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Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey

History Today | September 2014, issue 64:9, pp 58-59, review by Gail Simmons

The closest we armchair travellers normally get to the olfactory sensation of walking through the globe’s most fragrant souks is opening the doors of our spice cupboards. The bottles may be sealed shut but the aroma of their contents —cardamom and cumin, cinnamon and saffron, turmeric and vanilla — wafts towards our nostrils and for a brief moment we are not in our kitchens but strolling through the spice markets of Arabia, Asia or Africa.

It is just such a sensory amble that Gary Paul Nabhan takes us on in this book, with a journey that begins in Dhofar, Oman, home to the unpromisingly spiky Boswellia sacra tree. Once cut, its bark bleeds a gum that, when dried, produces frankincense – for centuries the world’s most valuable plant product, treasured for its medicinal and spiritual properties. For, although the arid landscapes of Southern Arabia couldn’t grow enough of the staple foods that people most needed, they could instead cultivate the culinary spices and aromatics that others most desired.

These aromatics were then traded for grains, pulses and dates from desert oases, with certain tribes (notably the Minaeans of Yemen) acting as intermediaries between nomadic spice growers and sedentary farmers. To sell their wares further afield, camel caravans crossed the vast deserts and small sailboats hugged the shallow coasts of the Arabian Peninsula. Later, sturdy dhows blown by the trade winds navigated the open seas to further flung continents.

From these first, ancient routes we follow Nabhan along the Frankincense Trail, Spice Route, Silk Road and Camino Real, pausing in the souks of Damascus, the Moorish cities of Andalucía and the markets of Tajikistan. We learn that alongside the traffic in spices came exchanges of languages and cultures, so beginning the long process of globalisation that dominates our world today; a process, Nabhan argues, that began some 3,000 years before the first voyage of Columbus. Such expeditions were driven as much to satisfy hungry minds as by cravings to spice up bland Renaissance fare, especially at the banqueting feasts of the social elites in continental Europe.

Along the way we learn that during the golden age of Islam (c. 750-1257) more cookbooks were written in Arabic than all other languages put together; that the Bactrian (two-humped) camel plying the Spice Roads of Central Asia could travel twice as far and carry twice as much as its one-humped Arabian cousin; that the Spanish city of Granada is named after the pomegranates brought there by the Arabs and that pomodoro (tomato) comes from Pomo d’Moro, Fruit of the Moors. En route we are treated to potted histories of our foremost spices and an esoteric selection of recipes, my own favourite being Dates Kneaded with Locusts and Spices, a non-perishable food carried by nomads of the Arabian deserts (method: ‘Find a swarm of locusts resting after a long flight’).

Nabhan is the ideal travelling companion. With an ancestry that stretches back to the spice-trading Nabheni tribe of Oman, Nabhan is by profession an ethnobotanist and food writer with a clutch of culinary history books under his belt. And he wears his erudition lightly. Although the book is referenced like an academic tome, it reads like a detective story – albeit one with generous pinches of exotic smells and alluring flavours thrown in.  Spiced locusts, anyone?




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