The highlight of our one and only trip to India was a hilarious, surreal, heart-warming visit to Fort Begu, a sprawling Gormenghast of a fort in the very south of Rajasthan, covered with peacocks, pigeons and pigeon poo. It had been partially restored by the Maharana, Rawat Sawai Hari Singh (M.Sc. Agron., ex-Minister, Rajasthan) and his son Ajay, to make a hotel. We were the only guests, and we were the epicentre of their epic hospitality. They showed us everything, told us everything, asked us everything. It was breathless - and breath-taking.
A memorably bizarre moment: we are in a huge unrestored wing of the fort, with a banyan tree growing through the walls; the Maharana orders up a bucket of water and a mug, chucks water casually at a plaster wall, and reveals some eye-wateringly frisky wall paintings. Religion and sex there doesn't seem to be much distinction round here. Another: we have ordered tea in our room, first thing in the morning. The two servants, Suresh and Deja (probably the most handsome man in the universe), tap on the door and bring it in. Two servants, one pot of tea. Wow. They are followed by the Maharana himself, who starts fiddling with the remote control for the air con, muttering Sixteen degrees, it's got to be sixteen degrees, like England'. Another: as we are leaving, a protracted negotiation between the Maharana and Ajay about what kind of envelope the final bill should be put into. (They eventually settle on the fully crested version very flattering.)
The Maharana has a gag of which he is understandably proud: You conquered us with gunpowder; we conquered you with curry powder.' On the face of it, this is unarguable. But actually I suspect curry powder was a British invention. It was surely a means of taking or sending back a spice mixture to Blighty, so that our empire-builders could continue to enjoy some of the benefits of their great work. The recipes for curry powder in 19th century cookbooks are often for industrial amounts of the stuff: in Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, published in Madras in 1850, and presumably written by a Brit (the author of Manual of Gardening for Western India'), the quantities are 20lbs coriander seeds, 4lbs turmeric, 2lbs poppy seeds etc, a total of 36lbs. Apparently a tablespoonful is sufficient for a chicken or fowl curry'. That's about 500 chicken or fowl curries. The stuff would unquestionably have gone stale long before the 500th curry.
To an Indian cook, curry powder is an anathema. It's no better than those terrible jars of mixed herbs that have now mercifully disappeared from supermarket shelves. Using curry powder is obviously going to make all dishes taste the same. The trick is to use a different group of spices for each dish, sometimes ground, sometimes whole. Cumin, for example, has at least three distinct possible flavours: roasted, or dry-fried for a short time and then ground, it is dark, sharp and nutty; roasted and used whole, it is strongly licoricey; simply used whole it is delicately licoricey (though noticeably different from fennel seed). And of course it makes a difference when the spices are added; added earlier, the effect permeates the dish; added later, it's more cosmetic.
If you are obliged to use curry powder (which is of course specified in many recipes), it's a good idea to make it yourself dead easy, and the ingredients are readily available. Make it in small amounts, enough for one or two dishes: say, 20g cardamon seeds, 20g coriander seeds, 10g black peppercorns, 10g cloves, 10g cumin seeds, 10g salt, a pinch of mace, and a pinch of nutmeg. The salt is very important. Grind it in a small coffee grinder. Roast it, or dry-fry it, for a couple of minutes before using the flavour will develop radically. Don't use fenugreek, or turmeric, or mustard seed; they're lethal. Use chillies if you want, but it's worth bearing in mind that they're far from essential, and they have a tendency to obliterate everything else. They were only introduced into Indian cookery from America in the 16th century. Most Moghul dishes, for example, and many of the vegetarian dishes of Southern India are subtle and mild.
But don't buy it in the shops. If it can be said that we were conquered by curry powder, then we have unquestionably contributed to own downfall.
P.S. Last night, having just finished this diatribe against curry powder, I was rootling around in our spice cupboard and found, as well as a box of the infamous stuff that must have been bought sometime during the previous millennium, a tin of Ras Al Hanout, and a tin of Baharat, both ground spice mixtures. Whoops. Must start practising what I preach.