THE BOOK OF SPICE: From Anise to Zedoary
Author: John O’Connell
Published: Pegasus Books | July 2016
Length: 253 pages
Like angora wool or silk garments, the word “spice” rings with associations of extravagance and sensation. Choice additions can transform a merely practical dish to one of delectable glamour and possibility, hinting at a God who overflows with creativity, delighting in diversity and abundance–those extra, unnecessary tidbits that shoot fireworks of life for the pure joy of it. The Book of Spice celebrates this bit of glory in your kitchen.
Speaking of abundance, I thought I had variety in my spice cabinet. Surprisingly, despite regularly cooking with culturally diverse flavors, close to half of the book’s sixty listings are new to me. For example, Avens (most similar to Cloves), was popular in Tudor kitchens, while Galangal, which is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is still used in Asian and Chinese cuisine.
For diversity of culture just take a peak at the Directory of Spice Mixes in the back of the book. Mixes are listed from Persia, Ethiopia, Guyana, North Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Malaysia, Lebana, the Yemen, as well as the European and Asian countries American cuisine is more familiar with. Though ratios are not always specified, the components in each of these mixes are explained in full so that a brave cook can easily experiment to create his or her own variations.
Arranged in an alphabetical compendium for easy reference, the spice list encompasses those common, rare, popular, and even out of style. Each listing varies from about two to ten pages long, quickly read in a sitting. Orderly personalities might not be able to help reading the whole collection in order, but the formatting equally caters to those who flip through according to interest or practical reference.
Each spice is discussed paragraph style. Medical and historical uses, related quotes from old cookbooks and literature, and practical tips for cultivation often appear, but any number of fields may be touched upon depending on relevance. In fact, every time you open a chapter you never know what you will find. Chili Pepper’s pages discuss the psychology of man’s obsession with foods that hurt us. And without reading Curry’s analysis I may not have discovered that Curry leaves lose their fragrance if not quickly used or refrigerated.
If you are a fan of history, culture studies, natural medicine, literature, or the art behind cooking, the Book of Spice will delight you. Never again will you lavish a twist of the pepper grinder thoughtlessly onto your eggs, or take a dash of cumin for granted. You might even decide to give your spice cabinet a makeover, not to mention the endless possibilities of combining your own mixes. All in all, the God of decadence and diversity will be glorified in your kitchen.
When to use The Book of Spice:
- When you come across a new spice in a recipe and wonder, “What in the world is that?”
- When you are reading the Bible or other literature and wonder, “What is this spice’s significance?” (e.g. Spikenard, Wormwood, Carob)
- When you have a spice you have always used in one particular way and need to expand your horizons (e.g. Dill is not just for pickles, in Russia and Scandinavia Dill vinegar is added to fish sauces).
- When you wonder if there might be a medical use for something you have in your cupboard.
- When you want to laugh at the strange ideas the human race has had over time.
- When a recipe calls for “Apple Pie Spice” and you don’t want to pay someone else to combine spices for you that you already have on hand.
Review copy courtesy of Pegasus Books