Sailor’s Curry – a curious Indian-German fusion dish

I don’t blog about food all that much, but today I want to share a personal favourite with you, namely the curious Indian-German fusion dish known as sailor’s curry or simply curry, if you’re from North Germany and grew up with this version.

As the name suggests, sailor’s curry is the curry served aboard German ships during the sailboat and steamship era. It was probably based on the curry served aboard the ships of the British Royal Navy, though the North German version is always served not just with rice, but also with a selection of pickles and other add-ons. I suspect the pickles and add-ons were influenced by the Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel, itself a European-Asian fusion dish, especially since older rijstafel recipes don’t sound all that different from the North German sailor’s curry and its add-ons that I grew up with.

Because of the many ingredients and long preparation time, Sailor’s curry is a festive dish that’s reserved for special occasions. In Bremen, it is served at the annual feast of the Bremen East Asia Society as well as at the annual Captain’s Day held for the captains and officers of all ships (and in recent years’ pilots and co-pilots of airplanes) currently in the harbours of Bremen and Bremerhaven.

I usually have sailor’s curry three or four times a year, which always includes Christmas and my birthday or rather the following weekend. And since my birthday was last week, it meant that this Sunday was curry day.

Sailor's curry with pickles

Pork curry, basmati rice and pickles.

The exact recipe and the number and type of add-ons vary and there are probably as many versions as there are people cooking it. Our family recipe, which my mother got from a chef working aboard the vessels of the DDG Hansa shipping company* in the 1960s, uses pork filet rather than the more common chicken (or maybe my parents simply preferred pork). Other ingredients are onion, tomato paste, garlic, some kind of fat (the original recipe calls for butter or margarine, though we use oilve oil these days), paprika powder, cardamon powder, cloves, bayleaves, salt and of course, curry powder. The brand used aboard the Hansa vessels was Mida’s curry powder, probably because it was the only brand of Indian curry powder available in Germany well into the 1990s, but any good Madras curry powder will do. The spices are measured in shot glasses or egg cups BTW, which is a lovely oddity of the recipe.

In our family, the add-ons are chopped gherkins, chopped pickled beetroot, chopped hardboiled egg, chopped onions, chopped banana, mango chutney and Indian lime pickle. sambal oelek also used to be included, but these days I omit it, since the curry is plenty hot in itself. We’ve also had shredded coconut at times. Apart from the lime pickle, which is a recent addition, and the mango chutney, none of these add-ons are even remotely authentically Indian, while sambal oelek and the shredded coconut (similar to the Indonesian serundeng) point back to the rijsttafel. Coincidentally, several of the add-ons also show up in the Dutchified version of Nasi Goreng. Most of the ingredients are, however, very common in North Germany. Coincidentally, several of the add-ons, namely the gherkins, pickled beetroot and eggs, are also found in another sailor’s favourite, Labskaus or Lobscouse for the English version. And of course, pickles of any kind are food that lasts a long time, which was important aboard ships in the days before ubiquitous refrigeration.

Pickle tray

The selection of pickles and add-ons.

Other versions of the dish call for different add-ons. The gherkins, beetroot and mango chutney seem to be universal, but I have seen versions that included pickled pearl onions, pickled asparagus, pickled sardines, canned tuna, chopped ham, chopped gouda cheese, raisins, canned pineapple, canned corn, roasted peanuts and salami. What all of these add-ons have in common is that they would have been found aboard ships. In many cases, you can also see that those add-ons were familiar replacements for unfamiliar or hard to procure foods. Indian pickles were unavailable in Germany until the 1990s, but gherkins, pickled beetroot and pickled pearl onions were plentiful. The shredded coconut and roasted peanuts are obviously a replacement for Serundeng. The sardines were probably a replacement for ikan bilis, the dried anchovies served in Malaysia and Myamar. The raisins, pineapples and corn were all “exotic” before approx. 1960. The chopped ham and chopped gouda cheese probably just ended up on the add-on list, because someone liked them or because there was an abundance of them in the ship’s galley that day.

Coincidentally, I wish that more SFF worldbuilding would come up with dishes like sailor’s curry or the Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel or Dutchified Nasi Goreng or Pataje Oorlog or Spaghetti Naporitan, where food from one culture is adapted to another and mixed with food from totally different traditions, where familiar ingredients are used to replace unfamiliar ones and the result is something that has little to do with either food culture, but is nonetheless delicious. You’d figure you’d find variations on this in space opera or also in secondary world fantasy with port and trade city settings. But then, SFF has never been very good with food, with some notable exceptions.

At the table, the rice, curry and various add-ons are all mixed up into something that looks like an unholy mess, but is in fact delicious:

Sailor's curry

Sailor’s curry mixed and ready for eating

Here are some other versions of sailor’s curry BTW: What’s notable is that all recipes stress the maritime origins of the dish and several of them can be traced directly back to a ship’s cook with DDG Hansa, the Norddeutscher Lloyd, Hapag or Hamburg-Süd.

As a kid, I assumed that this curry I grew up with was in fact an authentic Indian curry. So, I suspect, did my parents. After time spent in Singapore, Malaysia and the UK with its many curry houses, I eventually figured out that the curry I grew up with was not even remotely authentic. However, while I’m also very fond of Indian, Anglo-Indian, Thai and Malaysian curries, I still love the sailor’s curry of my childhood and must have it three or four times per year.

*The DDG Hansa shipping company specialised in routes to East and South East Asia, hence the affinity for curry and the tendency to give Asian knick-knacks (my parents have a nice collection) to its employees for Christmas. My Dad worked for them until 1974, when he switched to the rival shipping company Hapag-Lloyd.

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4 Responses to Sailor’s Curry – a curious Indian-German fusion dish

  1. katje says:

    I love your point about SFF and having dishes like this (would indeed love to see more of this) – although I suspect I’d personally find it hard to come up with something like this because, oddly enough, although I grew up as a third culture kid, I’m not really one for fusion cuisine. Bananas in a spicy curry! I’m both intrigued and slightly nonplussed.

    • Cora says:

      The various add-ons may sound strange separately, but the combination tastes great for some reason. Though I’m not sure how I would react to this dish, if I hadn’t literally grown up with it.

      Now what really stunns me are the pickled sardines (really?), chopped bacon (what?) and gouda cheese (what?) that some of the other sailor’s curry recipes I found on the Internet include. I really can’t imagine how bacon or gouda cheese can possibly work in this.

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