Southern cuisine is straightforward, at least in the sense that its borders are well-known and its landmarks universally understood. Of course, sometimes borders are porous and natives turn out to be transplants (looking at you, pimiento cheese!). Country captain, a curried chicken and rice dish, is one of those transplants that came to be considered part of the Southern canon.
Southern legend has it that the spiced chicken dish was born in a port city, like Charleston or Savannah, where the residents had easy access to global spices and goods. This origin story proves to be a complete fiction, but the ladies of Charleston’s Junior League in the ’50s and ’60s—where country captain reached its peak notoriety—didn’t know any different. The curry-scented chicken and rice recipe hails from India, where an early form of it eventually made its way to America. A chef in New York City added his own flair (almonds, currants) and published it in a cookbook, launching the captain’s journey down south.
Military wives added two cans of tomatoes and made it famous, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt even became one of the dish’s biggest fans. It’s easy to see why: chicken is breaded and fried golden brown, then braised in a fragrant, tomato-based curry sauce with peppers and onions that’s deeply flavorful. The dish was easy to make ahead, but elegant, bringing a whiff of the exotic at a time when spices like curry weren’t easy to access. Country captain is a lesson about the power of possession—claim something confidently and it becomes your own. The South is full of transplants. It’s what makes us better.
COUNTRY CAPTAIN //
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
All-purpose flour, for dusting
3 Tbs. salted butter
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 ½ tsp. pepper
2 Tbs. curry powder
2 Tbs. chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
2 tsp. dried thyme
¼ pound sliced almonds, toasted
½ cup raisins
Cooked rice, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. In a Dutch oven, heat oil and 2 Tbs. butter over medium-high heat. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Once oil is hot, fry the chicken thighs in batches, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 8–10 minutes. Remove chicken from pot and place on a plate.
3. Lower heat to medium and melt 1 Tbs. butter. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic and cook until softened and starting to brown, about 8–10 minutes. Stir in diced tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and season with salt to taste, then add pepper, curry powder, parsley, and thyme and simmer for 10 minutes. Return the chicken pieces to the Dutch oven and nestle down into sauce, spooning sauce over all of the thighs.
4. Cover the pot with a lid and place into oven. Cook for 45 minutes.
5. Remove pot from oven. Stir the almonds and raisins into the sauce. Serve chicken and sauce over hot cooked white rice. Garnish with parsley and almonds.
Photograph by Jivan Davé