By Tinamarie Bernard
When people ask me what I miss most about life in Israel, the scents and sites of the souk mingle with nostalgia for the days when I lost track of time at the spice stand. Saffron and cumin, cilantro and mint, lemon balm tea plucked fresh from the garden, the bright splash of turmeric and the rich sweetness of nutmeg became new friends in my culinary explorations. Though I grew up in a home where cooking was queen, it would be my two years living in the Middle East that grew my confidence in the kitchen. After we decided to move back to Southern California, we reduced our possessions to fit in our moving container, but nobody could part me from my spices. I even took an extra trip to the market just before we left Israel to make sure I had an abundance when we returned to the States. Three months later, this box was the one I was most excited to unpack.
That is the power of a spice.
The history of the spice trade
The spice trade drove the world economy for centuries, from the end of the Middle Ages until close to modern times. Spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, saffron, ginger and turmeric came from the Orient, Northeast Africa and through the Middle East into Europe. They flowed along various land and sea routes under the control, at different times, of the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and others.
Traders from many lands — Arab, Dutch, Venetian and Portuguese, to name a few — pioneered these spice routes, which served as bridges for cultural and commercial exchanges. They also fueled the fantastic tales about the spices’ origins, and to this day, the mystery and mysticism of these forgotten tales echo in the corners of the souk.
Fortunes were made along the spice route. For example, peppercorns were once so valuable they could be traded as currency for goods and services. Spice traders often kept their sources secret, while European aristocracy began to fund spice-trips in order to keep their supplies ample and their costs lower. The search for spices drove nations to sail across vast oceans searching for new routes to the spice-rich Orient, changing the course of the world with the European discovery and colonization of new lands.
Besides being an important component of ancient commerce, spices were used to flavor food, make perfume, embalm the dead, preserve meat and as medicine.
Modern day spice girl
My fragrant relationship with exotic spices wasn’t smooth sailing at first. It was born of necessity. The best, most flavorful ones didn’t come from the grocery store; they also rarely came with labels, especially English ones. It was trial and error with my nose taking over where my eyes and knowledge failed me. Was this dried green leaf oregano, thyme or basil? I could pick out dill from rosemary, but not the tarragon, fennel and hyssop that grew in my garden alongside lavender and other edibles.
How did I know which were safe to eat? Because every home in my neighborhood had an herb garden. Once I learned where mine was planted — thanks to the previous tenants — I was hooked on cultivating it further. It became a game to learn the names of the plants until I figured I didn’t really need to know. They would light up our palates like spices had been doing for eons, whether I could spell their names or not. Their flavors would create magic, whether plucked from the garden or bought at the market. I was falling in love with this ancient art, feeling an attachment to the earth and her bounty.
For the first time in my life, the stories of the spice route became palpable. The merchants selling their wares were a continuation of a long-held tradition, and I was a newly minted spice girl.
Secrets from an Israeli-ish kitchen
Over the next two years, I learned a few tricks. For example, ordinary beef chili becomes extraordinary when you season it with an ample amount of cumin, garlic, and flat leaf parsley. How much should you use? I learned that the longer my chili cooked, the more I needed of everything, since the flavors absorb. That’s the beauty of this sort of cooking, the kind that invites you to experiment with your basic recipes to create something uniquely your own.
Root vegetables are especially happy paired with a spice. Think ginger with carrots, sweet paprika with potatoes or fennel seeds with beets. Veggies that might ordinarily have a bland reputation (cauliflower comes to mind) stand out when roasted with a mixture of a bit of olive oil, cinnamon, crushed clove, nutmeg, ginger and pepper.
A paste made from crushed cilantro and chilies is a tangy addition to meat dishes and turns an ordinary meal into a Yemenite flavored feast. Called zhuk, the paste is made from hot green peppers, garlic, olive oil, cumin and lots of fresh cilantro. Zhuk is hot and tasty, and if your tongue can handle it, your liver will love the cleanse.
Here’s a way to make ordinary tabouli dance on your tongue like the delicious salad is meant to: add a handful of dried apricots and a generous amount of fresh mint leaves to your favorite recipe, boxed or otherwise. I learned this trick from a Persian Jewish caterer in Israel, and every time I make it, I find new converts to this healthy side dish.
A gateway to flavor and health
An ode to herbs and spices expands beyond the flavors they bring to mealtime. Rich in antioxidants and other health-promoting compounds, many flavors common to Middle East cooking boost our health and well being. For example, cinnamon can lower blood sugar, triglycerides, and both LDL and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes. Turmeric contains ingredients that may inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Rosemary may prevent damage to blood vessels, and garlic may disrupt the metabolism of tumor cells.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, has recently overcome scientific scrutiny as an aphrodisiac. Ginger can decrease motion sickness and nausea and may relieve pain and swelling associated with arthritis. Cilantro is purported to cleanse the liver.
A well-seasoned table
The best part of my personal spice route is that it continues to lead me to create healthy, inspired meals. Shabbat dinners with friends now include favorite family dishes from our two years in Israel. My family’s enthusiasm for labne cheese sprinkled with olive oil and za’atar (a blend of dried herbs mixed with sesame seed) or tahini (a paste made from crushed sesame seeds) means a trip to the foreign market. More than a shopping spree, this is a reminder that our world is diverse. Once upon a time, we lived in a far away place that became home, thanks in part to the magic of shared meals and memories built upon a well seasoned table. Our palates were expanded by dishes we otherwise might never have loved, had we played it safe instead of spicy.
Simple Zhuk Recipe
1 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves
5 hot green peppers, medium
2-4 cloves garlic
1/2-1/3 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbs. olive oil
Gently and carefully cut and clean the peppers from the seeds. Combine with all other ingredients in a food processor and pulse until mixture reaches a smooth consistency. Store in a small jar in the refrigerator and use sparingly.
(Adopted from Foodbuzz.com)