Sunday, November 30, 2008


Today I started reading a rather wonderful book called Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and Cookbook of the British Raj, about life at the end of the British Raj and the food that went with it. It is full of information about colonial India, reminiscences, recipes, and information about the spices that are such an important part of Indian cuisine. I am learning a lot, and enjoying it very much.

For example, I have learned some things about peppercorns. Peppercorns grow on an evergreen vine. That surprised me. I'm not quite sure why it was surprising. I had never thought about it before and had no idea how peppercorns grew. It just wasn't like that, I suppose.

Also, did you know the difference between black and white pepper? I didn't, but now I do. Black peppercorns are picked when they are unripe and then dried in the sun until the skin turns black. White peppercorns are picked when they are ripe, soaked, and rubbed to remove the skins. Then they are dried in the sun until they are bleached white. In other words, they are the same thing, only different.

Whenever I read about something like that, I wonder who thought of it first, way back in the mists of early culinary history. Who was the first person to think, Hey, I wonder what will happen if I pick these before they are ripe, and dry them in the sun without removing the skin? What made them even think of it? Or did it happen by mistake? Maybe there was a big storm one day and the peppercorns were blown from the vine before they were ripe, and then there was a series of hot, dry days, and then someone, um, accidentally ate a peppercorn? Or what? What would make someone even consider picking up that black, wrinkled little hard thing and tasting it?

It's just as well they did. My favourite spaghetti recipe just wouldn't be the same without the black pepper.

I have also learned some things about nutmeg (and mace). Nutmegs look a bit like apricots when they are growing on the tree. Also, they are not nuts. Actually, I didn't think they were, but I was a bit surprised to find out that they are fruit. At least I suppose they are, although it is the seed of the fruit that is used, not the flesh. Did you know that the nutmeg tree only grows in a very limited area? Because of this, nutmeg has caused wars.

The biggest thing I am learning from this book so far, really, is that I am extremely ignorant about spices. The book is a fun way to remedy this, and I can heartily recommend it.

At least I can heartily recommend chapter one. I haven't started the second chapter yet.


Keera Ann Fox said...

I thought nutmeg was a nut. Now I know better. Trivia: It is the spice to add to Norwegian fish cakes.

Tabor said...

I also am always fascinated about how some strange things became a food. Like lobsters...who was the first one to eat that strange animal. So, what is the difference between a nut and a seed? Is the peanut seed just that tiny nub part?

Megane~kun said...

Ohh same here! I always questioned my dad about these before. Especially the pepper! Who would eat something small, black, and nasty. Cacao and coffee beans too for that matter.

And it was just when I arrived in Japan that I began to use spices for my dishes. Nutmeg FTW!

kenju said...

I know I would enjoy that book. When my kids were small, one claimed not to like black pepper. I wanted to use pepper in cooking, but to fool her, I used white pepper - and she never knew it was there! She didn't complain about the taste of the food cooked with it, either....LOL

Hebron said...

Hey, I wonder what will happen if I pick these before they are ripe, and dry them in the sun without removing the skin?

Hmm. I would think that the thought processes would be more like:
"Ugh, this thing is bitter. I wonder if it will taste better ripe? I know! I'll take a few and leave them out until they ripen by themselves."
Cue putting them in a bowl in full sunlight, and then the poor sod biting one. It was a stroke of genius for him to go down the "spice" route, rather than "Ugh! I'm never doing that again! I'll tell the villagers its poisonous"

Nil Zed said...

Desperation must have played a large part in people trying various foods. Think how many foods are actually ROTTEN: cheese, wine, beer, any kind of pickle.

If you've ever made any of these from scratch, or by accident, you realize just how hungry those cave dwellers were.