ELEANOR FORD, MURDOCH BOOKS, $55

 

Through stories of ancient spice routes and delectable dishes whose scents almost waft from the pages, Eleanor Ford restores an air of glamour and exoticism to those tiny but mighty ingredients often stuffed in dusty packets at the back of the pantry. She tells how spices were valued more than treasure, used variously as rents and ransoms, bribes and offerings; how plagues were warded off with necklaces of nutmeg; that fiery ginger was used to ignite carnal desire; and that prayers were carried to heaven on a whiff of burnt spice. While celebrating the romance, she acknowledges that it’s a trade laced with a legacy of barbarity, conquest and suffering. Chapters trace the complex origins and influences of ginger, peppercorns, fragrant and floral petals and barks, chillies, lime leaves and lemongrass, and the sun-baked earthiness of cumin and coriander. Geographically, the journey sticks to the regions along the sea trade passages that wound through Asia and the Middle East from Indonesia to Venice, with swerves to East Africa and the Emirates. I’m hooked in by the very first recipe for Typhoon Shelter Corn, which promises tender sweet corn tossed through a crunchy mound of garlicky, gingery, salty crumbs. Then there’s a biryani cooked with pepper- spiked red-hot coal buried in its centre, and lemongrass stalks fashioned into tiny cages to enclose morsels of pork. It’s not all evocative tales of days gone by – the recipes are based on solid technique, and soon you’ll know which little nuggets need a gentle cosset in warm oil to bring out their best, and which benefit from a sharp prick of heat to fire them up. Once prized for their rarity, don’t let the familiarity of spices blind you to their promise – dive in and let your kitchen smell of far-away places. TRACY WHITMEY