Tasteful display

Tasteful display

Tasteful display

M S Swaminathan sums up the book’s mission in his foreword  by concluding that he commends it “to all those who are interested in adding spice to their life.”

We Indians take spices for granted. Most of them are there for the asking: in well-laid-out gardens, in pots on the balcony or terraces, in deep forests, in fields under the sun or in colourful bazaars, adding touches of vivid colour and excitement.

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer have used their resources, both internal and external — religious books, political treatises, journals of travel dating back to early centuries and perennial favourites, like the Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, articles by nutritionists, accounts by botanists, encyclopedia, doggerels and nursery rhymes from early centuries, quotations from prominent ancients such as Hippocrates and grammarians like Panini, farmers and planters growing them, and family traditions, among others.

Spice is a word that has several connotations in history, adventures, tales of derring-do, romanticism, legends and of course, in commerce, which is the driving factor. The Gantzers explore these fascinating aspects.

Considerable research has gone into the book. Nothing has been ignored, including granny’s recipes and traditions dating back from centuries, like the example of cardamom harvesting, wherein women touch its flowers to enhance the setting of seed-filled cardamom pods.

They have included the mother lode that people from alien shores came to India for pepper, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, the roots of ginger, turmeric and garlic, mustard, nutmeg and mace, cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, poppy seeds, saffron, vanilla and mint. And, there is a full chapter on the workings of the Spice Board.

They have, in an easy narrative style, explored the uses of all these spices — in cosmetics, medicines, cuisines and trade. They have woven in legends, exploded certain myths, for instance, the fact that chillies did originate from India rather than from Spain. You can almost see them bristling in patriotic denial.

The most well-known and probably the useful of all spices, and that which opened the floodgates of dreams of power and trade between Rome and India (Kerala), was pepper. The word became part of the local idiom. For example, peppercorn rents, ‘pep’ being the operative buzzword for energy and high spirits, phrase ‘peppering him with questions’, its use in alliteration: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers... A background story explains pepper’s  importance as a gift in the Devi temple at the erstwhile Cranganore, which became a great entrepot for its trade.

Its uses were manifold and started off a great cultural chain reaction wherever it touched. The Romans, who had eating and drinking orgies, used pepper to settle the harmful effects of gorging. They even kept a legion in Muziris (Kerala) to prevent the greed of the Arab middlemen. Kerala saw foreigners from Portugal, Holland, Syria, the Christian world and Arabia. Pepper was in demand to preserve meats in the devastating European winters.

The authors have covered every spice they could think of: pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chillies, mustard, nutmeg and mace, cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, poppy seeds, saffron, vanilla and mint. I wonder why basil and curry leaves were left out.

The uses of these spices make for an interesting read. Cinnamon was known as a magical aromatic spice (its perfume was used to prevent disease and decay) used to embalm Egyptians. Elsewhere, it was efficacious as a breath-sweetener, an aphrodisiac and a digestive.

Cloves were praised for their calming effect; garlic, as a stroke preventive; ginger is used liberally by homeopaths and ayurvedic practitioners for obesity, skin diseases and digestive purposes; turmeric in the preparation of poultices to heal broken bones, as a cosmetic and an antiseptic and for nutritional and therapeutic purposes.

Each spice comes with its own legend, origin, types, including its method of growth and use. Lavishly illustrated, the book is pleasing, full of interesting trivia. It concludes with an account of the Spice Board’s formation in order “to discover, propagate and promote the cause of spices in all its facets.”

At the end is a mouth-watering menu of spiced cocktails and mocktails in Hotel Ashok with evocative names such as Pride of Oudh, Light of Oudh, Chashme Baddoor, Shatranj, Hot Punch, Indian Grog, Summer Fun and Spice Surprise. The reader’s question about what goes into each of these drinks can only be got by reading this book. But there are plenty of other reasons too for reading this book. A welcome edition for the interested reader.

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