Spice Gives Variety to Life

Zest from around the world for our delight

Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

Around the corner from my apartment is a store called Oaktown Spice Shop. Step inside and take a deep breath. Give your olfactory sense a waft of heaven. It offers hundreds of cooking spices and combinations plus the tools to work and cook with them. For curious folks who seek new flavors to make and serve at home, cookbooks available for sale meet the need. From home, anyone can access recipes and more at the website Food 52.

Decades ago, spices, with ample insecticide, came in small metal containers in the supermarket. Americans were only steps from WWII and the patriotic practice of eating Spam. Other than cinnamon, spices were sparse. The 1960s brought free love, hippies, herb teas, and fresh herbs, maybe even grown right outside the house. The move to insecticide-free spice sold commercially brought dried organic spices in glass bottles. The torrent of immigrants from Western Europe, Asia, and Latin America after the sixties brought new languages, their cultures, including cuisine with a wide array of culinary spices, and restaurants serving it all. The white bread nation now could sample curries from India to Thailand and Japan and wide varieties of food from Central and South America. Now, as we read articles about the health benefits of turmeric, friends swap recipes using Middle Eastern spices and spice combinations. Oaktown Spice Shop thrives in today’s culinary environment.

According to popular legend, we should thank Marco Polo for the spice in our lives. The story of his travels comes to us from Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa. The two were in prison together in Genoa between 1298–1299. Marco Polo told him the story of his adventures. Rustichello was the ghostwriter for The Travels of Marco Polo.

Marco Polo tells Rustichello da Pisa,

I had done remarkably well in my previous journey to the east. I brought back magnificent silks, so popular with queens, princesses and wealthy women. Every town of any size wanted my spices to add longer life to results of the past harvest. With the gold coin earned, I increased my ability to bring even more back. I hired helpers.

Rustichello recorded what Marco Polo told him and added some things word for word from his other writing. The tales of Marco Polo’s journeys, his meeting Kublai Khan, and serving the emperor for two decades were widely disbelieved. The main reason could be the far higher level of development in political and economic structure, culture, and business practices in the kingdom of Kublai Khan than in Europe in Marco Polo’s lifetime.

Marco Polo tells Rustichello,

On the next journey when I was 21, my father, uncle, and I took a different route. As we crossed a vast expanse of extremely rugged terrain with nothing at all we could eat, we ate most of what we had brought with us. After crossing the vast desert, we needed to travel slowly and collect more food and water. Messengers on horseback from the emperor Kublai Khan met us. The emperor heard about our journey and sent his envoys. For 40 days, they led us the rest of the way to Shangu in China to the most powerful man in the world in people, lands, and treasure: Kublai Khan. We bowed humbly before him. He told us to rise, received us honorably and entertained us in good cheer. He was curious to learn about the lands we came from and how we fared on our journey. My father presented the emperor with a letter and holy oil from the Pope. Kublai Khan received both with gratitude and joy. That great man was curious about me, young as I was. My father told him, ‘Sir, he is my son and your liegeman.’ The emperor treated us with great honor and respect, placing us above his own barons. We attended grand parties where 40,000 people attended.

But wait! We were talking about spices. What spices did Marco Polo bring back to Europe? From the Middle East, he brought cinnamon and cassia, since those were used there for a thousand years. He returned from China with

Star anise,
Mace, and

All those grace our kitchen and add to our meals today.

The journey from bland food to scrumptious dishes is possible, thanks to spices. Sharing information about them can come at any time, not just in the kitchen.

A group of friends and I have enjoyed doing SoulCollage, a lovely way for people with no art training to tune into their intuition, create collage cards, and learn about themselves and their lives. At our last gathering, our hostess and one of the group members were chatting about Middle Eastern spices.

This style of yumminess was unknown to me. I called our hostess to ask what Middle Eastern spices she and our colleague were discussing. They were talking about Za’atar, a popular Middle Eastern blend. You can make it with

1/4 c. dried Sumac
2 T Thyme
1T roasted sesame seeds
2T Marjoram
2T dried Oregano
1T coarse salt.

Just mix it up.

Sumac is curious stuff. Most of us, Americans again, avoid it with diligence and call it “poison sumac.” Yes, it’s the same, my web research revealed. As long as the berries are red, they are perfectly safe.

Bright red Sumac is used at the end of cooking, sprinkled on meats, vegetables, dips like hummus, and bread. My SoulCollage hostess bought Sumac online at www.penzeys.com. It’s available from other sites too. I can buy it at the Oaktown Spice Shop.

Za’atar is not the only Middle Eastern spice blend, of course. There’s Baharat, which means spice, and Ras el Hanout, meaning “head of the shop,” the only one that contains salt. Due to my recent ministroke, avoiding salt is a good idea. Ras El Hanout is the only Middle Eastern spice mix presented here containing salt. Blends like Za’atar and Baharat could save dinner for me and others advised against eating salt.

Enjoy! With the exception of Sumac, the ingredients are readily available. We receive the gift of new ways to combine them from the middle east. Different spices can make plain rice a different dish at every meal. Spice creates variety in life.

To read more by Aikya, click here.

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Aikya Param is a licensed minister, a visual artist, and writer.

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