Fragrant Frontier

Global Spice Entanglements from the Sino-Vietnamese Uplands

Edited by Sarah Turner, Annuska Derks and Jean-François Rousseau

Turner Cover

Available worldwide
ISBN Hardback: 978-87-7694-313-4, £60 (March 2022)
ISBN Paperback: 978-87-7694-314-1, £22.50 (September 2022)

About the book

Since its inception over two millennia ago, the spice trade has connected and transformed the environments, politics, cultures, and cuisines of vastly different societies around the world. The ‘magical’ qualities of spices mean they offer more than a mere food flavoring, often evoking memories of childhood events or specific festivals. Although spices are frequently found in our kitchen cupboards, how they get there has something of a mythical allure. In this ethnographically rich and insightful study, the authors embark on a journey of demystification that starts in the Sino-Vietnamese uplands with three spices – star anise, black cardamom, and cassia (cinnamon) – and ends on dining tables across the globe. This book foregrounds the experiences of ethnic minority farmers cultivating these spices, highlighting nuanced entanglements among livelihoods, environment, ethnic identity, and external pressures, as well as other factors at play. It then investigates the complex commodity chains that move and transform these spices from upland smallholdings and forests in this frontier to global markets, mapping the flows of spices, identifying the numerous actors involved, and teasing out critical power imbalances. Finally, it focuses on value-creation and the commoditization of these spices across a spectrum of people and places. This rich and carefully integrated volume offers new insights into upland frontier livelihoods and the ongoing implications of the contemporary agrarian transition. Moreover, it bridges the gap in our knowledge regarding how these specific spices, cultivated for centuries in the mountainous Sino-Vietnamese uplands, become everyday ingredients in Global North food, cosmetics, and medicines. Links to online resources, including story maps, provide further insights and visual highlights.

Buying options

Buy "Fragrant Frontier" here

To get the Open Access ebook, click the “Buy ‘Fragrant Frontier’ here” button above, then select ‘Ebook’. The download is gratis.

About the author

Sarah Turner is Professor of Geography at McGill University. She is a development geographer specializing in ethnic minority livelihoods, agrarian change, and everyday resistance in upland northern Vietnam and southwest China. She also works with street vendors and other members of the mobile informal economy, as well as small-scale entrepreneurs in urban Southeast Asia. Widely published, she is also an editor of the journals Geoforum and Journal of Vietnamese Studies.

Go to author page

Annuska Derks is an associate professor and departmental co-director at the University of Zurich. She is a social anthropologist interested in social transformation processes in Southeast Asia, in particular in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Also widely published, her research focuses on migration, labor, gender, as well as the social lives of things, and interrogates discourses of development and innovation.

Go to author page

Jean-François Rousseau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. He is a development geographer with research focusing on the relationships between agrarian change, infrastructure development – especially hydropower dams and sand-mining – and ethnic minority livelihood diversification in Southwest China.

Go to author page


by Cynthia Hunter
From journal: The Australian Journal of Anthropology
This edited volume pleasingly illuminates an area (North Vietnam and South China) and topic (3 spices) that I, and I suspect many others, knew little about. The three spices, star anise, cinnamon and cardamom are well known in culinary circles, but their production has not been well documented, especially at the interface of farmer, wholesalers, and traders in the regions under discussion here.
by Anthea Snowsill
From journal: Asian Studies Review
As the book journeys through the commodity chains of […] three key spices across unique ethnographic contexts in Vietnam and China, the chapters help to demystify the multiple and complex entanglements that spices and the communities that grow them find themselves in as they are encroached on by state and capitalist market forces. The uniqueness of the spices themselves, the diverse comparative approach, and inclusion of more-than-textual modalities add greater depth to existing research on commodity chain analysis.
by Janet Sturgeon
From journal: Simon Fraser University
“This compelling study – one of the best integrated volumes I have read – traces the precarious livelihoods of ethnic minority farmers producing spices under two related processes. The first is global commodity chains, which the chapters follow from node to node along long-standing relations of trust. The second is misguided state-driven interventions to limit farmers’ land and get them to produce monocrops. These combined processes threaten farmers in the borderlands between Vietnam and China, while international traders of these lucrative spices become rich.”
by Jonathan Rigg
From journal: University of Bristol
“In this fascinating collection, spices, the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands, global agro-food networks, the political economy of farming, and local livelihoods are brought together in a ‘fragrant’ mélange in which the authors shed light on two important questions: Why here? And, with what effects? Scholars of agrarian and food studies, livelihoods and Southeast Asian studies will find many enticements here.”