Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
If you have ever looked into it at all, you know that the history behind the spices we use today is a fascinating study. Fortunes have been won and lost, nations conquered and entire crops stolen, all in the name of the spice trade. Volumes have been written on the subject, but many of them make for dry reading.
Not so in Manisha Gambhir Harkins book Spices (Ryland, Peters & Small, 2002). Ms. Harkins manages to present ages of information in the most concise manner I have ever seen. And she does it within the confines of a cookbook, no less.
Each chapter of Spices is devoted to a different region of the world and is prefaced with a synopsis of how and why that area uses the spices that it does. In the first chapter, "The Americas," we see how the chile pepper was introduced to the world and how other countries embraced it as their own in an essay entitled "The Great Chile Migrations."
"Spices, Silks and Seclusion" leads us over the ancient Silk Road at the beginning of a chapter covering East Asia. Camels laden with goods traveling across the sand come through with vivid clarity. In the chapter about Africa and the Middle East more is written about frankincense and myrrh in the two pages spanning "Incense, Spice and Arabian Nights" than everything I have ever read about them put together.
The recipes within each chapter showcase that region's preference for tastes, cooking styles and ingredients. What could be more appropriate to cooking in the Americas than a Butternut Squash Soup with allspice and pine nuts? I couldn’t resist trying this simple recipe. The result was a perfectly spiced soup with a buttery texture.
Other recipes I tried proved equally satisfying. Swedish Lussekatter, a not-too-sweet bun flavored with saffron, came from the oven flaky and tender. Since I didn't have any sumac, I prepared the suggested variation of Middle Eastern Tomato and Lentil Salad using caraway seed. This is definitely a recipe I will make again.
The suggested substitutions for various spices are a real plus for this book. Many of us do not have easy access to cubeb or galangal but black pepper and ginger are always handy. Although a brief explanation of unusual ingredients is often included in the recipes, the spice directory at the end of the book further expands our knowledge. This section also includes 25 mail order and online sources for purchasing items that are not available in your area.
I like the fact that most of the recipes call for whole spices. This ensures the freshest, most intense flavors and allows for easy measuring. This is especially important for the spice mixes at the end of each chapter. With these recipes we can grind our own Garam Masala for Indian cooking or accent our Chinese cooking with homemade Five-Spice Powder.
Yet another positive point about the recipes is that any special equipment, like a grill pan or bamboo skewers, is included on the ingredient list. Also listed are accompaniments for serving a dish. "Crusty bread" was an excellent suggestion for serving with my butternut squash soup. One would certainly want to serve wasabi paste, pickled ginger and soy sauce alongside a carefully prepared Norimaki, Japanese sushi.
There is great natural beauty to spices that we often overlook when we use them as a powdered ingredient. Peter Cassidy's photography is stunning throughout this book but the close-ups shots are a real delight. Green peppercorns still hanging on the vine or a hand of turmeric sliced in two are sites few of us have the opportunity to see.
Spices is as interesting a history book as it is a quality cookbook. The only thing I longed for was a map so I could better trace the routes of the spice traders.
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