Why is Arab food so heavy on spices?

…asks reader Will. That’s the sort of question I really, really dig, reader Will. The reason is simply because Arabs are legendary traders, blessed by happenstance to be situated right on the receiving end of history’s ultimate wholesale supply line: the Silk Road. The Silk Road — which wasn’t actually one road but a network of trade routes — stretched for some 4,000 miles from the Pacific coast of China all the way to the Mediterranean.

These days the “Silk Road” is considered to have had both land routes and sea routes. However if you take a look at a map you can see where all of them converged: the Middle East. That made the Arabs the middlemen, as it were, between East and West. They received everything from textiles, perfumes, jewels and slaves to produce, sugar and spices, and either made use of all the loot themselves or passed it on to the Europeans with a markup.

That is, assuming they weren’t at war with the Europeans, which they frequently were, especially during those oh, whaddyacallems…Crusades. But once those were over there was that little thing called the Ottoman Empire which was’t terribly friendly with the West much of the time. Thus you had a situation where, at least for much of the late Middle Ages and after, you had a lot of on-again-off-again goods flow from the Far East to Europe.

By comparison, spices were quite commonplace in the MIddle East, which I think is why you see so much more spice in their cooking.

18 thoughts on “Why is Arab food so heavy on spices?”

  1. I thought there was a more evolutionary reason for it? Or at least a more biological reason for it.

    Spices boost the immune system, and masks the taste of spoiled meat; similar to why gravy or roux is popular among the French, because of wars and sieges. Same for the Germans. It’s difficult to find this on the same scale anywhere else in Europe in term of usage.

    However with spices, civilizations in the tropical and subtropical zones of the world don’t have the same antibacterial method of preserving food like North Europeans, Amerindians or even East Asians have– which are usually fermentation, cold temperature and freezing. One cannot do any of that in a warm climate.

    This explains why Mexican and some of the equatorial South American food are so spicy; the same can be said about North African, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Indian, Chinese and Indochinese or Thai cuisines.

    So why certain food are so spicy? Preservation.

    1. I don’t claim to be an expert here. No doubt spices do have these uses, yet the Arabs would never have had the opportunity to put spices to these sorts of purposes had they not had them on hand, and in abundance. Also salt and sugar are by far a more effective preservatives than spices…and were probably both cheaper by the pound. I suppose what I’m saying is I’m marginally persuaded by the argument. I think the flavor and exotic luxury factors are more explanatory.

      – Joe

  2. Also, I think, because they are pretty hot countries and would have used the spices as a preservative (or perhaps to disguise “off” flavours, as landladies were apparently wont to do in my father’s youth). Most regional food flavours seem to be the result of this need for preservation, whether it be salt, sugar (I’m sure all that sugar you Americans put in your food comes from having used it as a preservative in the past), fermented flavours, spices etc.

  3. I might take that personally, Bronwyn! 😉

    But it’s quite true that sugar has historically been an easily obtainable and relatively cost-effective way for Americans to preserve food. Germans (who made up a huge percentage of immigrants to this country prior to the 2oth Century) were well-schooled in the art of preserving fruit with sugar, even before they arrived. Big-time jam makers, those folks.

    1. Oh yes, we make jam too. It’s the sugar in foods that are not traditionally sweet in other parts of the world I’m talking about – like brown bread. And you like your wine very sweet (comparatively) too. When I’ve been in America I seem to have have a constant sweet undernote on my tongue the whole time. I figured that parts of America must have had far easier access to sugar than salt back in the day.

      1. Hmm…not too sure about that one. But I guess it’s all in what you’re used to!

  4. I’ve also read, thought I need to remember where, that the idea of spicing sauces to disguise off flavors has been overstated. But before I go down that road I need to find that reference. I’m thinking it’s Alan Davidson…

    1. Well all I know is that the vast majority of New Zealand men of my father’s generation refuse to eat curries or other spicy foods, and their reason is (or was, they’re mostly dead by now) the landladies of their youth. Mind you, you have to take into account that the depression, and later the war, were happening then, so landladies were under a certain amount of pressure to make food last.

