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10 Middle Eastern Spices
The Middle East is famous for its spicy, flavorful dishes
mainly because Arabian spice traders once monopolized
the market on spices and provided that region with access
to just about every spice available. Spices were highly
prized in the Middle Ages because food spoiled so quickly
due to poor hygiene standards and appalling food preservation
methods. Hundreds of years ago, spices helped to mask
the flavor of foods that were less than fresh and made
them more palatable. Some spices even helped prevent
food from deteriorating so quickly in the hot summer
Aromatic and distinctively bitter, cumin is the dried
fruit or "seeds" of a plant belonging to the
parsley family. As one of the principle ingredients
in curry powder, the cumin plant is found growing naturally
in the Nile River Valley and is used in hummus, couscous,
meat dishes and mashed tahini and chick pea spread.
Rose petal water adds a sweet, floral taste to Middle
Eastern candies, syrups and rice dishes. This spice
is found in Moroccan Baklava and carrot salad, sweetened
saffron rice and Lokum, also known as Turkish Delight.
Used in meat, vegetable, bread and salad dishes, Za'atar
is a combination of sesame, sumac and thyme that tastes
nutty and tangy. Sometimes mixed with olive oil as a
spread for bread, Za'atar is thought to contain medicinal
qualities that enhance the mind, especially in the Levant
where children traditionally eat bread and Za'atar before
going to school.
Strong, aromatic and somewhat smoky in flavor, cardamom
is commonly used in Indian dishes as well as in Scandinavian
and Finnish breads. Green cardamom powder is also a
Middle East staple found in teas, coffees and sweet
dishes. Black cardamom flavors curries and garnishes
basmati rice and various meat dishes. In addition, cardamom
seeds are often chewed like chewing gum to freshen breath.
A spice extracted from Rhus coriaria bush berries native
to the Middle East and Mediterranean, sumac is distantly
related to the toxic plant found in North America but
is entirely safe to eat. After the berries are dried
and crushed, the powder is mixed with salt to provide
dishes with a vividly tart, slightly lemony taste. Sumac
is often sprinkled over salads or rice kebab and as
a garnish for hummus dishes.
Possessing a sweet, hay-like aroma and rich, bitter
taste, saffron is an expensive Middle Eastern spice
due to the fact that each flower's stigma must be collected
by hand. Currently, Iran is responsible for producing
most of the saffron in the world--nearly 90 percent.
With over 150 aromatic compounds contributing to its
unique flavor, saffron is found in Middle Eastern confectionaries,
liquors and meat dishes. It is also used in India and
China as a fabric dye and in perfumes.
Tasting nutty and mildly sweet, fenugreek can be used
as a spice (ground seeds), herb (fresh or dried leaves)
or eaten as a vegetable (sprouts and leaves). Indian
dishes such as pickles, daals and curries often contain
fenugreek as well as in "ghormeh sabzi", the
national dish of Iran. Yemenite Jews called fenugreek
"yelba" which they use to make Hilba, a curry-like
sauce that is eaten during the first or second night
of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana).
Peppermint and Spearmint
Leaves of the spearmint and peppermint plants are traditionally
used in Middle Easter, Greek and Turkish cuisine, enhancing
meat, salads and fruit dishes as well as yogurts. Freshly
brewed mint tea is a staple of North African culture
and is always served in a glass rather than a teacup.
Cloves add a delicious, mildly licorice-like flavor
to meats, vegetables and drinks in many Egyptian, Turkish,
Moroccan and Syrian dishes. Immature buds are picked
then crushed to release their taste and aroma. When
combined with garlic or cinnamon and rubbed on chicken,
lamb or beef, this spice acts as a strong flavor enhancer
that draws out a rich, meaty taste.
Yansoun, Arabic for aniseed, is one of the oldest spices
known to originate in the Middle East and is native
to Spain, Egypt and Greece. Aniseed is the main ingredient
in licorice and is found in many desserts, drinks and
candies served in the Middle East. Aniseed tea is also
used for relief of colic in babies as well as stomach
cramps in adults.