Nature allowed each of us to taste an infinite variety of flavors, a promise of powerful or delicate aromas: spices. In Arabic, they are called baharat.
What is a spice?
The word spice comes from the Latin species, which means “substance”, and appeared at the end of the 12th century. It refers to an aromatic substance which comes from a plant.
It is used as seasoning in the kitchen, especially for sauces. In 1908, the International Congress for fraud control gathered in Geneva and defined spices as “substances coming from plants, indigenous or exotic, aromatic or with a hot flavor, spicy, used to enhance food taste, or to add some of the stimulating properties they possess”.
Spices should not be confused with herbs, such as thyme or laurel. They should also be distinguished from some condiments, those that are manufactured such as mustard, or pickled such as capers and pickles.
What is baharat?
In Arabic, baharat means “spices” and it also is the word used to describe a spice blend in the Middle East.
The Arabic word baharat has Indian origins and is very likely coming from the old name for India “Bhârat”.
Indeed, the Republic of India is also known as Bhârat, which was originally the name of a legendary king in Hindi mythology, the first and only to conquer and unite the entire Indian subcontinent into a single entity called Bhâratavarsa.
India was the main producer and trader of spices in the world. It was the main trade partner of the Middle East from 700 to 1400 A.D, which explains the name of this spice blend.
Baharat is made of black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon, saffron, cardamom, paprika, nutmeg and noomi basra (dried lime), to which are sometimes added some dried rosebuds.
What is the history of spices?
The history of spices is as old as that of the world. Almost 5000 types of spices had already been discovered 3000 years before Jesus Christ.
One of the most famous texts of the Bible, the Song of Songs, speaks of a wonderful garden where aromatic plants grew.
In this text glorifying the love between God and his people, nard, saffron, aromatic cane and cinnamon are mentioned:
“Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
With choice fruits, henna with nard plants,
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.
You are a garden spring,
A well of fresh water,
And streams flowing from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind,
And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance,
Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden
And eat its choice fruits!”
The spices that remind us so much of magic powders, come from the roots, flowers, fruits, barks, seeds and leaves of plants or vegetables.
This fascinating and mysterious world, which transforms us into wizards for any dish, comes from very ancient times, from ancient people such as the Sumerians and the Egyptians, who largely used them as medicine, but also in the kitchen and as cosmetics.
The search for spices has led to the discovery and subjugation of continents as well as to the founding and collapse of empires.
The use of spices is older than written history; archaeologists have discovered that they were already being used by ancient civilizations.
China used cinnamon 3000 B.C and ancient Egyptians already used spices for embalming.
Evidence was found that even the Romans spent fortunes in their purchases, especially of cinnamon and cloves, that they used for the preservation of meat and fish.
Symbols of luxury and extreme refinement, promises of subtle or unusual flavors, providers of benefits for the body, spices have been as sought after as gold. They were indeed considered as a commodity and thus were one of the most important commercial commodities.
The spice route
Set routes have been created, by sea and by land, called the “spice routes” which connected Europe to the East.
Under the adventurous name of “spice route”, we can find a sea route that leads to India. In the Middle Ages, its discovery was a revolution in itself.
Spices have known a real period of fame. Nobles bought them to showcase their wealth on their kitchen table.
At any rate, long trips have been made in the name of these mysterious and remote products which opened the way to many uncharted and thus wonderful worlds.
It should be noted that Italy, for example, has played an important role in the spice trade first through Rome, then the Maritime republics, Venice first. All of the Eastern spices went through Venice and from there, gold and silver were sent to the Arabs and the Indians.
At the end of the Middle Ages, the most exotic spices had been transported from Asia to Europe. Since these exotic spices had a great commercial value, explorers tried to find new itineraries that would be more economical.
Thanks to the campaigns of Alexander the Great which reached all the way to the borders of India, spices such as pepper and cinnamon became more and more popular and famous in Europe. Spices have always been expensive but their price mostly exploded at the end of the Middle Ages.
From the 10th century onwards, the spice trade belonged to the Arabs. At that time, spices were only imported by land from the Arabic territory to Europe.
Through this route, goods traveled from one intermediary to another until they arrived in Europe.
To go around the costly intermediaries, merchants started trying to find a more direct sea route to the countries where pepper, cinnamon and cloves originated.
These considerations led Portuguese royalty to send an exploration expedition. In July 1497, the great navigator Vasco da Gama started exploring the route to India to find spices.
Da Gama navigated from Lisbon to the Cape of Good Hope and kept going up the east coast of Africa onto the Arabian Sea to finally reach the Antilles.
After having navigated around India and the Ceylon region, he reached the Bay of Bengal and the Straits of Malacca by going through Sonda and Banda before reaching the “Spice Islands” known today as the Maluku islands, an archipelago east of Indonesia.
During this trip, in 1498, Vasco da Gama and his men became the first Europeans to navigate the Indian coast of Malabar. He struck commercial deals in India and returned to Lisbon in 1499 with a ship full to the brim with spices.
In a matter of a few decades, half of the Asian spice trade went through this sea route, the spice route, and Vasco da Gama who had joined the high nobility by order of the Portuguese royal court was also named viceroy of the Indies.
