Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Country Captain, or Captain Chicken?

A little over a year ago, I came across this interesting article about a classic southern dish called Country Captain. I've long been intrigued by both southern food and its charming naming conventions for recipes, and Country Captain was no exception. The name alone reminded me of pirates, romance novels, and Junior League housewives all at once.

Although I had yet to make it, I quickly became obsessed with Country Captain and would talk about it to anyone who would listen. I happen to have a friend from Charleston, South Carolina, one of the several rumored origins of this dish, and I bugged her about it for awhile, but dropped the subject when I sensed the friendship might be hinging on whether or not I mentioned it one more damn time.

The husband bore the brunt of my yammering, although whether he was a willing listener is debatable.

"I don't understand what it is," he kept saying.

"It's a 19th century, sort of Americanized, southernized chicken curry. With currants. And almonds. You eat it with rice," I added, as if that detail might help.

The more I tried to explain what this dish that I'd never eaten tasted like, the more muddled the conversation became. The odd name only added to the confusion. Finally, it simply morphed from Country Captain to Captain Chicken, which was both easier to remember and good for a laugh.

Eventually Captain Chicken got lost in the endless shuffle that is my ever-growing list of "to-make" recipes. But a few weeks ago, I spied this recipe in Bon Appetit, and within a few days I came across another recipe for it in the book I'm reading, Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialites, by Julia Reed.

The time had come to take Captain Chicken from myth to reality. So on Sunday, I did what I should have done 13 months ago and gave the dish a try, using the first recipe I had spotted, from The New York Times. All three recipes were quite similar but this one seemed the most modern and likely to suit me best.

It was exactly the kind of dish I like to make. There was some chopping and sauteeing, chicken browning in a pan, and then everything went into the oven to simmer slowly. When it was ready, I served it over steamed rice and garnished it with currants, toasted slivered almonds, crumbled bacon, and some mango chutney.

To my surprise, Captain Chicken exceeded my wildest hopes. It was complex and savory, with sweetness from the currants, a hint of heat from the curry, and a welcome crunch from the almonds. It reminded me of the chicken cacciatore my dad used to make, with an Indian flair.

The husband also gave it a thumbs up.

"Good Captain Chicken," he said, pushing aside his cleaned plate, as though he'd eaten hundreds of versions of it over a lifetime and this one ranked among the best.

But, I'll take compliments where I can get them. And if you like compliments, too, you should give this one a go. It's quite delicious. Do make sure you season the sauce well before it goes into the oven, and don't skip the condiments--they are critical to the dish. But most of all, see if you can help me change the name from Country Captain to Captain Chicken. It's catchy, and seems primed for a ridiculous logo. I mean, do I even have to describe it to you? A jaunty chicken in a captain's hat, sailing a sea of curry. Tell me you don't love it!


  1. I actually read something about this recently and was intrigued. So glad you investigated history, recipes and then made it! Makes it easier for us. ;)
    It looks divine and I love all the ingredients. I never mind all the chopping and sauteeing when it can go into the oven and simmer away.

  2. Why not Captain Country Chicken? He could also be wearing dungarees!

  3. Intriguing. I've never heard of this stuff before, but it definitely sounds interesting.

  4. I love it! I think you need someone in a graphic design department to sketch out your idea of the Captain Chicken logo. Could the chicken also have an eye patch, please?

    And great review. I think this dish may enter our Sunday night chicken rotation.

  5. oh, I looked the recipe over, and plan on making it soon... But, it does need a name change... Yes, CAPTAIN CHICKEN... it;s everywhere, it's everywhere

    Dun Dun DA Dun

  6. i can totally envision that logo--perfect. i've actually never heard of either country captain or captain chicken, but i'm quite pleased to make its acquaintance--thanks for sharing your find!

  7. We are SO related. I have wanted to make this alliterative dish for a long time. But I always had trouble picturing the finished dish (so thanks!). I'm on board for helping to change the name. Just like the kid's book Frindle, if we all use the new name Captain Chicken, it could become its new name.

  8. I've heard of this, but always just scratched my head at the name. I won't be doing that anymore now that you've raved about how spectacular it is! ;)

  9. I saw this made on a Bobby Flay Throwdown and thought, ''What is that?'' Almost like it's like the first fusion dish. But sounded and looked good, as does yours. If Mr. Flay hadn't already done it, he might've read about yours and challenged you to a Captain Chicken Throwdown! - Pete

  10. Same here, nver heard of COuntry Captain or for that matter Captain Chicken either. SOunds like a great dish though, certainly looks it from your pics. And just to throw another name for you to obsess about, there's a Malaysian dish called Curry Kapitan (translated to Captain's Curry), made with chicken :) Intrigued yet?

