Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Spice Route

Being in the Arabian Peninsula, one has easy access to spices from around the world.  Food is quite international, with neighboring countries influencing one another along with the large amount of expats from India and other South Asian countries.  I have yet to visit the major spice souq (seller/store), but still have had plenty of spice choices.  Easy access to quality spices is one of the things I was looking forward to upon preparing for my first trip to the Middle East.  I am still asked by my father about the prices and quality of the saffron, and when will I be shipping some over.  [Sorry Dad, I am still looking for the best deal…]

In every neighborhood or town, it seems as if there is a local dry goods shop, featuring spices and nuts in bulk.  Our local shop is right next to a major park that also caters to families and children, keeping the sodas and candies towards the front of the store.  Towards the back is a tempting display of various nuts, spices, and coffees (Turkish and Arabic beans).  We have purchased whole bean Arabic coffee and whole cardamom pods.  While the store clerk can and will grind coffee and cardamom, I prefer to grind them myself.  Coffee and cardamom, like other spices, taste better and are closer to their original state when ground just before use.

Even in New York City, one must know exactly where to go for bulk spices: in Hell’s Kitchen a friend of mine introduced me to an amazing bulk store for za’atar, and I would go out of my way to the Indian neighborhoods in Jackson Heights, Queens or by 28th Street for Indo-Pak bulk spices.  Growing up with a family who heavily relies on spices, I was taught that one must go to specialty stores (or “ethnic” stores as some may say) for quality goods.  I admit that I am disturbed that people purchase and use spices from the spice isle of their grocery store or mega mart.  It has been instilled in me from a young age that those pre-packaged spices in the little glass jars are overpriced and stale.  Growing up, our coffee grinder was not used for coffee, but for grinding spices such as coriander, cumin, black pepper, dried chili peppers, and other non-coffee items.  I was taught that whenever possible, spices should be bought whole and ground according to the chef’s preference.  However, I understand that for an unfortunate portion of the population, spices do not extend further than salt and pepper, or maybe some dried mélange of “Italian” spices tucked in the back of the kitchen cupboard.

To my delight, in every full sized grocery store that I have been to in the Kingdom, there is a separate dry good section that sells bulk spices and nuts.  This section is in addition to the typical, Western spice isle that has your pre-packaged spices with the McSpice label in the glass jar.  The grocer’s spice section is similar to your deli section – a separate counter person is in charge of scooping and weighing out customers requests.  Several varieties of cardamom, saffron, peppercorns, za’atar, other spices, dals, nuts, and other dried goods.  Unfortunately, my Arabic is not good enough to identify the items that I am unfamiliar with.  The amount of products available is overwhelming and I often get lost just staring at the options.  I cannot adequately describe the joy I have when standing in front of all of these bins.  I guess it’s like being a girl in a spice shop…  What to do with blackened, dried lemons?  Do I need a half-kilo of sumac?  The nut offerings are much more than salted or unsalted, shelled or whole – there are spicy almonds, lemon pistachios, raw pine nuts, sesame crusted  whatnot, Brazil nuts, and all manner of sweet, savory, salty and in-between.  As with our local dry goods shop, there is a grinder for coffee and cardamom.  But why get anything ground when I would much rather grind them myself, allowing the perfume to fill our home.  Besides Arabic coffee and cardamom pods, we have purchased lemon almonds, popcorn, za’atar, turmeric, chili powder, black peppercorns, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds,  coriander seeds, black chickpeas, couscous, lentils, tamarind paste and shredded coconut.  I have my eye out for the pistachios of different flavors, saffron, and red za’atar, which I believe has more sumac than the green variety.  As in the west, grocery stores also have separate deli sections that include meats, cheeses, and pickled goods.  It will take several months to try all the varieties that tempt me from behind the glass.  To date, we have had purchased varieties of labneh (a thick yogurt, almost like a paste), olives from Turkey, Jordan, and beyond, and “feta” cheese that is not quite as crumbly as I have had in the USA, but just as salty and strong with flavor.  Oh, and all items may be sampled before purchase!

We didn’t pack many kitchen items with us.  In the spice department, we only brought our electric coffee grinder and quickly determined that a suitable mortar and pestle was essential for cooking.  I have been partial to Japanese varieties, and had a small porcelain one back in NYC.  While waiting for the perfect tool to present itself, we settled for grinding our spices by hitting them with the side of a cleaver between pieces of paper towel. Although not the ideal or safest method of spice grinding, the flavor is still superior to pre-ground spices lurking in the back of the cupboard.  Our new mortar and pestle was purchased in the food section of a pretty famous outdoor market here in Riyadh (unfortunately, I did not visit this market as I was abaya shopping).  It is made of cast aluminum, and is heavy with high sides, keeping those pesky seeds inside when smashing them.  I’ve never used a metal mortar and pestle before, but I must say that I am quite happy with the switch.


  1. I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying both of your blogs–it is so wonderful to hear your experiences this way and I am super jealous of that mortar and pestle! Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Wendy! The mortar + pestle have been getting a good workout. Glad you have been following both food and other adventures.

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