Handy Pocket Guide to Tropical Herbs & Spices by Wendy Hutton

If you’ve ever wandered around an Asian wet market and saw things that you don’t have any clue about or how they could possibly be used in cooking, Handy Pocket Guide to Tropical Herbs & Spices is the book for you.

This useful, portable (though not exactly “pocket” size) reference introduces 50 herbs, spices and aromatics most commonly found in Southeast Asian cuisines. After a full-color two-page spread of herbs and spices, the rest of the book is devoted to the discussion of each plant. All entries are grouped according to botanical family in alphabetical order. The scientific name plus usually four common regional names are given, e.g. Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Tagalog (Philippines), etc.

Typically, one page of 3-4 paragraphs is devoted to each spice/herb along with a thumbnail close-up and a still life. There’s a basic, short review, the plant’s country or region of origin, how it’s cultivated and its preparation and use. Though it’s not a cookbook and can’t lie open on a counter, the names of dishes in which the spice or herb is featured are also provided. The color photos make for easy identification. The index includes the common English names and Latin scientific names but does not include where the spice is grown or in which cuisines it is used in.

Indonesian regional cuisines are blends of the cultures of every ethnic group that ever invaded the country – Chinese, Indian, Spanish, Dutch, American. From the condensed, insightful two-page historical overview of spices from ancient times to the present, I learned a few unexpected facts: Pepper (merica) was once such a valuable spice in medieval Europe that it was literally sold by the grain. *Before the arrival of chilies from the Americas in the 16th century, peppercorns were the main source of spiciness in tropical Asian food. *Several indigenous spices that made the East Indies famous all over the world are themselves seldom used in Indonesian cooking. *Cloves, an essential ingredient in Indonesian clove kretek cigarettes, has to be imported from Zanzibar to its original home because of the very high demand in its homeland.

The book straightens out some common misconceptions and misnomers: The spice commonly sold in Indonesian markets as cinnamon is not true cinnamon but casia, a more strongly flavored and cheaper related species. *Filipinos confusingly call Indian Borage (daun kaming) oregano. *Spring onions are mistakenly called shallots in Western countries, even though they bear no resemblance to shallots. *Indonesian cooks translate daun salam as Bay Leaf, though there is no resemblance in appearance or flavor. *The Torch Ginger, a native of Java, is rarely found in Javanese cuisine.

Studded throughout 60 pages of high-quality writing are small gems on gardening, buying, storing, cooking, substituting and other culinary and healthy-eating tips on how to make the most of these tasty flavorings that are sold in traditional markets loose and are generally fresher than those found in the West. *Buy whole spices whenever possible as the flavor of spices, which already have been ground to a powder, will diminish quickly. *To maximize the flavor and make them easier to grind, heat spices or herbs gently in a dry pan until they begin to smell fragrant (but remove from flame before they change color). *Remove the seeds from chilies if you don’t want the dish to be too hot. *Galangal, the pungent, tangy member of the ginger family, is so obstinately tough that you need to either cut it into pieces or bruise it with the flat side of a cleaver first, then add it to the cooking pot. *Candlenuts (kemiri) contain a lot of oil and can become rancid quickly, so store them in a closed container in the fridge. *Garlic (bawang putih) not only has significant nutritive value, but also contains an antibiotic substance which inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi and helps reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. *Ginger (jahe) is widely used throughout Asia to improve digestion and counteract nausea and vomiting.

This engaging little book is for reading pleasure and enlightenment. Though not an exhaustive encyclopedia (which still has yet to be published!), the representative plants in Tropical Herbs & Spices cover all that are essential to the Indonesian kitchen. It does not contain all the plants that Asian purveyors have to offer and has only four recipes – a chutney, a sambal and three mouth-watering spice mixes. You’ll still need a proper regional cookbook to find more recipes, but this thin volume is fun and informative to read, its magic carpet of ingredients a “must” for lovers of tropical tastes.

Tropical Herbs & Spices by Wendy Hutton, photographs by Alberto Cassio, Periplus Handy Pocket Guide 1997, ISBN 978-962-593-1531, paperback, 64 pages, dimensions 12.5 cm x 18.5 cm.



Review by Bill Dalton

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