The Spice Trade
Spices are used to preserve and enhance the flavor food, they are used for medicinal and personal grooming and as a symbol of wealth and status. Just as one might showoff in a brand new BMW, in ancient times a man would be considered exceptionally prosperous if he decorated himself with a couple cinnamon sticks and a few cloves for good measure. From biblical times King Solomon was writing poems about exotic spices and using them in rituals. During the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Arabs controlled vast areas of land from Europe, Africa, and Asia and had a tight monopoly over the spice trade. The spice trade became a vehicle for Islamic conversion and intrinsic to the robust economy of the Arab world. Arabs sacked Alexandria, Egypt in 641 and took control of over the trade which had been the core of this dynamic city since Greek and Roman times. The city of Venice had monopoly of all spices entering Europe and was the main interface between Arab and European traders.
During the expansion of Islam into the Iberian Peninsula the Arabs brought their culture, technology and trade with them and left a lasting imprint on the Europeans, including their taste for spices. Cutoff from the supply of spices and at the very end of the transactions, Europeans had no choice but to pay the exorbitant fees the Arab middlemen requested. The demand for spices in Europe sky rocketed, and eventually, black peppercorns were worth their weight in gold. Europeans, tired of paying top dollar, and becoming increasingly developed began to send out explorers for the sole purpose of capturing a slice of the market.
The race began. In 1492, The Spaniards, although skeptical he wouldn’t fall off the end of the world, sent Columbus on his way to find a new route to the West Indies. Although he did not find the spice islands, he did bring back the chili pepper and named it so perhaps because the pungent flavor reminded him of the black pepper he so desperately wanted. This, of course, has caused confusion till this day. A few years later, in 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vascco da Gama successfully reached India permitting Europeans to trade with the Far East. His first trip to Calcutta was met with some resistance, but better prepared with warships on his second trip he successfully set up a trading line. This bypassed the inland routes through the Middle East and Central Asia at a time when they were controlled by the Islamic Mughul Empire of Persia, evading the costs and hazards of the Silk Road Caravans.
During the 1600’s the Netherlands founded the Dutch East India company which successfully circumventing the already well established Portuguese spice monopoly. Before the advent of fair trade and business conventions the Dutch used the only means available to them, mainly brute force, in order to reign supreme for two hundred years and becoming very rich in the bargain.
Today spices still belong to monopolies; McCormick and Company Inc and Tone Brothers Inc that have control of most of the world’s spice market. Even today local spice farmers do not always receive a fair compensation for their work and to ensure this look for the Fairtrade label. I have not seen these labels yet in Israel
The Neighborhood Spice Store
After thousands of years, spices still hold an aura of mystery and the spice store is one of my favorite places to visit because it is a meeting point of all ethnic groups. In spice stores in Israel there are many languages labeling the various spices and grains depending on what ethnic group uses them and who introduced it. Many of the names are of course in Hebrew but others are derived from Arabic, Ethiopian, Persian and many more. After sixty years the cuisine in Israel is naturally more homogenous than it once was because most families have married outside their ethnic group and have shared recipes throughout the years. In fact, a Romanian women, my neighbor, taught me how to make Moroccan preserved lemons and a Moroccan lady invited me to her house to see how she makes her secret Polish gelfilte fish recipe.
There are still ingredients which are ethnic specific even after years of culinary assimilation. When I asked the spiceman who buys the shanbalile (fenugreek leaves) he told me
“Only the Persians”,
When I asked him about the green coffee he answered,
“The Ethiopians buy that, they like to roast it themselves”
“The sour cherries?”
“Russians, Russians and Hugarians love sour cherries”,
“What about the dried melouchia?”
“That the Egyptians love”
“What about this seaweed”
“Ah! That the young people buy, they make sushi”
In Israel there has been a recent trend of going back to the culinary roots and preserving traditional foods. There are others who have integrated ethnic flavors in exciting and unusual ways, preserving the flavor and the freshness of the ingredients. I believe the best food in Israel is the kind which reflects the ethnicity of the people, both their uniqueness and integration.
I don’t like buying spices at the souk, especially from merchants I do not know because it isn’t always good quality. For example, za’atar mix is sometimes made with cheap citric acid and parsley instead of traditional ingredients. There are two stores in my neighborhood, Hasid’s, who have been here forever and are well respected and Ivgi, which opened recently and is also a family operated business. Although Ivgi is new, I like their store because the young fellow who works there is passionate about his job and has given me a lot of interesting information from who uses specific spices, to how to cook various types of legumes, such as lupine seeds and Egyptian brown beans. He is also very friendly and when I asked him if I could photograph his store he let me go behind the cash register to get a closer shot. I didn’t notice people starting to gather around buying spices and watching me photograph. Being Israeli they had to comment, saying things like,
“This is the best spice store in town”
“Look how cute he is (referring to the spiceman) doesn’t he have a great smile?” (he’s going to get married in November)
“Their spices are always fresh”
That’s what I like about family owned stores, there is always dynamic interaction and a sense of being a part of a community which is lacking in the chain supermarket, however convenient they may be.