  5. We Indians are the “king of Spices”, We like our food that way(no offence meant to other spice eating brothers and sisters). Spices are our way of life. We have a saying in Tamil(a south Indian Language) “Food is Medicine/Medicine is Food” . So we incorporate medicine by way of spices into our food. Turmeric, cumin, pepper, cloves…the list is endless. The portions; though paltry, infuses into our cells slowly over the years and keeps many diseases at bay. Though i am no authority of speak elaborately on this, ’tis was what our mothers and grandmothers told us…

    1. Thanks HB! I Have no doubt that spices have medicinal properties. In fact I think a friend of mine takes turmeric in pill form in an attempt to ward off brain aneurysms, which run in his family. It’s a blood thinner, I think.

    2. More to the point, it makes quite a bit of sense that the Arabs would have viewed spices in much the same way.

      – Joe

  6. Thinking about this a bit more overnight, it occurs to me that while Middel Easterners couldn’t freeze or ferment their foods like Europeans could, they made very effective use of other types of preservatives. The Arabs and Egyptians preserved in sugar (honey especially) salt and also in acid…citrus juices and vinegar.

    Compared to these techniques, spices wouldn’t have added terribly much in the antimicrobial department. I’m aware that cinnamon, cloves and garlic have been shown to slow the growth of some microbes, but don’t kill and/or render them inactive like, say, salt. And in fact when most historians talk about the preservative quality of “spices” I think what they’re mostly referring to is salt.

    Overall I think HB’s point about spices as medicine is probably the key insight here.

  7. Hi Joe,

    Being an Indian but brought up in Dubai, UAE I never knew this! I don’t find Arabic food too spicy – infact a lot of their dishes are just rightly seasoned. I guess it depends on individual palates but their food has a mellow undertone of spice rather than full frontal spice attack. One of my favorite websites to make Arabic food is this one:

    Make sure you try some arayes the next time you visit your local arabic restaurant 😉

    1. Hey DP! That’s funny…it’s all about what you’re accustomed to, isn’t it? As a previous commenter noted, Indian food is king when it comes to spices. By comparison even the spicier Arab or Arab-influenced cuisines would probably seem quite tame!

      We Americans are — at least traditionally — used to a rather bland diet. Meats, potatoes, fruits and vegetables flavored with salt, black pepper, butter, sugar, bacon etc.. with a smattering of indigenous herbs and imported spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) mixed in. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that even French and Italian herbs became common, to say nothing of Mexican, Indian, Chinese and North African. So when we say “spicy” you must consider the source! 😉

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      So when we say “spicy” you must consider the source! 😉

  8. As it happens, I’m deep into medieval food right now, which is where the canard that spices were used to hide the smell of bad meat first arose. Nonsense, in fact. As Terence Scully points out, anyone rich enough to afford spices could also afford fresh meat (never mind that much of it was game anyway and so about as fresh as you could get).
    Sugar in the West was once anything but cheap (once it showed up, first known as “reed honey”) and was first sold by apothecaries. But it was used to preserve fruits etc. – Meats not so much, since these were smoked or salted when preservation was needed.
    One obvious reason for people in the East to use spices was that they were much closer to the places where they grew. Somewhere along the line, the Galenic idea of humors came along and was an integral part of dietetics, so that different spices were said to be “hot”, “cold”, etc. The Arabs usually got the good Greek ideas first (and preserved more than a few of them).
    In the West, people at first thought that most spices literally came from Paradise, having floated downstream to be collected before being exported to the West. One coriander-like seed is called “Paradise seed” and was literally thought to come from there.
    When I lived in Paris, the dish was most often known as “pastille” and most often found in Moroccan restaurants (whose cuisine is typically a cut above Tunisian or Algerian). Still love it.
    By the way, for a long time the most precious spice in the West was… pepper. “As precious as pepper” used to be a proverb. Unbelievably, the man who finally smuggled pepper plants out to the West and let the French grow their own was called… Poivre. Literally, “pepper” in French. But the Franks already had cinnamon, ginger and clove, which came in at Marseille from the East.

  9. Just my one cent: I think that Arab food (or middle eastern food) isn’t really all that heavy on spices, it’s just that they tend to use somewhat more pungent local spices such as the prevailant cumin, cloves..Most any spices that are in the form if dried seeds and drupes are perceived as stronger as opposed to herbs of vegetal nature that are popular in European cuisine. Arab food also is quite simple in the sense that it doens’t rely as much on technique to achieve flavor and the addition of herbs compensates for that in a way. And one other way I look at it is that if you look at other things in the societies from that part of the world, they tend to value a rich palette of colors (which too is due to what Joe says about the silk road) and it is part of their psychology of what constitutes abundance. Possesing all that is available around them and incorporating it in their daily life gives them a “life is good” feeling, I guess.

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