To my eternal fascination, I recently met a girl who’s frightened of cardamom.
We were at a dinner party in Abu Dhabi, standing in a friend’s kitchen discussing shoes, news and all things important when she spotted a menacingly large jar of cardamom on the shelf beside her. She recoiled in horror and then, between shudders explained that the little pods really scared her. Biting into one mid meal was clearly the stuff of nightmares: “They’re all smooth and creepy and ugh.”
To tell you the truth, i feel the same way about cloves.
Spices really do have strange powers.
Once back in Dubai, it seems appropriate that we have to take an abra (Arabic for a traditional wooden boat) across the dark, restless creek at night to hunt down the city’s enchanting spice souk. We’re seated next to a group of Emiratis, in abhayas and kanduras for whom the crossing is clearly routine. Beside them, there are excited Japanese tourists recording every minute of the journey with blinding camera flashes and squeals.
Clearly, spices, like tourist attractions, tend to bring the most diverse people together.
We’re hugged by a cloud of tantalizing fragrances as soon as we get off the abra: cardamom, pepper and cloves intertwined with other, more unfamiliar, scents. Following our noses, we walk into the 18th century. A row of colourful stalls bustling with people of all nationalities shimmer with the delicious scent of frankincense.
The souk, set beside the creek, trades in spices that have traditionally arrived by sea from all over the world, mainly the Far East, India and Sri Lanka. Today, while the rest of Dubai exults in air-conditioned malls boasting gourmet hot chocolate, caviar and Christian Dior, the souk remains obstinately unchanged.
We first notice the rocks. Huge salt rocks and astonishingly bright bars of indigo, used to dye clothes. There are baskets of dark volcanic rock, to be used as pumice stones.
Then come the fragrances. Frankincense and myrrh, conjuring up images of kindergarten Christmas plays and the biblical Three Wise Men, carrying these as gifts as they travelled through the desert on camels, following a star. The more mysterious myrrh is a collection of dark saps from different trees in Yemen, and billows into a thick, sweet cloud when set on red-hot coal.
Of course there’s saffron, from Iran. A favourite with the American, Japanese and European tourists for whom rare saffron really is the ultimate in exotica. I’m more interested in the huge sacks of inviting nuts, set in rows. We chat with shopkeepers who earnestly urge us to try handfuls: cashew nuts dusted with fresh pepper, pistachios encrusted with rock salt and crisp almonds. They’re followed by chocolate coated dates with nut centres, which are chewy, gooey and crunchy at the same time.
We buy stunning pepper jars, filled with peppercorns in different colours — red, green, grey and black — from a variety of countries ranging from Brazil to India. We also discover the fabulous bezar, used in Arabic cooking. It’s a mix of cumin, fennel and coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, pepper corns, dried red chillies and turmeric powder, all roasted till they’re golden and then ground together.
Bundles of the biggest sticks of cinnamon I’ve ever seen are set beside fascinating sacks bursting with dried limes – black and brown from Oman. They’re popped whole into stews and soups. Or pierced, peeled or crushed before being added to biriyanis, meat dishes or seafood.
There’s red and white ginseng. Fresh vanilla pods. Intriguing bundles of red and pink dried rosebuds.
Rosebuds? They’re perfect for tea. Especially if you want to pretend you’re a heroine from one of those ridiculously enthralling Mills and Boons -type stories set in the desert. Arabian stallions, campfires and a cup of cinnamon and rosebud tea makes for an ideal combination.
It also works pretty well after one too many tequila shots. Bet the ancient seafarers who explored the world for these spices would be surprised at how far their bounty now travels. And how differently.