A giant piece of cinnamon bark, one and a half feet wide and almost as tall, hangs mounted in a glass-fronted box on the wall of Marryam Reshii's living room in Delhi. Discovered in a spice shop in Hong Kong, it is one of those objects that becomes more expressive when pictured with its owner that it would be by itself. In her house, it seems to say, "I am a spice and there is so much I can tell you about the history of the world. Don't just eat me – write me."
And Reshii, one of India's most respected and loved food writers, has just done so. The Flavour of Spice, her new book, is the product of a lifetime's engagement with the subject in the kitchen and on the road. Subtitled Journeys, Recipes, Stories, it has chapters on more than a dozen major spices and will make any cook look at their spice rack in a whole new way. "From Xinjiang to Hong Kong, London to Mexico," she writes, "hardly anything unites the world today as much as a shared history of spices."
There's a good reason for an Indian food writer to write a book such as this. No other country makes use of so many spices as India, or uses them in so many different ways. (In Bengal, for instance, mustard is used as a cooking oil, as seeds to be pounded for the base of gravies, and even as a table condiment.)
Some of the recipes in Indian cookbooks stretch to enormous lengths because more than two-thirds of the ingredients are spices. Although many of the world’s major spices are not actually indigenous to India, the country is nevertheless the place where, for reasons of both history and geography, most spices have eventually found their fullest expression.
Chillies, for instance, were brought to India by the Portuguese less than 500 years ago. But India is the largest producer and consumer of chillies in the world today, and they are the first image that come to mind when people around the world think of Indian food (although many Indian dishes use chillies sparingly and sometimes not at all, and the use of turmeric – one of the few spices indigenous to India – is probably a more reliable marker of the nation's cuisine).
Spice practice in India is an almost inexhaustible theme, writes Reshii, beyond the power of any individual to grasp in its entirety. But even so, one would be hard-pressed to think of a better person to interpret the theme. Evidence of Reshii’s indefatigable curiosity presents itself on every page. She makes field trips to spice plantations all over the country, from the saffron gardens of the north to the lush groves of cardamom in the south, trying to see, touch and taste spices in their original incarnation as buds and flowers, seeds and pieces of bark. (A few spices, such as coriander and fenugreek, do double duty as both seeds and herbs.)
She entreats friends and relatives living in the Far East and Middle East to bring her samples of cumin or saffron to be compared with their Indian cousins, chases down food scientists and biotechnologists to understand the mysteries of volatile oils and aromatics, and coaxes spice traders and chefs to part with the secrets of the trade. Her zeal is infectious, a reminder that her readers – for several years she has written a food column in India's biggest-selling English newspaper, The Times of India – love her as much for her manner as for her matter.
“Some of the most interesting spice markets I have seen were in Morocco,” she says, “where the ground spices are arranged in tall cones that miraculously never topple over in the wind – though I imagine they must lose their potency after being exposed to the air. Iran’s Isfahan is absolutely marvellous for spices sold in atmospheric old souks, and Paris and its grand departmental stores actually sell ground and whole spices in open containers! But my favourite has to be the eye-watering fierceness of the very air of Gadodia Market in Old Delhi.”
Reshii’s awareness of the centrality of spices to cooking came very early in life. As a child in Goa – the small state on the western coast of India that was for four centuries a Portuguese colony, generating distinctive cuisine with Indic and Lusophone elements – she remembers the long, detailed arguments waged by her mother and her aunt over the relative merits of the “bottle masala” sold on a small scale by two different families.
These are the spice mixes present in every Goan kitchen as the base of the ubiquitous Goan fish curry, compounded from nearly two dozen ingredients by certain families (Reshii charmingly calls them “half-brands” for their renown in the neighbourhoods in which they are made) and sold locally in distinctive one-litre green or brown bottles. Even today, a Goan living upcountry in Mumbai or abroad looks for someone to bring them some bottle masala – a reminder that nothing conjures up the image of home to the human imagination more immediately than spices.
But for much of recorded human history, Reshii reminds us, spices were extremely rare and precious commodities – not so much the taste of home as the taste of the unknown. Looking at the ubiquitous bottle of pepper on the table of every western home and restaurant today, one would never guess that the small black globes in it were one of the great drivers of modern history.
The great age of European maritime exploration that changed the course of world history in the 15th century was driven by a search for spices – and a trade route that would allow the European powers to circumvent the longstanding stranglehold of Arab traders over the spice trade. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama set out on arduous, world-expanding journeys in search of spices – and ended up discovering whole continents instead. Backed by ambitious joint-stock companies and consortiums at home, the buccaneering bands of European explorers fought tooth and nail for control of the spice-growing domains, such as the islands in the Indonesian archipelago that grew clove, cardamom and mace. “To see the world in a grain of sand,” goes the famous line from the 18th century English poet William Blake – but perhaps he should have written “grain of spice” instead.
The crosswinds and networks of the spice trade washed up people and spices on both coasts of India’s vast 7,000-kilometre shoreline, where they were assimilated in myriad ways, becoming identified with the food of particular communities, regions, or religions.
Looking at the history of spices, she writes, allows us “to trace how India’s culinary history has evolved through exchanges with the rest of the world and to celebrate the culinary differences that have evolved through each community’s interaction with these ingredients.”
It’s a formidably complex history, I tell her, and one that can make Indian food seem very daunting to neophytes. Is there some rule of thumb that one can bring to cooking with Indian spices?
“Well, the cheat sheet consists of four base spices, called ‘The Big Four’ in my book,” she says. “Red chilli, turmeric, cumin and coriander. Add any two aromatics, a tiny bit at a time – say black pepper and cinnamon – in conjunction with the main four and vary the proportions around until you find your feet.”