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Mapping the World of Spices

Salt, of course, does not come from a plant (it is not vegetable but mineral) and so cannot be considered a spice; still, as the most prevalent seasoning agent the world over — among Jewish and non-Jewish cooks alike — it deserves at least a brief mention in this context. There are many varieties of salt, from sea salt to iodized table salt; the one generally associated with Jewish cooking is known as kosher salt, although this is something of a misnomer, as all salt is kosher. Rather, this variety should be called “koshering salt,” since its relatively coarse crystals aid in drawing out blood from slaughtered meat, a prerequisite for kosher cookery. Not only is salt useful in koshering, but in earlier times, before refrigeration, it was essential in the preservation of meat and fish (as, for instance, with herring). The preservative power of salt also functions symbolically in the so-called covenant of salt made between God and the Israelites in Numbers 18:19, a covenant that is said will last “for ever.”

In “Much Depends on Dinner” (Macmillan, 1986), food anthropologist Margaret Visser points out that meat eaters need less salt, as animal flesh is naturally salty, and so the covenant of salt also meant that the ancient Hebrews would cease being sheep-herding nomads and would instead settle down and “eat the fruit of their harvests, cooked and seasoned with salt.” And, one might add, pepper — not to mention all the other spices, sources of business and pleasure alike, and without which eating the harvests would be a far less interesting activity.

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Hawaij is the most popular of the Yemenite spice mixtures. It is used in all manner of dishes, from chicken soup to poached fish or broiled meat, imparting to all of them that distinctively aromatic Yemenite flavor.

Hawaij (Yemenite Spice Mixture)

3 tbsp. cumin seeds

4 tsp. black peppercorns

4 tbsp. turmeric

6 cloves

7 cardamom pods

Place all of the ingredients in a coffee grinder or pestle with mortar. Grind until the spices are finely ground. Store in a tightly closed container.

Makes about 1/2 cup.

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Along with bread, soup is the staple of the Yemenite diet and is served as the centerpiece of the meal, rather than the beginning of it. This soup (which is also made with chicken) is often served on weekdays, but it is especially common for Friday night dinner; it can also be kept warm overnight and served for Saturday lunch. Said Tzippi Said, who has been the chef at Rectangles, the kosher Yemenite restaurant in New York’s East Village, since its opening in 1987, “My father would eat this soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, he loved it so much.”

Marak Temani (Yemenite Beef Soup)

2 beef marrow bones

2 onions, sliced

1 tbsp. chopped cilantro

10 cups water

1 pound beef stew, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tsp. hawaij (please see preceding recipe)

2 tsp. salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1. Combine the bones, onions, cilantro and water in a soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Skim any foam off the surface as it develops.
2. Add the beef, hawaij, salt and pepper, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is nearly tender, about 1 hour. Skim any foam off the surface as it develops.
3. Add the potatoes and carrots and continue cooking until the potatoes are soft and the meat is fully tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the bones before serving. Serve accompanied with slices of pita bread.

Serves 8.

As was discussed in the previous “Food Maven” column, from the ninth to the 10th centuries a group of Jewish merchants known as the Radanites held a virtual monopoly on all spices traded in Europe. The Radanites were the only traders accepted by both Christian- and Muslim-controlled Europe, and thus the only ones who enjoyed freedom of movement; this freedom they used to the fullest, working four complicated and incredibly long trade routes stretching from Europe through North Africa, the Middle East, India and China. From the west the Radanites brought cloth, furs, swords, eunuchs and female slaves; from the east they carried back numerous varieties of exotic spices. For a period of more than a hundred years, the Radanites were the source of virtually every bit of spice entering Christian Europe; however, by the 11th century the blocked trade routes had been reopened to everyone, and the Radanites, their services no longer necessary, fell into an obscurity that has lasted until our own day.

At the beginning of the 16th century, however, another group of Jewish traders rose to prominence when Portugal opened a direct sea route with East India. (One of the ships sent with Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1502 was paid for by the Marrano trader Rui de Brito Mendes and three years later he sent another three ships.) Sephardic spice merchants plied their trade in Lisbon and, to the north, in Antwerp — in northern Europe, Jews controlled a large part of the market for pepper and other spices — and later, with the ascension of the Dutch armada, in Amsterdam as well. According to several accounts from the era, of the 16 major spice importers in Amsterdam in 1612, 11 were Sephardic Jews.

Undoubtedly the overwhelming percentage of the buyers of these spices were not Jewish; however, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa had been adding spices to their food since ancient times, and this continued to be true throughout much of the modern Diaspora — though by no means all of it. The use of spices was far more prevalent among the Sephardim than the Ashkenazim (especially those of the East), for whom most spices were prohibitively rare and expensive. About the only ones used to any extent in the Eastern European Jewish kitchen were garlic and black pepper, although farther south, in Hungary and Romania, paprika and certain other spices could be found as well. Compare this with the profusion of spices used by the Bene Israel Jews of western India, where spice plants grow in abundance: all of the aromatic “C” spices — cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander and cumin — plus turmeric, nutmeg, ginger, garlic and a host of others.

Though as a rule Sephardic cooking uses more spices than does Ashkenazic, this is about the only generalization that can be made on the subject. There is a wide variance in the use of spices across the Sephardic world; in fact, it is often possible to differentiate specific cuisines not just by the local ingredients but by the favored spicings as well. In Morocco, for instance, the greatness of the cuisine comes in large part from a delicate balancing of spices including, among others, turmeric (or saffron, for color as well as taste), ginger, cumin, paprika, coriander and cinnamon. In nearby Tunisia there is less complex spicing, more emphasis on cumin and caraway, and the addition of heat with a red chili paste called harissa. Among the Jews of Yemen the fiery-hot paste is called z’houg, made from green chilies; the truly distinctive flavor of Yemenite cuisine, however, comes from the all-purpose spice mixture called hawaij, which has numerous variations but generally features turmeric, black pepper, cumin, coriander and cardamom. In the Middle East, Syrians like to flavor meat dishes with cinnamon and allspice, while cardamom is more common in Iraq, and Iranian cooking is notable in part for what it does not include: garlic, a mainstay in the kitchen almost everywhere else.

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