“Sweet” Spices on Savory Things

For Westerners, the application of a spice like nutmeg or allspice to an otherwise savory meat or vegetable dish is a quintessentially Middle Eastern — or North African — touch. Sure, we in the States might sprinkle a little cinnamon on a winter squash soup, but do the same to ground meat and it suddenly becomes “Levantine”. Roasted carrots become “Moroccan”. But why is that?

The conventional wisdom is that “Araby” was the center of the Eastern spice trade, a great roaring river of aromatics that made their way from East Asia to Mecca, where they were sold to Mediterranean merchants who ultimately passed them on to Europeans. Those remaining touches of “sweet” spice we taste on Middle Eastern and North African foods hearken back to a time when the whole region — and much of the food — was awash in exotic flavors from the East.

Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. Some very interested contrarian histories of Mideastern trade have been written in recent decades, arguing that while textiles and other Eastern goods did indeed come to the region along ancient routes, many — if not most — spices were acquired more locally. It’s been argued that what ancient and Medieval peoples knew as “cinnamon” was not actually Asian cinnamomum but rather the bark of a much more common shrub that grew in Northeast Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula along the shores of the Red Sea (right near Mecca on the eastern shore).

It’s an interesting argument, and it makes sense. The Red Sea was a lot closer to Ottoman Syria than to India or China. Perhaps people of that time were simply making use of more local ingredients, which would have been more abundant and a good deal less expensive than spices coming from a thousand miles away. And after all, how would we ever know what ancient or Medieval cinnamon tasted like? It could have been a very different thing that what we now put on our toast.

Anyway, something interesting to think about. Those who’ve read much of the site here know that I’m a sucker for the counterfactual. It it goes against conventional wisdom, then it’s usually got my attention. Except for the thing about aliens building the pyramids. I’m pretty sure the Egyptians really did do that. And Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon. Also the Patriots-Atlanta Super Bowl wasn’t rigged. The Falcons really did find a way to blow a 28-3 lead. I still shake my head over that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *