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Cumin, Camels, and Caravans. A Spice Odyssey

By Gary Paul Nabhan

California Studies in Food and Culture

An S. Mark Taper Foundation Book in Jewish Studies

University of California Press

2014

This book contains many self-fulfilling prophecies all of them involve the constant return to the places where spices learnt the heat of many fires, the taste of many pots and the unique use and combination in each land where they have been introduced.

Spices have been smuggled, stolen, proudly displayed and even accidentally taken far and wide across the world.

This is a cross between an academic research, a travel journal and a recollection of multi-sensory memoirs told in 13 recipes following a transcontinental treasure map to track down 26 different spices.

The spices explored have an interconnected destiny marked primarily by trade, imperialism and migrations involving Muslims, Christians and Jews. Beginning in Neolithic Levantine, through the ancient empires, moving both east to Asia and west to Europe following the spice and silk routes and eventually joining the Columbian exchange in and out of the Americas as they shaped and gave flavour to a brand new globalized menu.

Nabhan in his own words goes on a pilgrimage to seek answers to many questions. Like many of us in the Americas he has a multicultural heritage and as he embarked on a quest to find his roots to the land of his forefathers beginning in Jabal Samhan, Oman, then travels extensively within the middle east, North Africa, then goes to Southern Spain, China -many other cities and villages in between- before going to Mexico and back again to the U.S.

damascusHe obsessively pursuits each spice and by doing so he reflects on the fact that the desire to acquire them comes from the wish to break up the monotony, to brighten up our meals, but beyond that: The spice trade [is] a means to capitalize on a kind of physic hunger that was developing within various civilizations scattered around the world, a craving that came less from an empty stomach and ore from a dissatisfied mind.

Another fascinating parallel story he develops is that of the thousands of traders, especially Middle Eastern spice merchants “knew full well that they were not merely selling calories, cures or scents but also stories that came along with them”.

I could talk about how I relate to each of the described recipes, for instance I remember eating sticky buñuelos -a thin and crispy fried dough dipped in aniseed, orange blossom and cinnamon sweet syrups- which I now know many generations ago my remote Sephardi ancestors ate as kids too.

But I feel that this is a journey that you have to do on your own. I have no doubt that you too will feel like you are reading someone’s lost diary and monologues will morph into dialogues.

I began reading this book on a cold Christmas morning in Harrington, Cumbria, and as I did, I found that I was eagerly engaged with the narrative as it has so many threads that are common to my own heritage. The flavours described, aromas, memories I could relate to all those with deep familiarity. I grew up with them too and have my own stories triggered by smells and tastes.

Once again, he who knows and loves me has giving me yet another printed odyssey that I deeply enjoyed. Find it, get it, lay back and go travel voluptuously through time and space enjoying guided by memory, discovery and taste.

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