Life of spice

col-foodism-150Add spice to your life. That may have been frequently received wisdom for many, possibly neither the adviser nor the recipient has taken it literally mean what the words say. Well, spices actually have been adding life read longevity to food since the dawn of history. From Egyptian pharaohs using it for embalming to Biblical references, the history of spices is long and varied. 

The role of spices in the India’s history can hardly be overplayed. The search for safe ‘spice routes’ by Europeans for centuries led to crucial changes in the way people lived and who ruled over them, along with multiple scientific discoveries that would again impact the entire globe.

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer  
   Niyogi Books
Rs 1,500; Pp 268

This book, Spicestory written by veteran travel writers, Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, looks at the role of spices in Indian life. Done in conjunction with the Spices Board of India, Spicestory has separate chapters on 18 leading spices of India, from pepper and cumin to chillies and mint.

In the modern context, the use of spices is usually understood to be in cooking, but the book reveals, these spices have been used in a lot of different ways not just in India but globally. Many of them have been used in therapeutic uses, and even though the western medicinal systems have been slow to recognise this they have been commonly used by Indians in household remedies, and also form part of Ayurveda, something the book brings out in more than one place.

The authors have used a lot of anecdotes to highlight the historical significance of these spices. Besides the use of pepper on fondue in Switzerland or to help stutterers overcome their affliction or even as an acceptable gift for goddesses in Kerala, the pepper story is literally peppered with anecdotes that bring out the significance of this crucial spice. Vasco da Gama, when he was ordered to search for a sea route to India at the end of the 15th century, was asked to do so “for pepper and Christ” as the book says, in that order.

Cinnamon’s tale is straight out of the Arabian Nights. An expensive condiment, it had prized since the days of the pharaoh, and it was said the nesting ground of the fabled bird, the phoenix, which would only nest in a grove of this fragrant tree. Garlic of course has long been regarded as the thing to ward off evil with, especially in the west. The Indian myths relate it to having a portion of the immortality granting amrit, and the saliva of the asuras – an ambiguous association if there ever was one!

The origin of chillies is a touchy subject for most Indians
The origin of chillies is a touchy subject for most Indians

Even when there isn’t a mythological association or a celestial or royal connection, the authors have tried to humanise these spices by weaving in stories that make the reader relate to them in less impersonal terms. At their home in the oak woods of the Himalayas, an injured long tailed magpie is cured over time with a turmeric poultice, an example of the restorative powers of this spice that is associated mainly with colour in cooking.

The origin of chillies is a touchy subject with many Indians, who would be very surprised to hear that chillies are not a part of traditional Indian cooking. In fact they came all the way from South America, courtesy the European navies in search of new trade routes. The authors however patriotically assert that there is an Indian genesis to chillies, tracing them back to the Andamans. The even suggest DNA route to trace the origin of the chillies! Whatever be the genesis story, that chillies are used by Indians in myriad forms today is undeniable.

They look at the different ways in which spices are used from in the West. The example of mustard, used mainly as a dressing in the West, finds greater use as an oil and winter leafy greens in India, they point out. The mint is another example of differing uses. The garlic has become so omnipresent that Chicken Tikka Masala, or CTM as the authors write is now part of the English cuisine!

The book is a pictorial one, and puts together a great variety of visuals of spices that would be delight to the any fan and enlighten any one not as familiar with them. There is a chapter on the Spices Board of India, which gives an idea of how the spices are being seen and developed in India now. A largely under written subject despite its great historical significance, this book goes a long way in filling the gaps.


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