The Spice and Herb Bible: A Cook's Guide

by Ian Hemphill
ISBN: 0778800423

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A Review of: The Spice and Herb Bible-A CookĘs Guide
by Byron Ayanoglu

An Australian export, The Spice and Herb Bible is a long overdue, essential kitchen tool for any serious home-cook. Here, finally, an easy to navigate encyclopedia of the flavours, scents, and perfumes of the world's cuisines, an aromatic gem of a book, as useful as it is weighty at almost 500 pages.
The length is due to the spicy enthusiasm of its author Ian "Herbie" Hemphill. He does not stint words as he exhaustively discusses each one of his beloved ingredients. His menu has only 100 candidates, but he takes 14 pages for black pepper, 10 for chilies, and 6 even for an eclectic item like allspice. Then, he includes a 50-page appendix on traditional spice/herb blendings, all the faves from fines herbes to garam masala to berbere, and well, it all adds up on the page-count.
Somehow, however, the book feels as light and delightful as a stalk of saffron, because it is thorough without being boring-a major accomplishment when subject matter is the etymology of the names, the provenance, and the culinary uses of what, when all is said and praised, are nothing more than seeds and weeds.
The author has spices in the veins. A son of Australia's pioneering herbalists John and Rosemary Hemphill, Ian has been surrounded by aromatics since childhood. On his own, he has been through the ranks, working with the magic substances in the mainstream markets of South-East Asia, finally settling down to running his eponymous (or should that be, nick-nameous?) Herbie's, the most complete and efficient spice and herb shop I have ever encountered. Situated in the sleepy Sydney suburb, Rozelle, the small shop is laden with an astonishing variety of robust and lively produce, which it sells/couriers to clients all over the planet. I felt right at home at Herbie's, talking flavours with Ian and his wife Elizabeth over a cup of exactingly brewed Darjeeling.
It recalled countless pleasant hours I have spent in the spice markets of Morocco, also over tea (albeit mint), but in Rozelle I could purchase delicacies from the entire world as well as everything they sell in Marakesh.
Spices and herbs are what separate cuisine from mere cooking. They are the civilizing gustatory influence and the particular cultural bend of a nation's taste buds, based on traditions, weather (the sunnier a place the spicier its food), and native availability of spices.
Europeans, whose culture has been transplanted to both Canada and Australia, came by spices rather late, but have taken them up with a passion and a childlike awe, which has often resulted in ignorance and its cousin, experimentation. Hemphill's book sets out to right the situation with highly informed content.
We find out about amchur, a dried mango which is ground and used in curries and marinades, where its acidity and sourness combine with the sweeter tastes to sparkle on the palate. If you cannot locate amchur, the book proposes kokam, a tangy tamarind-like dried fruit, also used for its sourness.
Then there is asafoetida, whose name sounds like that of a tropical flower-or maybe a romantic sexual ailment-but actually comes from the word "fetid" and refers to its awful smell before it's cooked. Further on the smell front, the same spice is a cure for flatulence, and is therefore used in South-Indian lentil and bean dishes, as well as the signature sambhar sauce. A malodorous substance that can be made to smell wonderful while preventing other, more human, olfactory misdemeanours. I had no idea.
Among other obscure items, we get grains of paradise, a ginger-cardamom like pepper; lavender, whose culinary participations range from the Moroccan ras el hanout to the French herbes de Provence, as well as in cakes and sweets; mahlab, the husked shells of a Middle-Eastern black cherry whose bitter-almond aroma is an irreplaceable component of Lebanese milk-puddings; and pandan leaves, with their musk and jasmine perfume, and the day-glow chartreuse colour that makes otherworldly treats out of ordinary things like rice.
And who could possibly want to use epazote without consulting this book, since this American worm seed, a Mexican specialty, can, in excess, cause vertigo, deafness, paralysis, and even death. On the other hand, used sparingly, it is the essential flavour of mole de epazote, a wonderful goat casserole of the Yucatan peninsula.
Alphabetically listed, the book celebrates all manner of oddities, in among authoritative entries on basics like salt, and the obvious parsley-sage-rosemary-and-thyme, and all their relatives. The entries deal with the history of each ingredient and the folkloric anecdotes attached to it, as well as consumer-friendly segments on storage suggestions, alternate-usage hints, and quite often representative (but always obscure and surprising) recipes.
All that, plus a slew of bright, full-colour, full-page photographs to help us recognize the little darlings. This is an indispensable addition to any kitchen library, and one that you'll find reason to consult alongside every one of your cookbooks.

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