The Hobart

A Spicy History of Hobart

by Stephanie Williams
A Spicy History of Hobart

Have you ever looked up toward the mountain and noticed big white writing on the hill at South Hobart? Dating back to 1905, the sign was a new, fandangle marketing tool for Keen’s Curry, the iconic flavouring that started right here in Hobart. We spoke with researcher Freida Moran to get the fully spicy story.

Keen’s Curry was created in Hobart by Joseph Keen and his second wife Annie. Was curry something that was widely known in Australia at the time or was it still very exotic? Yes, Keen’s was first produced by Joseph and Annie from their shop and post office in Kingston during the 1860s, as one of a range of condiments. Curry powder was frequently advertised in colonial Australian newspapers, from around the second decade of the 19th century. As a foodstuff produced through “negotia­tion and collaboration” (Cecilia Leong-Salobir) between British colonisers and Indian servants, curry was known across the British Empire. Curry was one way settler colonists made unfa­miliar Indigenous ingredients – such as kangaroo and wattlebirds – acceptable, as a familiar taste and cooking technique. The ‘exoticness’ of curry was intentionally cultivated in advertising at different points in Australian history, as Keen’s, for example, did in the 1960s.

Do you know where Joseph’s experience or interest with curry came from? No, but I would think it was part of the broader culinary culture at the time.

What was happening around that time with food – what did a normal diet look like and was Keen’s Curry complementary to that, or a really out there ingredient!? Given the prod­uct’s success, I’d say that curry and Keen’s suited the preferred flavour profiles, cooking techniques and available ingredients of the time, and became embedded in local culinary culture, and arguably part of local identities.

The Keen’s Curry sign in South Hobart

There’s the large sign in South Hobart, created from white rocks that says ‘Keen’s Curry’. Was this a marketing tool?

Yes! It caused quite a stir, but was only one of several contro­versial marketing campaigns Keen’s produced in this era. Joseph and Annie’s son-in-law Horace Watson took over the company around the turn of the century, and became a prolific and notable advertiser. The South Hobart sign was constructed in 1905 from whitewashed stones and was said to be visible from miles away. It provoked controversy in the local newspapers, used an example of the modern “advertising demon” being “every­where”. In 1914, another sensational promotion capitalised on fascination with Antarctic exploration, with one or two live king penguins placed in the window of a Murray Street shop bearing a sign suggesting “that any one who eats any other curry but ‘Keen’s’ is a fool”. Letters to the Mercury protested animal cruelty, but Watson asserted that the bird enjoyed salt-water swims and fresh fish, as well as the admiration of “10,000 folk”. The Keen’s Curry sign has been rearranged a number of times of the years: university students changed it to “Hell’s Curse”, and “Freds Folly”, and in the second half of the 20th century, it became a barometer for locally contentious issues, some which reverberated internationally: “No Dams”, “Gunns Lie”, and in 1994, “No Cable Car”.

The flavouring has endured. Why do you think that is? We can’t say for sure that the exact flavour profile has remained the same since the 1860s, as ingredients didn’t have to be listed. Current Keen’s advertising emphasises history, tradition and con­tinuity of flavour, but a previous owner said there were 15 spices in the blend, whereas today there are only 9. So it may have evolved alongside our changing tastes.

What role did Hobart play in the creation and success of Keen’s Curry? I think it is really interesting to think about this from a slightly different angle – what Keen’s Curry can tell us about Hobart? I think we often think of Hobart and Tasmania as the ‘end of the world’, remote and isolated, but the fact there was an adequate supply of spices for a curry powder to be commer­cially blended here in the 1860s, is quite surprising (at least it was for me!). It shows that Hobart at this time was a connected node of the Empire and part of an efficient trade network. Individual spices used in blends such as Keen’s would have come from India, the Caribbean, Europe, and South-East Asia.

Love this

Cold Water Wake Up Call
It seems everywhere I turn someone is talking about or participating in cold water swimming right now.
A Short Geelong Getaway
Since the Spirit of Tasmania terminal moved from Melbourne to Geelong late last year, a visit to Geelong has been on the radar.
27 Hobart Friends Get Snipping For One Off Wine
The borders were declared shut in Tasmania on the 30th of March, 2020; the first stare to do so amid the COVID- 19 pandemic and hard lockdown of Hobart followed.
Danphe Nepalese and Indian Food + Peppermint Bay Bar and Bistro
Nepalese food is a comfort in our house. Having spent much time trekking and mountain climbing in Nepal as a younger man, Nepalese food is something I always love to go back to.
That’s DR Hannah Gadsby To You
From Smithton to Netflix and the Emmys stage, Tasmanian stand up comic Hannah Gadsby has forged an unlikely path. Following on from the massive success of her shows Nanette and Douglas, Hannah brings her new show Body of Work to Hobart this month.
PODCAST: Incat founder Robert Clifford on why electric boats are the future
Robert Clifford is the founder of Incat, a Hobart company building fast ferries for the world. Always looking to future opportunities, he has identified where Hobart sits in the next wave of transportation. For more of this interview listen to The Hobart Magazine podcast.
Is Tourism Ready For More Forestry Wars?
Tasmanian forests are special. They’re home to centuries-old trees, including the tallest flowering trees on the planet, and support unique native species. Yet not everyone agrees on how these forests should be managed.
Hobart Chefs: When The Obsession Becomes Real
Tasmania’s brand as a foodie haven is cemented. But within the local hospitality industry there are those who love to use local produce...and those who are next-level obsessed with it. We spoke to a bunch of Hobart chefs who are top of the game when it comes to fostering relationships with local farmers and growers.
Did You Know Australia’s First Female Doctor Was Hobartian?
Tasmania, despite its small size and population in comparison to the mainland, has produced more than its proportionally predicted percentage of significant figures and heroes of Australian history. 
Return Travellers Adding Pressure to Hobart Housing
For all of us 2020 was a year like no other, punctuated by rapid change and plenty of new challenges. For vulnerable people in Tasmania, including people facing homelessness, those on low incomes and those facing increasingly higher rents, it was very challenging. We are seeing a growing demand for homes in Tassie from international travellers returning home, people moving for work and others seeking the lifestyle that our Apple Isle has to offer.
AboutContributeAdvertiseNewsletter Sign UpContact
May 2024

Stay up to date with everything happening at the Hobart Magazine.

Thank you to Luke Brokensha for mobilising his friends and local residents recently to host two rubbish clean ups along the Hobart Rivulet after heavy rains.
The warm weather returns...hello summer.
Need a laugh? Check out @theinspiredunemployed feed on Instagram.
Moto Vecchia Cafe in Bellerive and Czegs Cafe in Richmond have joined the Clarence City Council dementia program, creating dementia-friendly spaces for all patrons.
It’s hard to believe it’s not standard practice to have a working phone in every aged care room - shared phones make private conversations impossible and increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Tacks on the tracks. Mountain bikers beware of tacks being left on certain tracks on the mountain.
Just when you think your cousins are alright. NZ Opposition Leader Judith Collins took aim at Tassie during her recent (unsuccessful) campaign, calling us Australia’s “poor cousin.” She also seems worried about us nabbing tech businesses, “It’s a lovely part of the world but do you necessarily want to go there with your high- tech business? Possibly not,” she said. We beg to differ!