Cookbook author Cynthia Graubart explains how a curried chicken dish made it into the Southern food canon.
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Country Captain Chicken
Credit: Antonis Achilleos

I first tasted country captain in 1986, when I was a producer on Nathalie Dupree’s television series New Southern Cooking. I was in the control room as she prepared this culinary classic on camera. When we broke for crew lunch, I took a bite and instantly knew it would become a go-to in my recipe box. The flavors were reminiscent of Indian curries and Louisiana Creole cuisine. Where had this dish been all my life?

This Junior League-cookbook staple gives a nod to the culinary melting pot of the South and the burgeoning spice trade of the 1800s. Many sources say the recipe arrived on Southern shores from sea captains trading in the ports of Charleston and Savannah. But more likely, the name originated with the term “country captain,” used by the English-controlled East India Company to describe someone in charge of a “country ship,” a vessel involved in trade within that region. I surmise it was a dish beloved by those very sea captains at stops along their maritime routes.

Country captain made its first appearance in an American cookbook in 1857. Eliza Leslie called it an “East India dish” in her cookbook, Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. Her recipe involved boiling the chicken, seasoning it with curry powder, and frying it with onions.

Alessandro Filippini, of Delmonico’s Restaurant fame in New York City, included it in his International Cook Book of 1906, flouring and frying the chicken and adding green peppers, garlic, and tomatoes.

But the one we recognize today is from Arie Mullins, an African American cook employed by Mrs. William Bullard of Warm Springs and Columbus, Georgia. Bullard ordered a copy of Filippini’s cookbook and selected country captain to be served to future President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Mullins deviated from the recipe by substituting two cans of whole peeled tomatoes for the fresh, which turned this dish into a year-round supper. It became one of Roosevelt’s favorite meals, and Bullard (being one of the most well-known hostesses in the area) served it to many visiting dignitaries, including Gen. George Patton.

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Acknowledging the widespread affinity for this dish by so many in the military, the Army made it a MRE (meals ready to eat) in 2000, feeding our troops near and far.

Versions of country captain abound throughout the South. Rice, chicken, and a richly spiced tomato sauce are musts. The real dissent is over how you top it. Country captain is garnished with several ingredients, boosting its exotic appeal. I add the traditional mix of currants, almonds, and coconut plus chopped bacon and fresh herbs. But why pick sides? All of the additions play well together, and a dollop of chutney on top won’t hurt either.

Key Ingredients for Making This Memorable Dish

1. Currants

Dried currants are common in country captain recipes. In this version, they simmer in the spiced tomato sauce until plump and tender, and they also serve as a garnish. If you don’t have any currants on hand, you can substitute raisins in a pinch.

2. Curry Powder

There are many varieties of curry powder available to choose from. Most contain turmeric, cumin, coriander, and other spices. When choosing, make sure it is fragrant (a sign of freshness), and try different types until you find the flavor you prefer.

3. Coconut

Coconut is an ingredient that adds texture and sweetness to this dish. The 1857 recipe in Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book calls for several tablespoons of finely grated coconut in the sauce, but we prefer to use it as a finishing touch.

4. Almonds

Country captain is usually showered with a flurry of toppings including sliced almonds. They add a bit of crunch that balances out the tender chicken and vegetables. Be sure to toast the nuts before sprinkling them on top.