but all can agree that its flavors are reminiscent of Indian curries or Creole seasonings.

The History of Country Captain

Some say that the food's name comes from the term "country captain" which the East India Company used to refer to someone in charge of a "country ship," which traded in the region of India. There is some evidence that a spicy chicken and curry dish was staple on these ships, which could be where the dish originated.

Two widely used trading port cities during the 19th century were Charleston and Savannah, so the story goes that sea captains brought the dish to those ports. However, historians are at a loss in their attempts to find the exact place and time that the lowcountry southern dish came to South Carolina.

The dish's first known appearance in an American cookbook was in 1857, in Eliza Leslie's book Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book. She called it an "East India dish," and her country captain chicken recipe said to boil the chicken, season with curry powder, and fry it with onions.

After her recipe, there were more to come, each with their own twists and variations. Alessandro Filippini of New York City included it in his International Cook Book in 1906, garnishing it with toasted almonds and dried currants. Then, in a historical moment, it was made by Arie Mullins, an African American cook who worked for Mrs. William Bullard in Georgia.

Bullard had ordered a copy of Filippini's cookbook and chosen country captain as the dish to serve the future president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. While making it, Mullins substituted the fresh diced tomatoes for two cans of tomatoes. It was an instant hit with Roosevelt, becoming one of his favorite dishes.

Although it was popular among diplomats and famous men, it was army wives who actually popularized this dish in the southern states. Many officers became part of the Bullards' social circle, and the popularity of the dish spread until it eventually became an MRE or (meals ready to eat).

The dish was a popular part of Junior League Cookbooks in the 50's and 60's, and this particular recipe is the one that most South Carolinians today base their country captain on. However, like all of the best dishes, each cook makes it slightly different.

How to Make Country Captain

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine in a medium bowl the flour, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper and the thyme.

Cover the chicken in the flour mixture, shaking off any extra.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat until it begins to foam. Then, fry the chicken in the butter, doing so in batches if necessary. Fry until fully brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Put the chicken on a plate and drain off most of the fat back into the skillet, leaving about 1 tablespoon.

Turn heat on to about medium, and add in the bacon. Fry until crispy, and transfer to a plate. When cool enough, crumble the bacon and set aside.

Add the onion, pepper, celery, garlic, curry powder, paprika and 1 tablespoon currants to the skillet and sauté in the chicken-bacon fat over medium-high heat until tender, about 7 minutes.

Add in the tomatoes and their juices, bring mixture to a boil and then simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour 1 cup of the tomato sauce mixture into a casserole dish, spreading evenly. Put the chicken on top, in one layer. Pour the rest of the sauce on.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Then, take the foil off and cook dish for 15 more minutes.

Garnish with crumbled bacon, the remaining currants and the slivered almonds. Serve with cooked rice. Enjoy this historical Southern classic!

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Country Captain 

Prep Time: 30 minutes | Cook Time: 1 hours

servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/4 cup flour
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 3 lbs chicken thighs (about 8)
  • 4 slices bacon
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 tbsp cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 3 tbsp currants
  • 1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes and their juices
  • 3 tbsp slivered almonds, toasted
  • cooked white rice

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine in a medium bowl the flour, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper and the thyme.

Cover the chicken in the flour mixture, shaking off any extra.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat until it begins to foam. Then, fry the chicken in the butter, doing so in batches if necessary. Fry until fully brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Put the chicken on a plate and drain off most of the fat back into the skillet, leaving about 1 tablespoon.

Turn heat on to about medium, and add in the bacon. Fry until crispy, and transfer to a plate. When cool enough, crumble the bacon and set aside.

Add the onion, pepper, celery, garlic, curry powder, paprika and 1 tablespoon currants to the skillet and sauté in the chicken-bacon fat over medium-high heat until tender, about 7 minutes. 

Add in the tomatoes and their juices, bring mixture to a boil and then simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour 1 cup of the tomato sauce mixture into a casserole dish, spreading evenly. Put the chicken on top, in one layer. Pour the rest of the sauce on.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Then, take the foil off and cook dish for 15 more minutes.

Garnish with crumbled bacon, the remaining currants and the slivered almonds. Serve with cooked rice. Enjoy!