  11. Barbara: glad I could help! Let me know if you try it.

    camille: dungarees, brilliant!! That made me laugh out loud.

    Bob: kind of weird, right?

    Ash: good idea on the eye patch. Should I ask Keegan to draw up a sketch for me?

    Year on the Grill: ah, thanks for the support. Let me know if you try it...

    grace: I figured the logo would be a hit!

    tracey: great minds (and cousins!) think alike!

    Carolyn: glad I could help demystify this awesome dish.

    Pete: wow, I hope I come across that Throwdown episode someday, I'd love to see it!

    shaz: Curry Kapitan? Totally intrigued. Surely that's related to Country Captain (Chicken)!

  12. We, too, love Country Captain, Your version looks wonderful and your photography is spectacular.

  13. I have never heard of this dish. It looks wonderful and I love the rich color!

  14. Okay, that's it! Everything you write looks delicious. I am getting off my butt and making this on Sunday

  15. Mary: ah, another CC lover!

    Domestic Adventurer: Thank you, I love the colors too.

    Lucky P: Thanks, give it a go! And have a great weekend...see you Monday for more adventures :)

  16. OK, please pass the fork. This looks delicious! Another southern food thought... I never heard of Chicken Fried Steak until I moved to Florida. All I wanted to know was "Is it chicken or is it steak?". Never tried it, still wonder.

  17. Usually when I start yammering about a recipe, it's something full of chocolate. : ) This wouldn't have even crossed my radar, but I'm glad you've made it because it sounds great!

  18. cookbookapprentice: I am pretty sure chicken fried steak is steak...but have never had it either!

    oneordinaryday: well, chocolate gets me going too!

  19. HD, You're a hoot. This dish sounds like a good Southerner: Complex, sweet, hot and spicy.... YES!

    I love the image of the chicken pirate. I'm with Ashley--there has to be an eyepatch. I've written the theme song. Well, they lyrics anyway. Someone else will have to write the music.

    (with apologies to Dorothy Parker)

    I should like to ride the seas,
    A roaring chicken-eer,
    Cutlass banging at my knees
    A dirk behind each ear.

    I should like to dance and laugh
    And pose and preen and sway
    And rip the toes of prisoners off
    And toss the bits away.

    I should like to strut and curse
    Among my blackguard crew.
    Instead I'm writing little verse
    As free-range chickens do.

    What do you think? Would it sell? We'd need a catchy tune...

  20. Kate: You're too much! I LOVE the theme song. And I really love how Captain Chicken has taken on a life of its own. Ahoy!

  21. You are too funny!! "Captain Chicken." It's funny, I think Bobby Flay just did this dish on his show a few days ago!

  22. I used to know Julia Reed. She's OK. Old fashioned. (But with Manolos.)

    This chicken sounds irresistible. Cap'n Chicken.

  23. Tiny Urban Kitchen: He did--but I missed it!

    cookiecrumb: How did you know her? I have a mixed impression of her. You should try Captain Chicken, I think you and Cranky would like it.

  24. Kate your a scream. Terrific song, shall I put my nephew to work on the tune?
    HD, you really made me laugh with this one. I can't get the vision of the Pirate Chicken swaggering on the deck of a sailing ship wearing an eye patch, cutlass at his side and parrot on his shoulder singing Kate's song!

  25. Pam: I think we're on to something. Surely we can capitalize on the chicken, the costume, the song, and your nephew? :)

  26. To All, I was stationed in Charleston (sub sailor)and the dish is a staple in many homes and this is the story I was told as to the name. It was given to a southener by a sea Captain (in the low country men are called captain) that had returned from India, hence the name. I still make it at least once a month for my wife. Use lots of curry!!!!

  27. Country Captain has its roots in India, I do believe, and probably made its way to the US by way of England. The word Country refers to India. It's all "googleable". In India I think it is sometimes known as Country Kapitan or just Kapitan. I wonder if this dish is connected to a dish that called ayam kapitan (ayam=chicken) in Peninsular Malaysia. Ayam Kapitan though is really spicy. There are stories there about the origin of the dish but they are just that, stories without concrete proof. It is fun to see how recipes can travel around the world and evolve.