Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Spice Is Right with Flavors of East or West, Hot Cuisine Tickles America's Tastebuds

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Spice Is Right with Flavors of East or West, Hot Cuisine Tickles America's Tastebuds

Article excerpt

HOW appropriate that as we prepare for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America that American interest in spicy cuisine is surging. Thai, Szechuan, Creole, Cajun, New Mexican, Carribean, and East Indian restaurants are opening even in Muncie, Ind.

It was of course the obsessive quest for the very spices used in these kitchens that motivated and financed Columbus's trip and the age of discovery that followed. But, ironically, the heart and heat of all spicy cuisine today is not what Columbus sought in the New World, but what he discovered. He came in search of black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and the other fabled spices of the East. He brought back instead the fabulous spice of the Incas and Aztecs: chiles. Like the West "Indies," he misnamed them "peppers," which they are not.

In his 1483 journal he wrote: "Also there is much aji (chile), which is their pepper, and the people won't eat without it." Apparently the Incas had started it all in Peru long before antiquity, and the Mayans and Aztecs were equally addicted to the fruit of capscicum. A great many of today's Mexican dishes are unchanged from those Columbus found.

Thus did two traditions of fiery cuisine evolve independently in East and West. A savory pair of new books covers the two subjects extraordinarily well, one on the Old World curries, the other on New World chiles.

"Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj," by Jennifer Brennan addresses the spices and cookery of South Asia as found and modified by the British. It is a perfect format for a cookbook: Recipes presented in a bed of personal and historical anecdotes and garnished with descriptions and drawings of each of the spices from asafetida to turmeric. Of course, to most Brits and Americans, it's all just "curry" (from the Hindi word Karhi, meaning sauce). Brennan, like all aficionados, is contemptuous of prepared curry powders and the lack of sophistication they embody.

Until about 10 years ago, a curry was not infrequently the most memorable meal encountered on a trip through Britain. Pakistani and Indian restaurants cover the United Kingdom in the thousands. …

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