The Spice is Right

With flavors of East or West, hot cuisine tickles America's tastebuds

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. Since Elizabethan times, the British have had a passion for tandoori, vindaloo, pilaff, and papadom, and the hotter the better.

For the reader/cook who has yet to sample any of these joys, this book is the ideal introduction, and I recommend starting with ``Peshawari pasande,'' a lamb dish prepared with ginger, garlic, coriander, turmeric, poppy seeds, almonds, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and cardamom, with red chiles to taste. It is gorgeous.

Indian food was already hot before Columbus discovered chiles, but after their introduction to the Old World, they spread like fire along the trading routes and were quickly adopted by eastern kitchens from the Mallabar Coast to China. Cultivation of chiles circled the globe in less than 100 years as they were carried in Spanish and Portuguese caravels to the Balkans (paprika), Africa, India, Ceylon, Thailand, Malaysia, Indochina, and the Philippines.

The interesting history of world conquest is briefly told with lots of local lore and sociology by Dave De Witt and Nancy Gerlash in ``The Whole Chile Pepper Book.'' Like ``Curries and Bugles,'' it is much more than a cookbook, with well-researched horticultural and culinary histories of all varieties of capsicum, including a valuable system for ranking them on the heat scale: from 1 (bell peppers for sissies) to 10 (the thermonuclear habanero). The well-known jalapeno rates a modest 5, while I was pleased to find my own favorite, the little Texas piquin, rates a macho 9. (Real addicts carry these pea-size peppers with them in silver snuff boxes.) All are berries of the nightshade family totally unrelated to the peppercorn plant. They have been found domesticated in Peru as early as 6500 BC.

With a bias I share, the authors give prime place in the 180 recipes to the dishes of New Mexico, and secondarily San Antonio chili con carne. But I tried an Aztec recipe, chicken con mol'e poblano made with two types of chiles, chocolate, coriander, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, sesame, and almonds. It was superb. I can't wait to do the other 179.

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