Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 553-555
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Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. By Andrew Dalby. California Studies in Food and Culture 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 184 pp., 24 plates, 4 color plates. $27.50 (cloth).
Spices were among the first products of world trade. Many routes that were originally used for the exchange of spices are today most frequently and intensively used for trade in other products. Other trading ways like the legendary Silk Route across Central Asia are no more existent. Spices are enormously important for the understanding of the relation between food and culture; therefore, it is reasonable to start a new series of publications on this topic with a book on spices.
Andrew Dalby, a linguist and food historian, outlines the early history of spices. He does not deal only with spices, but also with other [End Page 553] products that should be regarded more as perfumes or aromatics than spices. He portrays single products of luxury not only originating from plants; he includes, for example, ambergris, a secretion of a whale from the Indian Ocean. Between the chapters portraying single spices and perfumes one can read about general topics such as the beginning of world trade and spices in religion.
At the beginning of his book Dalby does not report on a dangerous taste but on a danger to spices: Silphium is said to be the first herb on earth that was eradicated by man in the consequence of economic interest. Greek and Roman writers reported on that spice from Cyrene, and they also noted that the herb could not be found any more some centuries after the beginning of its exploitation.
In the next chapters Dalby writes on the single spices according to a geographical order of their countries of origin. The chapter "Exports of Paradise" leads predominantly to spices from the Malay region. Dalby supposes that ginger was the first product that was transported from its center of origin across the Indian Ocean to other countries. This might be true, as ginger is propagated not by seeds but by dividing its roots. But his argument for the high age of the spreading of ginger is weak: He thinks that peoples in the Indian Ocean region, Gingerroot, and the name of the spice spread together, and therefore he thinks that ginger was transported by boat across the ocean six thousand years ago. This does not necessarily need to be true. It is also possible that people and gingerroot spread at different points of time and that the word for the spice spread later on by acculturation.
Dalby then guides the reader of his book to the Spice Islands, today parts of Indonesia, whence cloves and nutmeg derive. After this one reads about spices from the Asian continent, Vietnam, the cinnamon mountains in China, the land of pepper, Farther-India. Dalby concentrates a lot on spices from southern Asia and the islands of this region, and deals less intensively with spices from the Mediterranean region. He mentions parsley but does not write a special chapter on this or other important Mediterranean spices. The last hot spot of spice origin that came to the conscience of the civilized mankind was Central and Southern America. Spices such as vanilla and chili belong to the products of luxury that are portrayed by Dalby in a later chapter of his book.
In all chapters Dalby cites a lot of texts from different languages in which spices and perfumes are mentioned. Many parts of these texts are printed in the book; one reads about the detection of spices, the ancient trading routes, and recipes from original sources. In the opinion of this reviewer, the texts from Chinese, other Southeast Asian, and Portuguese sources especially are extremely interesting, as they were rarely or never printed before in a modern book. Dalby is first [End Page 554] interested in the areas of origin of spices and in reconstructing the ancient trading routes. Another aspect of the early treatment of spices, the enrichment in the countries of spice trade...