- Virginia Johnson
If you like a good cooking show—and a good story—dive into John O’Connell’s The Book of Spice for a lot of kitchen knowledge, delivered with an English accent. From his first try at tandoori chicken at a family picnic, Mr. O’Connell was hooked on the beautiful differences spices could make.
As seasoned cooks know, spice is very nice, and there are certainly more of them available now, both online and in the supermarket. Indeed, there are so many herbs, spices, and blends that it’s a daunting proposition to select one to try out. Surely it would be better if you understood not only their uses but also their fascinating histories.
That is what Mr. O’Connell’s book is—a narrative history of spices. You will not find recipes here, but you will find a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the lore of spices. For example, vanilla was considered an aphrodisiac by famed lover Casanova, and mummia was associated with Egyptian mummies.
As to nutmeg, so readily found at the grocery store:
“Until the early nineteenth century the Bandas, so small that they are absent from many atlases, were the sole source of the world’s nutmeg. And nutmeg, which nowadays we associate with eggnog and rice pudding and Christmas, was for hundreds of years the most valuable commodity in the world—more valuable even than gold.”
If you enjoy The Book of Spice, do check out Near a Thousand Tables: The History of Food and The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice. Looking for a book that explores spices whilst including recipes? Try The Spice Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices and The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World, by Padma Lakshmi.