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Rose to Damascus: A book about spices, their trade routes, and more

Santa Fe + New Mexican
By: Paul Weideman

Gary Paul Nabhan weaves a fascinating story in his new book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. He tracks the pathways along which traders carried spices — piquant and pungent, delicious and dreamy — from their places of origin to the rest of the world. His account is peppered with recipes as well as essays on cardamom, cloves, Damascus rose, saffron, vanilla, tuocha pu-erh, and 20 other spices.

Nabhan delves into the origins of globalization; the “ecological imperialism” that began with Old World-New World trade in the 15th century; and recent lapses of cross-cultural civility, especially involving ethnic groups that collaborated to transport spices to far-flung locales for the pleasure of all. “In a moment when both Arab Muslims and Sephardic Jews are among the most maligned peoples in the world, and the subject of a rising frequency of hate crimes, it would do well for the rest of humanity to acknowledge our collective debt to these peoples,” he writes. He looks at New Mexico, and readers learn that many early European New Mexicans were not only Spanish but also Jewish or Arab and that many “traditional New Mexican” recipes likewise have origins in cultures outside of Spain.

In a wide-ranging interview, Nabhan (the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona) dis-cussed the etymology of Budhagers, a wayside stop between Albuquerque and Santa Fe; the virtues of potent spices (and of blue corn) har-vested from arid parts of the world; and whether the quality of sap from New Mexico’s contem-porary pistachio trees can come close to that from Mastichochoria on the Greek island of Chios. That gummy sap, known as mastic, has a multitude of uses in the Mediterranean, including as a key ingredient in breads, candies, and lamb stews.

Pasatiempo: In your book, you mention Northern New Mexican folklorist and author Cleofas Jaramillo several times. One passage is about her recipe for a lamb and garbanzo bean stew.

Gary Paul Nabhan: My ethnobotanist friend Gene Anderson, who had just completed his book A Soup for the Qan [a translation of a 14th-century book about Chinese cuisine], by chance opened up [Jaramillo’s] 1939 booklet, Potajes Sabrosos [later translated as The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes], and recognized a virtually identical recipe from China 700 years earlier. The only missing ingredient was mastic from Mediterranean pistachio trees.

Pasa: You grew up in a Lebanese American family in a Greek American neighborhood. Where?

Nabhan: In the Indiana dunes on the edge of Lake Michigan. I came to the Southwest for the first time when I was 17, and the landscape sort of pulled me. Some of my family emigrated from Lebanon, through New Mexico, to El Paso. There are a lot of Nabhans in southern New Mexico and El Paso. Camille Flores [who was at one time editor of Pasatiempo] is a Nabhan and is a second cousin of mine.

Pasa: Did you have any experience in Santa Fe before you began working on the book?

Nabhan: I had several mentors who live in that area. One was at Roybal’s store, which used to be in the downtown area and had an herb collection, and another was Estevan Arellano, up in Embudo. It was a whole bunch of people who sort of got me on the road looking at these things. Estevan [in particular] got me to realize it’s not just the traditions of crypto-Jews [that are] hidden in Northern New Mexico, but also those of crypto-[Muslims].

New Mexico is sort of a cauldron of those influences, from sopaipillas to some of the lamb and garbanzo stews. I would say perhaps it’s one of three or four places where these ideas are most strongly expressed in the United States. One of the most stunning aspects for me about the New Mexico connection is that when the Sephardic Jews and Arabs did get to New Mexico, many [of them] became spice traders. Within 50 years they were the largest traders of vanilla, allspice, chocolate, chiles, and achiote, the natural red dye that’s in a lot of Yucatan foods.

You can imagine sheep- and goat-herders [from the past] in those high, dry mesas between Albuquerque and Truth or Consequences. It’s that kind of very austere landscape that the aromatic spice that probably triggered globalization came from. It didn’t come from Baghdad or Rome or Athens. The innovations often came from people who had to use their creativity in areas of low productivity.

Pasa: And some of these plants are amazing. You get the impression that some of the spice gums from trees struggling to exist in harsh environments are intense just because of the hardship.

Nabhan: That’s right. The arid adaptations are the ones that produce the very potent chemicals, the aromatic oils, in leaves and gums. They’re protective mechanisms against evaporation and browsing by herbivores and the heat. It’s this wonderful paradox that the chemicals that allow them to barely survive in very difficult climates are the same ones that have extraordinary medicinal and culinary potency.

Pasa: It was fascinating reading about your first approach to a frankincense tree in the Dhofar area of Oman. You found a crystallized piece of sap exuded from a weeks-old slash from a harvester’s knife.

Nabhan: It’s my favorite passage in the book, and we’re actually having a dinner a week after the book-signing at Collected Works, where I’ll be making a frankincense curry with a chef. It’s pretty exciting to see it back as a culinary component.

Pasa: One recipe you give is for marak minj, or green-lentil curry with frankincense, ginger, and Omani spices. An ingredient is a complex spice mixture called bizar a’shuwa.

Nabhan: People are so particular about spice mixes like that. It’s sort of this incredibly esoteric pursuit. One time I went to an organic farmers market in Lebanon, and they had this wonderful za’atar mix with wild-harvested ingredients. But later, when I was packing to leave my uncle’s house, he saw the za’atar in my suitcase and he went over, took the bag out, and threw it in the garbage. He said, “You can only get za’atar from us, because other people’s za’atar might be adulterated.” It comes down to a subtle difference in one or two spices in a mixture of 12, and they think it may be toxic to you. It’s almost like a religion.

Pasa: Another local item you mention is buñuelos. Are those the same as sopaipillas?

Nabhan: Sopaipillas are a derivative. Look at the zala¯biya recipe in the book, and you see that what we have is really a simplified version of something very ancient, probably going back to the Persians. What it has lost is the saffron and sometimes the cardamom-orange sauce. The Arabs and Jews love distilling down orange juice either into vinegars or syrups. These traditions and slightly diluted forms made it all the way from Persia, through the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, across North Africa, into Spain, and then they reached New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Capirotada [traditional bread pudding] is another one. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve been where I’ve asked where the tradition of capirotada comes from and they say something like, “Well, it comes from my grandmother; this is one of the oldest traditions in Baja California, and it was created here.” After you hear this five times around the world, you begin to see that people feel it’s endemic to their identity now and can’t imagine it comes from someplace else.

Pasa: And thus some of the points you make in Cumin, Camels, and Caravans seem a bit subversive, challenging culinary traditions that people see as truly Hispanic.

Nabhan: It’s the same if you tell someone in Aleppo that chiles are not native to there. They will say peppers are in the Bible and the Koran; they’ve been here since the beginning. And I’ve heard the same thing said in the Old World about prickly pear.

The thing that’s hard to talk about, because I’m so enthused, is that this is also a dark history; there are winners and losers. The term culinary imperialism is not hyperbole. We change people and break down cultures when we demand that they speak our own language, which is what the Roman Catholic Church did with Latin and what Islam did with Arabic, so that even if you’re in the far reaches of China, you have to chant the Koran in Arabic.

The same thing is true in a very visceral way with imposing cuisines that change people. [Another] theme of the book is that if you want to truly understand the risks and benefits of what we now call globalization, just look at the spice trade. It wasn’t invented in 1492 or by the stock market. The 1 percent had been dominating the economy of the world’s cuisines for 3,500 years.






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