Review of The Flavour of Spice

Food, Kitchen,spices, Spoon, Wood

The Flavor of Spice: Journeys, Recipes, Stories. Marryam H. Reshii. Hachette India. Gurugram. 2017. 321 pp. ₹ 550.

For a spice that is ubiquitous, especially in the Indian kitchen, coriander evokes, strong, and even polarizing reactions, much like asafetida…But many Westerners detest the fresh fragrance of coriander, comparing it to soap or even bugs. (In fact, the name coriander is thought to have come from the Greek word koris, which means bugs.) [ 68, round brackets are of the author’s.]

The job of the careful contemporary historian of India is not to learn and repeat by rote what the established subaltern historians and their acolytes keep repeating over and over again: there are layers and layers of othering ad nauseum in Indian society. The young researcher should use contemporary materials which are generally not archived to ferret out empirical evidence of white racism. For instance, as Marryam H. Reshii writes above, it is evident that even today whites would censure us for using coriander. She goes to the extent of tracing coriander’s etymology. How many serious historians of India’s present, leave alone the past, would think that a normative cookery book is, in fact, an archive of historical data which paradoxically resists what Jacques Derrida calls archive fever? Reshii’s mapping of the entry of saffron in the Kashmir Valley beginning on page 112 leads her to willy-nilly enter Buddhist legends in page 113 and conclude: “Significantly, these legends too include the handing over [to Kashmiris] of saffron corms [sic] by a religious figure in gratitude”. Reshii then characteristically reverts to an informative anecdotal mode about saffron and its rhizomic legends. Here rhizome is used in the philosophical sense and not in its botanical sense. For instance, she refers to the medieval Tazuk-i-Jahangiri to write of soporific effects of “the blooming saffron fields in Pampore” on the Emperor Jahangir (113). What makes the book under review special is that it is more a book on the historiography of spices than a cookbook in the lines of the ones written by the late Tarla Dalal or those of Sanjeev Kapoor. Reshii unlike Dalal and Kapoor actually visits cooks in their kitchens, calls her friends up and emails them for recipes which are easy to cook in a contemporary Indian kitchen. In the process, she fills The Flavor of Spice with socio-economic data. One example will prove this: she talks of Indonesia’s production of cloves vis-à-vis Madagascar’s production of cloves. And then what follows is a veritable treat for historians: Reshii writes of ‘kretek’ or Indonesia’s version of a cigarette with the taste of cloves and she locates the popularity of ‘kreteks’ to the insufficiency of cloves in Indonesia. Indonesia, we come to know, has to import cloves since most Indonesians will not smoke any cigarette which does not have cloves in it!

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When Indian men learn to cook and respect home-making, then we as a nation would have progressed. Reshii’s book will help men home-makers to see cooking as a more masculine activity.

 

This reviewer is surprised at the amount of research that has gone into the making of this book. Reshii’s book should be read by historians first and history departments should have a copy of her book. It goes without saying that this book is a must for the Indian home. It will be cherished by homemakers too as Ki & Ka (2016) showed us that homemaking is essential to a good life; good in the sense of Aristotle’s eudaimonia. And homemakers are often more astute than professional historians, not only historians of gastronomies. This book validates the contentions of Edward Said if one reads it with the eyes of a researcher of Orientalism

I owe my seriousness in scouring for sublimity in the popular artefact to Roland Barthes’ pioneering work Mythologies. But as of 23:26 IST, of 29th August 2018, please see the disclaimer ahead of my review of Buddha at Work. While that book has little to do with any of the Buddhas (sic), this book under review here is truly a cultural artefact. And nothing more. It is not the Larousse Gastronomique.

 

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Resshi’s book came my way through the Valley of Words, Literary Festival to be held in Dehradun this November 2018. I got seriously interested in the book under review because it is a treasure trove about colonialism mediated through spices.  Resshi’s book reminded me of  Peter Frankopan‘s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

 

 



Categories: Book Review, Food, Non-fiction, Valley of Words

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