This spice route was undoubtedly the first example of commercial and alimentary globalization. It changed the rules of economy and gastronomy on a global scale.
Today, now that everything is accessible and can be bought at the supermarket, at the mall, or even on a website, it can seem strange that products such as saffron, pepper or ginger were once as precious as gold, or even more.
The spice journey
Let’s discover which adventurous trips helped spread some of the most popular spices:
It originated from Levant countries, from the Nile valley and Anatolia. Its use can be traced back to Egypt, more than 5000 years ago.
Originating from Sri Lanka and Southeast India, cinnamon has been imported to the west in medieval caravans. During the 17th century, the Dutch in particular imported the spice permanently from Sri Lanka so that they would become the first importing country in Europe.
Originating from Southeast Asia, cardamom first got introduced in Europe by Arabic merchants who then exported it to Greece and ancient Rome.
It comes from the Banda islands, east of Indonesia. The nutmeg trade started in the 16th century, with the Portuguese expeditions, although the spice had already been available in Europe in small quantities since the 13th century.
Black pepper comes from West India. When Alexander the Great conquered Asia during the 6th century B.C, caravan routes opened the way west for pepper and the route between India and Europe stayed the same for centuries in the pepper trade.
It originates from South America. Its plant has been imported from America by Christopher Columbus and was quickly adapted to every type of climate.
Originally from India and Africa, the first evidence of sesame cultivation is found in the Middle East 3000 B.C, and a few centuries later, sesame spread to Greece and Rome.
Originally from the south of China, ginger has traveled over the centuries from Asia to America, as well as through the Arab world and was exported by the Portuguese to South America.
Originally from Indonesia, the first clove trip was to the island of Ternate in China, 2500 years ago; the Chinese were the first to discover it.
Originally from the Mediterranean region, the Romans spread fennel and its use throughout continental Europe.
Originally from Crete, it was probably introduced in Europe by the Moors who, in the 10th century, contributed to its spread in North Africa and Spain.
Originally from China, licorice was a valuable traveling companion for the Scythians, a nomadic population who, in the 7th century B.C, ate goat cheese and licorice and could walk for hours in the desert without suffering from thirst.
Originally from Mediterranean countries, parsley seems to have been spread by the Romans throughout Europe, starting from what is known today as Germany.
What is dried lime?
And now let’s talk in a bit more detail about this dried lime, noomi basra, used in the recipe for baharat.
Dried lime is also called black lime, noomi basra in Iraq, limoo amani in Iran and limoo in Oman. Dried lime is a lime that has lost its water content after having spent a majority of its drying time in the sun. They are used whole, sliced or ground, as a spice in Middle Eastern dishes.
Originating in the Persian Gulf, dried limes are popular in cuisines across the Middle East.
Its Iraqi name, noomi basra, “lemon of Basra”, comes from the fact that the dried citrus came to Iraq from the Sultanate of Oman through the only Iraqi port in the city of Basra.
It is thanks to the Sultanate of Oman that the drying technique of the small black lemon was developed.
To reduce these small dried limes to powder, they have to be cut in half. Then, the small seeds must all be removed since they are very bitter. They then should be ground in a coffee grinder, with a mortar and pestle, or in a blender until they turn into a very fine powder. They should always be reduced into powder at the last minute, because lime loses its flavor and properties very quickly, it is thus best to avoid buying it already ground.
As a powder, it is added in the beginning, middle or end of a preparation so as to preserve its aroma. Allow one teaspoon per person.
Traditionally, this dried lime is used to flavor soups and stews in Arabic countries. It is used as seasoning in the flagship Iranian dish : ghormeh sabzi.
In India, it is sprinkled in the cooking water of rice, on vegetables, and is part of the recipe for lime pickle.
In Iraq, it is used in every dish, in many beverages, and especially in stuffing. In Turkey, it is sometimes used in place of sumac since the two spices have similar flavors.
“God made food; the devil made the cooks”. If we focus on the history of spices, this famous quote by James Joyce, an Irish writer and poet, considered as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, rings true: since ancient Egypt, men have indeed used diplomacy and violence to get a hold of these famous spices.
But these powerful spices each contain the charm and exotic mystery of their home country. They conjure up the distant lands, flavors, colors and aromas, both familiar and mysterious, they have the magical power of transporting us far away and to recreate atmospheres from the “Arabian Nights”.
Travel far away, to the countries of baharat, this wonderful mix that you will adopt in no time!
This recipe is validated by our expert in Iraqi cuisine Nawal Nasrallah. An award-winning researcher and food writer, Nawal is the author of the definitive cookbook on the Iraqi cuisine Delights from the Garden of Eden.
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorn
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
- ½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
- 1½ tablespoons paprika
- 1 stick cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 2 dried limes (noomi basra)
- 4 rosebuds (optional)
- Heat up a small frying pan over medium-high heat and roast the pepper, cumin and coriander seeds as well as the rosebuds, cardamom, and cloves, for about 4 minutes while stirring constantly.
- Let everything cool completely.
- Meanwhile, cut the dried limes in half, and remove all the seeds (very bitter).
Grind all the ingredients in a blender, coffee grinder or mortar until you get a fine powder. Store in a glass jar away from light.