Countless books have been written about herbs and spices, but very few with an academic and scientific approach that investigates these fascinating ingredients beyond culinary uses and cultivation. This is exactly the refreshing angle that Ben-Erik van Wyk takes in his recently published reference guide on herbs and spices.
The professor in botany at the University of Johannesburg gives a new perspective on the botanical and chemical principles of taste and flavour explaining in detail what the flavour compounds are of each ingredient. This information is particularly useful to chefs to accurately pair flavours in their cooking.
An introductory chapter on the chemistry of taste and flavour discusses the process of flavour perception and highlights the importance of smell in detecting the flavour of our food. According to Van Wyk 80% of what we “taste” is actually produced by the aroma of food.
As chefs we use herbs and spices daily, but few of us truly understand their complexity and potential. This reference guide unlocks the mysterious world of flavour systematically making a very academic and scientific subject digestible for all. A brief history of herbs and spices is followed by a discussion on the regions of origin and culinary traditions, a chapter that puts spices in their historical context and explains how different cultures flavour their food. This helps to understand which herbs and spices are traditionally combined.
Van Wyk’s discussion of spice mixtures and commercial seasonings and condiments will also be of particular interest to chefs. The familiar blends like dukkah and Chinese five spice feature, but he also introduces some lesser known combinations like khmeli suneli from Georgia and Qâlat daqqa from Tunisia.
With so many kitchens planting and harvesting their own herbs and even vegetables, the chapter on cultivation, harvesting and processing will be invaluable.
After the introductory chapters providing the context on herbs and spices the book becomes an alphabetical quick reference guide with hundreds of colour photographs. More than 120 herbs and spices are discussed in great detail including their physical appearance, correct names, botany, geographical origin, history, cultivation, harvesting, and culinary uses. Another bonus is that as a local author and specialist in indigenous food plants, Van Wyk includes the trendy local specialty buchu in his guide.
At a time when the difference between a good chef and a great chef often lays in the knowledge of their ingredients this book is a must, not only for culinary students, but for every kitchen office.
Culinary Herbs and Spices of the World by Ben-Erik van Wyk
Article author: Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen