Arabian Spice

From exotic, colorful saffron to the flavor medley of za'atar, the ancient flavors of the Middle East tempt modern palates.

| December/January 2005

  • The Middle East is defined by the flavor sensations of sumac, za'atar and karkadey.

The irresistible aroma of chile, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves lured me many years ago into my love affair with Arabian food. So far, it’s been a lasting relationship.

A decade ago my sister moved to Egypt, giving me a perfect reason to immerse myself in the delights of Cairo’s markets, called souqs in Arabic. For anyone who’s been there, the word souq conjures up scenes of dusty alleyways spilling over with goods and provisions whose variety defies description. Many of these markets have been modernized, but some still retain their biblical feel.

Visiting Westerners might note a curious phenomenon in Arabian souqs. Unlike North American department stores that compete to offer the most variety under one roof, souqs geographically concentrate competing vendors. For instance, all the kitchen utensil sellers will be found in the pots and pans souq. All the carpet sellers will be found in the carpet souq. Herbs and spices will be found in the spice souq. Grouping products together in this way lets customers easily compare goods and prices — and provides an additional benefit: Wherever you are in town, the spice souq is easy to find thanks to its cloud of pungent scents.

Herbs and spices define a country’s cuisine: Think Italy, and you’ll imagine basil and oregano. China? Ginger will come to mind. Thailand must be lemongrass; Mexico, the piquant chile. For the Middle East, would you know to say sumac, za’atar and karkadey? No? Then please read on.

The King of Arabia

Any description of Middle Eastern herbs and spices starts with the king of the crop: cumin. This distinctive herb is found everywhere: freshly ground on top of hummus, sprinkled over bubbling chickpea broths with lemon, or used as the backbone of most curries and kebabs.

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