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Historic blunders

My mum used to cook me curry when I was a kid. Growing up in small-town England in the late 1960s, I had never seen coriander or cumin, turmeric or ginger. Neither had my mother.

Still, I liked what she made. The rice was a change from spuds and the yellow-green-brown meaty sauce had, well, an interesting flavour. This was partly thanks to the apples she added and, best of all, the sultanas, plumped up and sweet after cooking. It was also thanks to a little pot of powder bought from our tiny supermarket, grandly called the International.

Curry powder dates back to the East India Company's 200-year involvement with the subcontinent. Employees became partial to spicy fare, calling it "curry" from the Tamil kari meaning sauce. By the mid-1700s, housewives back in England were experimenting with "Currey the Indian Way," a chicken fricasee spiced with turmeric, ginger and pepper.

The Victorians lapped it up. In 1809, the first Indian restaurant opened in London. The queen herself is said to have had a curry prepared every day in case she had a visitor from India. In 1845 Eliza Acton published six new recipes - including one for curried macaroni - insisting that for best results spices should be ground and mixed at home.

But then Mrs Beeton, cookery's grand dame, gave lazy cooks an excuse to chuck out their pestle and mortar. Despite many of her recipes calling for home-ground spices, she defended the use of curry powder, so long as it was purchased at a "respectable shop". Oh dear.

Mrs B was wrong for three important reasons: the powders were standard blends of several spices; the blends were not right; and Indians would not dream of simply dolloping the same spices into every meal because every meal would taste identical. Until that is, the powder went stale, which it did very quickly. Then you got what cookery guru Madhur Jaffrey described in 1976 as "something that has the negative aspects of being standardised and somewhat rancid at the same time." Yummm.

My mum has long since given up on curry. But I still have a source of this childhood comfort food. My local chippy.

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