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Ruminating along the Spice Route in Turkey

When one travels, it is hard not to be struck by just how much of the world’s food biodiversity has found new homes and adapted to new places over the centuries. Visiting markets in Turkey for the first time in my life, I am amazed at how many Old Friends from the New World show up in the Turk’s souks or spice bazaars: cayenne, bell, paprika and cherry peppers, Jamaican allspice, chocolate, vanilla, tomatoes, squashes, fint corns and beans.

Soon after Columbus got lost and found the Americas, he brought some of these crops back to Spain. But Columbus did not really distribute them past the royalty.

What got these foods into European, African and Asian cuisines was the work of Arab, Moor and Berber spice traders who had been booted out of Spain by the Spanish Inquisitors, but who resettled in Morocco, Portugal, Egypt, Syria and Turkey at other waypoints along the ancient Spice Routes.

Indeed, many of these food crops were traded back to Turkey, and then entered Europe from the Southeast. That’s why so many New World crops are now called Turkish tobacco, Turkish wheat (maize), Turkish pepper in parts of Europe.

These process have not stopped. There remains fascinating remnants of the Sephardic Jewish trading community here in Istanbul, and their synagogue is still visited by Jewish tourists from around the world.

And in the Misr Carsisi spice market today, I saw a more recent arrival from the New World: a spice blend named Cajun Baharat, in case you want to make gumbo with the fish or shrimp from the Bosphorus waters here on the shores of the Old City, Sultanhamet.

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