I had so much fun the other day buying spices in Jerusalem. First of all, I am a spice freak, nut… whatever you want to call me. Some people buy gadgets. Others buy clothes. While still others purchase shoes. I indulge in spices. Every exotic blend I can lay my hands on… comes home with me.
The cute, young Israeli guy that helped did not speak a word of English. I mean not a syllable. I don’t think he would have understood, “yes or no.” He was a Jew from Yemen.
[Some say they are the most like what Jews were like during the time of Jesus… very dark and Middle Eastern looking. And their Hebrew is a little different–they have a noticeable accent. Hey, even I can notice it! It is also said that Yemenites have kept the true guttural sounds of Hebrew with the silent letters. If you study Hebrew then you know about the “chet” and “chaf” sound that is a “k” that comes from the deep throat. You have to spit almost to say it correctly. But the two silent letters in Hebrew used to have a guttural sound attached to them as well when they were connected to vowels. That means all vowels associated with the letter “alef” or “ayin” were made deep in the throat. That sound is evident with Yemenite Jews.]
Anyway, this spice boy was so cute and completely undaunted by my rusty Hebrew. I didn’t know the names of all the spices I wanted to buy, so he asked me questions about the colors, smells, and tastes. We sort of played a game, and we both enjoyed it.
A couple of spices we couldn’t figure out, so we walked through the store together looking for an English speaker who knew the spice in both Hebrew and English.
This is the one that gave us the most trouble: “cousbarah,” or coriander. Above is dried coriander. My Israeli helper and I could not find anyone that knew what coriander was in English. We walked all over the store until we found a young Israeli man that spoke excellent English.
But at the moment, I was privately thinking this is so ironic. Coriander should be the most common spice in Israel. It was what manna was like—the food that was left by God and fell like dew–when the Israelite wandered through the wilderness. They ate it everyday and stored extra for the Sabbath.
Exodus 16:31: “And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”
Numbers 11:6-9: “But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. And the manna was as coriander seed… And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat in a mortar and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.”
My experience with coriander, sometimes called “cilantro,” is that you really, really like it or you don’t. I love it. But I have found lots of people that feel otherwise.
But my latest favorite spice is the one in photo above, “sumac.” I put it in salad dressings, use as a meat rub or marinade, or in soups and rice. I put it in my very favorite Mid Eastern salad “Fatoush.” Here’s good recipe, if you are interested.
It is not to be confused with the tree that grows in North America, sumac. It is a berry that comes from a bush that grows wild in the Mediterranean and really worth finding because it really deepens the flavor of many dishes.
Well, I have a good start on my spices. I still haven’t found ginger or turmeric or lemon grass, but all in good time. I also found these cute little spice jars and transferred them from the plastic bags they came in. I love buying spices here at a spice stand, because they are incredibly FRESH! In fact, when I first got hooked on spices was when I tasted fresh nutmeg a number of years ago. I discovered that I liked it better than cinnamon!
Once Martha Stewart, American homemaking diva, was asked what her favorite spice was. Her reply, “Salt.” Immediately, I thought, “How mundane. How prosaic.” Martha! But after giving it some thought, I think salt is the one seasoning that would be really hard to give up. Harder than sugar or anything, even nutmeg.
If you don’t know, I am great admirer of Martha. I love what she had done for the art of homemaking, entertaining, and cooking. She raised it from the post-feminists’ era of disdain to a prized gift to cultivate. She brought dignity to the home and especially those who create beautiful, economical, and inviting spaces for family and friends. That is my heart exactly.
Anyway, again Martha’s bottom line home economic wisdom rings true; salt keeps the savor of life on track. And she’s hooked on spices, just like me…