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Medicinal Spices: A Handbook of Culinary Herbs, Spices, Spice Mixtures and Their Essential Oils

Medicinal Spices: A Handbook of Culinary Herbs, Spices, Spice Mixtures and Their Essential Oils by Eberhard Teuscher, with contributions from Ulrike Bauermann and Monika Werner; Josef A. Brinckmann and Michael P. Lindenmaier, Translators. Boca Raton, Florida: Medpharm Scientific Publishers, Stuttgart, CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, LLC; 2006. Hardcover, 457 pages. ISBN: 0-8493-1962-5. $159.95. ABC Item # B538

In his Foreword to the book, James A. Duke reminds the reader “. . . that herbs and spices can work magic on drab entrees, converting them into exciting culinary experiences,” and that the very same aromatic plants “are also among the most important anti-inflammatory, antioxidant (hence anti-aging), and immune-boosting foods that we have, with the power to improve and even extend our lives.” In fact, the ultimate form of herbs as dietary supplements may sit on the spice rack, rather than inside a gelatin capsule.

Originally published in German in 2003, Medicinal Spices is made accessible to English-language readers through the always incisive and readable translations by Josef A. Brinckmann and Michael

P. Lindenmaier, whose knowledge of the subject matter ensures a more coherent translation for those of us limited to English. (This same team translated and edited the most recent edition of Max Wichtl’s classic tome, Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals, 3rd ed., which was produced by the same publishers.)

When interpreting and relating to the plant world and human uses of plants, people tend to categorize plants as weeds or wildflowers, herbs or medicinal plants, spices or condiments. Within the 457 pages of this richly illustrated tome, nearly 100 monographs cover 300 plant species, which are generally regarded as culinary herbs or spices. They owe their primary flavor and fragrance to essentials oils. Hidden within the piquant flavor is the underlying biological activity which brings traditional medicinal value or newly recognized health benefits from the flurry of scientific research of the past 30 years in particular. Amidst this flood of information that has become unmanageable even for the specialist, Professor Teuscher provides a synthesis of scientific understanding of all aspects of spices melding with the delight of human experience to enhance the daily culinary experience.

The book is divided into two parts: (1) General Part, and (2) Monographs of spice plants and culinary herbs. Part 1 is an excellent overview of the basic principles of flavor and fragrance, a veritable bouquet garni of science with a zest for practical applications. The author begins with brief definitions of spices, herbs, and seasonings in Chapter 1. It is the language of the food-flavoring technologist made simple.

The second chapter covers “quality-indicating constituents of spices.” Although peppered with technical chemical jargon, it is presented with consideration of the non-chemist, covering topics such as the “spectrum of constituents and content ratios,” and the role of essential oils—just what they are, where they are in plant structures, their composition and complexity. This is an excellent concise explanation of the subject, essential reading for all interested in the flavor and fragrance of plants. Next, the chapter succinctly explains the role, importance, and formation of various categories of flavorings. Under “pungent constituents” the author discusses the alliaceous oils from various members of the genus Allium and how these constituents are formed into flavor components. Yes, it’s chemistry, but chemistry made readable. Next, the mustard oils are revealed followed by gingerols, carboxylic acid amides (producing the heat of red peppers and the bite of black pepper), and a brief discussion of the irritating protoanemonine from Ranunculus species. An explanation of bitter principles follows, along with a brief discussion of coloring matters. I have been studying this type of data for over 30 years, but I find no other single source that places the information in such a clear, succinct explanation. Here instead of just writing for the chemist, anyone with a basic scientific background can get a clear understanding of the role of these major component aspects of spices.

“Sensory effects of culinary herbs and spices” is the subject of Chapter 3, which again in a few pages synthesizes the basic concepts of the human sensory perception of foods through excellent short essays on the physiology of smell and taste. One comes away with the sense that the author is not motivated just by science, but by engaging passion for enhancing the human experience with knowledge.

The next two chapters briefly introduce the pharmacology of culinary herbs and spices, and general information on their medicinal use. Teuscher discusses the value of specific types of studies, and what types of conclusions can really be drawn from them.

Chapter 6 broaches the subject of toxicology, with particular emphasis on acute toxic affects, allergic reactions, carcinogenic, and hepatotoxic effects. A one-page chapter follows, explaining the preservative potential of herbs and spices. Chapter 8 covers breeding, cultivation, and harvest. Chapter 9 explains the processing of spice plants. Chapter 10 deals with contamination issues. Storage and shelf life are covered in Chapter 11. Chapter 12 is a primer to the subject of analysis of herbs and spices. Chapter 14 (yes, skipping one; see below) covers food and drug regulations for the trade of spices, with a decidedly German flavor.

The Use of Herbs and Spices in the Kitchen, the topic of Chapter 13, covers practical details of understanding how to best handle and use fresh and dried culinary herbs in the kitchen. Presented here are practical details garnered from a deep understanding of what the laboratory reveals to the dynamic process of turning the kitchen into a laboratory of culinary creation to delight the senses. It’s applied science for the next meal. What a rare treat to combine the science of herbs, spices, and medicinal plants with real information to follow for practical results. This chapter is enhanced by an excellent essay by Monika Werner on how to use essential oils in the kitchen.

So far, we’ve reviewed only 10% of the pages in the book. The rest of the book is devoted to monographs on individual herbs and spices in all of their glorious detail, much in the style and format of Professor Max Witchel’s modern classic, Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals, with details on the names (common and scientific), description, origins, cultivation areas, producing countries, cultivation, commercial forms, production, storage, description, odor, and history of the culinary spice ingredient. This is followed by details on constituents and analysis, such as identity tests, quantitative and qualitative assays, and adulterants. A section on Actions and Uses follows with pharmacological activities, toxicology, general and often very specific culinary uses, what combines well with what, and what kind of spice mixtures the ingredient is found in. A section on the medicinal uses, describing the herbal drug and its indications follows. Similar or related species are also described. Peppered throughout the monographs, offset as sidebars, are some of Professor Teucher’s favorite recipes, which are not limited to central European fare, but provide international diversity, such as a recipe for jerk pork in the allspice chapter. Color photographs, chemical structures, and figures for identification are provided throughout the book.

There is such a tremendous amount of information packed into this one volume that I can’t decide whether to put it on the reference shelf at my office or take it home to the cookbook shelf to try out some of the recipes. In his Preface to the English Edition, Professor Teuscher explains, “This book is intended primarily for pharmacists, physicians, biologists, and interested students and laypersons, but also for food scientists who are interested in the chemical and pharmacological-toxicological aspects of culinary herbs and spices.” I believe, however, he left a major audience out of the list—every student in food services and culinary arts—for whom this book should serve as the basis for a required course in creating a broad cultural understanding that food really is medicine.

Alas, the book will never have the audience it deserves, as its $159.95 price tag will ensure the book’s undeserved obscurity.

ABC is pleased to announce that Professor Teucher’s Medicinal Spices: A Handbook of Culinary Herbs, Spices, Spice Mixtures and Their Essential Oils received the 2006 James A. Duke Book Award, selected as the most outstanding book published in the herbal field in 2006.

—Steven Foster President, Steven Foster Group, Inc. Eureka Springs, AR