In Meluku, East Of Eden

The story of spices is the story of temptation—and human civilisation’s rise and fall. A string of fabled, fragrant islands forms its kernel.
The Ternate island on eastern Indonesia, as seen from a seashore at Tidore
Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

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At my writing desk, as in my kitchen, I find it impossible to escape the lure of spices. Their flavours enliven many of my passions: history, cookery, botany and, of course, story-telling.

Some years ago, my interest in spices spilled over into my garden and I started to grow my own turmeric, galangal, ginger, black pepper and cinnamon. The experience has taught me a great deal: I learnt, for instance, that there is a huge difference between homegrown and store-bought spices—the latter are but a pale shadow of the former. The hand-picked, sun-dried pepper from my garden in Goa has a citrusy freshness and complexity I’ve never encountered in commercial varieties.

Growing my own spices has also made me wonder why some of them are used in dried forms and some are not. Consider ginger for example: many Western recipes call for dried, powdered ginger, an ingredient that most Ind­ian cooks would consider an abomination. Yet, many who scorn dried ginger have no qualms about using dried turmeric and chilli—even when they are available fresh. In Southeast Asia, by contrast, freshly plucked chillies and ‘raw’ turmeric root are usually preferred and in no small measure does this account for the vividness that is characteristic of the cuisine of the region. In flavour, as in colour, fresh turmeric ...

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