This Asian spice was well-known in the classical world, but it is comparatively rare today in the West. It wasn’t used much in food, as the Greeks and Romans disliked its burning taste, but they appreciated what Pliny called its “exquisite scent” and also used it in medical prescriptions.
It is the root of a tall herb, whose botanical name is Saussurea lappa, which even today grows wild only in the highlands of Kashmir. Its name comes to us from Sanskrit through Greek and Latin. Another name for it is putchuk, from a language that’s variously suggested as being Telugu, Hindi or Malay. It is recorded in the Anglo-Indian Dictionary Hobson-Jobson of 1886; the authors remarked that it was exported from Bombay and Calcutta to China, where it was used as the chief ingredient in joss sticks.
The English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper knew of it under the name of cost or coste: “Being boiled in oil, it is held to help the gout by anointing the grieved place with it”. In modern usage, its name has reverted to costus, the Latin form. It is still used as a medical herb in some places, being antiseptic and helpful against asthma and bronchitis, among other things. Its oil is used in perfumery and sometimes in aromatherapy.
In the fourteenth century another herb with a similar aroma, from the Mediterranean this time, was introduced to Britain. The English name of the oriental herb was borrowed for it, but as it was often used to flavour ale, it became commonly known as alecost. (Another name was costmary, because it was widely associated with St Mary.) However, that herb’s popularity declined after hops appeared on the scene in the early fifteenth century.