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Spices of the Middle East

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The spread of Middle Eastern culture and spices were closely intertwined in the first half of the last millennium. As the Arabians and later the Ottomans of the Middle East spread through conquest, to the west into Africa and Europe, they brought with them the flavorful spices that were as much a part of their heritage as their mathematics, religion and architecture. To the east, the rich spice lands of India, Malaysia and Indonesia drew the Middle Eastern merchants who, in the process, spread their culture at moments by force, but over a far longer period of time by trade.

To The West. At the start of the last millennium (one thousand A.D.) most of Europe was in the low point of the Dark Ages. Science, trade, medicine and mostly all forms of learning had taken a huge step back from the height of the Roman empire. The great cities of Europe had succumbed to bad sanitation and the petty squabbling of feudal lords. It was not the best of times. In the Middle East things were better. In the 300 years since Muhammad, Arabic culture under Islam had flourished.

As the Arabian people of the Mideast spread to the West through North Africa to what is now Morocco they brought with them their favorite seasonings. In small quantities they brought with them the rare and expensive spices of the Far East -- pepper, cloves cinnamon and nutmeg. These did not have much of an impact at the time as only the rich could afford to use them. What had a much greater impact was that they brought with them the popular spices of the Mideast: cumin, coriander and saffron. They did not just bring them to eat they brought them to grow as well.

One thousand years later we still feel the Moroccan coriander is the world’s best. The descendents of these traveling Arabians and the local Moroccans were known as Moors. In 1031 these Moors sailed the short distance to Spain and pretty much took things over. With them they also brought and planted cumin, coriander and saffron. Spain had known these seasonings in the time of the Romans, but over the centuries they had long since been forgotten. The Moors controlled most all of Spain until 1212. They were able to hold onto the Kingdom of Granada all the way up until 1492. By the time Isabella kicked out the last of the Moors, their style of cooking had become ingrained into the Spanish way of life. It is in some ways strange that as the Spanish tried to bypass the monopoly the Ottomans had on the spice trade by sailing west, around the world to India, they brought along the favorite native spices of the Ottoman empire to both Mexico and the Philippines. This is why five hundred years later the main flavor in tacos at fast food Mexican restaurants in America is cumin.

To The East. By the year 1000 Arabians had spread by conquest to the Indus valley in what is now India. With them they brought the cumin and coriander that along with the local Indian pepper, ginger and turmeric make up the base of so many South Asian dishes. It was this combination of spices that centuries later British sailors would spread throughout the world as curry powder.

In India, Arabian traders were able to obtain the rare and exotic spices of the Far East from local spice merchants. India had spent the previous two millennia spreading its culture to the Spice Islands of the east. Even with the high prices paid to the Indian middle men, Arabian traders were able to make good money supplying these spices not only to their countrymen back home, but to Europe as well.

It may have been the Dark Ages, but there were always those who had gold to exchange for pepper and cinnamon. It was these caravans of spices traveling from east to west that funded much of the Arts and education for which Arabia would become known. In many ways the culture of Arabia loved learning for learning’s sake. As the great plays of Greece and Rome were translated in Arabic, so too were the geographic writings of Pliny and Ptolemy telling of the general location of the tabled spice islands. As Arabian astronomers charted the stars in order to understand man’s place in the universe, they realized these same charts could be used for navigation. It was not long before Arabian traders realized they had the technology and knew the odds. Soon they were sailing to what is now Indonesia and Malaysia to purchase spices directly, bypassing the Indian middlemen.

By the middle of the 13th century Arabian merchants were regularly making the run to Sumatra for cassia from the slopes of Mount Korintje. Later these merchants traveled even further across the Indonesian archipelago all the way to Banda in the Spice Islands for nutmeg and cloves. Along the way they would stop at little villages and towns that had fresh streams to refill their water supplies. At these stops the merchants would barter their cumin, coriander and saffron and speak of their religion as well. The saffron did not take well to the tropical climate, but coriander now plays an integral part in so many dishes across the Indonesian archipelago. The religion did even better than the coriander, with Indonesia today being the world’s most populous Islamic country it seems that compared to the Hindu belief in a caste system spread earlier by traders from India, the Islamic belief that all were equal in serving God really hit a chord in the peoples of Indonesia.

Food Tips:  Spices

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