For a person whose kitchen is merely the place where crockery and cutlery is kept and washed after use, I certainly have more food books (not recipe books) than most people I know. That’s because I’m an armchair chef — perfectly happy, even thrilled, to read a good food memoir or history with my tongue hanging out and drool creeping down my jaw, but otherwise the world’s empress of home delivered meals. Because when it comes to cooking, I’d rather have someone else do it, thank you, and I’m willing to pay for the privilege. So it made perfect sense for me to pounce on food writer Marryam H Reshii’s book, The Flavour of Spice, the moment it released (I love e-books! Two clicks and there you have ’em).
I may not know exactly what those powdered and dried thingies that people tend to have in their kitchen cabinets may be, but that’s no reason not to read about them, particularly when the writer expounding on the topic is as knowledgeable and engaging as Reshii. I bought this book knowing I’d enjoy it. I finished reading it feeling smug because I’d been correct in my assumption. The Flavour of Spice is a book focused on the spices used most often in Indian cooking, tracing their history as far back as possible, and investigating their mysteries deeply. The main chapters feature a single spice, such as cumin, pepper, and poppy seed, which are used more or less across the country, while others whiz through spices used on a more regional basis. Some chapters take us through spice grinders, the use of spices abroad, and community-created spice mixes and pastes, such as Kashmiri Ver, which apparently appears spontaneously (and mysteriously) on an annual basis because no family ever admits to making it so as to not give the neighbours even a sniff of the ingredients that go into it. Finally, almost every chapter ends with recipes. (These I ignored. I don’t cook. I just eat.)
Reshii says in her introduction that The Flavour of Spice is not meant to be a textbook of spices; nor is the information exhaustive. It is simply the result of her curiosity about spices: where did they come from? How are they used? Why are they used, and for what purpose? How did spices not indigenous to India blend so beautifully with the various styles of Indian cuisine that sometimes — like, for instance, with chillis — they became synonymous with the whole nation’s cooking? And how come certain spices are ignored in their own growth regions, but madly essential in other Indian regions so far away as to make it appear logistically impossible for them to have become popular at all?
She can’t answer all these questions all the time, but she certainly gives it a good, hard try. There is nothing idle about Reshii’s curiosity; this book is clearly not a compilation of search engine results. She has gone to great lengths in her research, visiting spice growing regions in the country, checking out wholesale spice markets, walking through processing factories, and interviewing experts in the field. In particular, I was deeply impressed with her determination to discover the origin of a spice called kalpasi, used in several regions in the country, but impossible to track down to its source. For one thing, there is no universal name for it: kalpasi (Tamil name) only appears to have regional names. Even knowing those names was no help to Reshii. For instance, though kalpasi is an essential ingredient of Maharashtrian goda masala, there was no sign of it even at Mumbai’s Lalbaug Spice Market — the one place you would definitely expect to find it.
Reshii eventually solved the kalpasi mystery, but it is her descriptions of situations like this that make her book so very engaging. Without spices, there would no cooking worth a damn, yet few people know much about them. As Reshii points out, even schoolchildren mugging up maps of India focused on major crops are only taught about staples like cereals and dals —but what about the zeera, mirchi, and haldi that make these dals and cereals palatable?
And what does palatable mean anyway? The chapter I found most fascinating in this book was the final one, “Spices Abroad”, which takes us on a whirlwind tour of how spices are used in other countries. Many of the dishes, to judge by their descriptions, seemed distinctly unpalatable to me despite the familiarity of the spices — how they work clearly depends on how they’re used. In particular, I’m glad I’ve never had authentic Mexican food. Though I’m used to chillis in my meals, according to Reshii, “…the average Indian will have to be hospitalized if he consumes the habanero chilli, routinely consumed in Mexican cuisine.”
But then, she adds, “…perhaps this is testament to the fact that Mexico has been using chillis for 2,000 years now, and Indians for a mere 400 years.”
Which makes me wonder: if the world is not wiped out by climate change after all, would Indians be eating hotter chillis in the year 4017? And whether or not they did, would there be someone like Marryam Reshii to tell us about it? I hope so. But I think The Flavour of Spice needs a Volume II much, much sooner than 4017. Sometime in the next five years would be lovely....