Monday, March 2, 2009

Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices by Andrew Dalby

Dangerous Tastes

Dangerous Tastes:
The Story of Spices
by Andrew Dalby

Trade Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: University of California Press
First Released: 2000

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Back Cover Description:
Spices and aromatics--the powerful, pleasurable, sensual ingredients used in foods, drink, scented oils, perfumes, cosmetics, and drugs--have been among the most sought-after substances in human history. Dangerous Tastes explores their captivating history, the fascination they have aroused in us, and the roads and seaways by which trade in spices has gradually grown. Andrew Dalby, who has gathered information from sources in many languages, explores each spice, interweaving its general history with the story of its discovery and various uses.

Dalby concentrates on traditional spices that are still part of world trade: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, saffron, and chili. He also discusses aromatics that are now little used in food but still belong to the spice trade and to traditional medicine: frankincense, myrrh, aloes-wood, balsam of Mecca. In addition, Dalby considers spices that were once important but that now are almost forgotten: long pepper, cubebs, grains of Paradise.

Dangerous Tastes relates how the Aztecs, who enjoyed drinking hot chocolate flavored with chili and vanilla, sometimes added annatto (a red dye) to the drink. This not only contributed to the flavor but colored the drinker's mouth red, a reminder that drinking cacao was, in Aztec thought, parallel with drinking blood. In the section on ambergris, Dalby tells how different cultures explained the origin of this substance: Arabs and Persians variously thought of it as solidified sea spray, a resin that sprung from the depths of the sea, or a fungus that grows on the sea bed as truffles grow on the roots of trees. Some Chinese believed it was the spittle of sleeping dragons. Dalby has assembled a wealth of absorbing information into a fertile human history that spreads outward with the expansion of human knowledge of spices worldwide.

This book is on food history. Despite the description given on the back cover, the focus is more on studying the spice than on the history of people's efforts to get the spice. I strongly suspect that people who enjoy spices and who already have a working knowledge of them in the present will find this book more interesting than those who only know a little about them. I was able to best follow and understand the information on the spices I was most familiar with (like ginger and cinnamon) than the ones I'd never used before or which are no longer available.

Each spice has a page or two written about it. Included are quotes from ancient sources which mention the spice, descriptions of the plant the spice is from and how the spice is made, information on where the spice originally came from and its spread (where it came to be grown), how the spice was used, which cultures used it, the trade routes and who traded it (if known), the value of the spice (if known), and ancient recipes using the spice. There were also brief sections describing the conflicts between nations as they tried to cheaply acquire certain spices.

I would have appreciated maps showing where the spice was grown and the ancient trade routes used to get it, but none were included. However, the author did give enough of a description that I could probably work it out on my own if I spent some time at it.

While the information was interesting and detailed, it was conveyed in a very dry way, like a textbook. In fact, I think this book would have been more accurately titled The Encyclopedia of Spices. However, it's clear that the author extensively researched the topic. This book probably contains the most accurate information known about spices, so this is the book to read if you're doing research on them.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Human beings will always be searching for the exotic--for what we cannot get at home. Trade by land and sea, difficult, slow, costly, dangerous as it has always been, has brought the flavours and aromas of the other side of the world to our food and festivity.

'The other side of the world' is literally true. Spices are among the earliest products that have crossed the globe in trade networks. This book traces the early travels of ginger, sugar, frankincense and myrrh, musk, and ambergris, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. In doing so it visits China, central Asia, Russia, Iran and Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Arabia, Egypt, west Africa and many European countries. The explosion of new spice routes after Columbus brings more regions into the story: Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru.

Spices are aromatics, used in food, festivity and medicine: natural products, traditionally prepared for long storage and distant travel. The parallel story of herbs is not told here. In that story the leading role is taken by gardeners, not traders, for the virtue of herbs is at its peak when they are fresh and green. 'Spice,' in this book, is defined by distant origin and long-distance trade, as well as unique aroma.

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