The closest we armchair travellers normally get to the olfactory sensation of walking through the globe’s most fragrant souks is opening the doors of our spice cupboards. The bottles may be sealed shut but the aroma of their contents —cardamom and cumin, cinnamon and saffron, turmeric and vanilla — wafts towards our nostrils and for a brief moment we are not in our kitchens but strolling through the spice markets of Arabia, Asia or Africa.
In the second week of August, the Tucson community, the Greater Southwest, indigenous peoples and farmers everywhere lost a good friend, an extraordinary seed saver and a historian of Southwest food and farming folkways.
Dr. Barney T. Burns was far more than a co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH. He spent over four decades linking native farmers and artisans to the audiences, human rights support networks, and applied scholars who cared about them and their future.
Gary Paul Nabhan weaves a fascinating story in his new book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. He tracks the pathways along which traders carried spices — piquant and pungent, delicious and dreamy — from their places of origin to the rest of the world. His account is peppered with recipes as well as essays on cardamom, cloves, Damascus rose, saffron, vanilla, tuocha pu-erh, and 20 other spices.
Nabhan delves into the origins of globalization; the “ecological imperialism” that began with Old World-New World trade in the 15th century; and recent lapses of cross-cultural civility, especially involving ethnic groups that collaborated to transport spices to far-flung locales for the pleasure of all.
A colleague of mine, ethnobotanist and food historian Gene Anderson, found a remarkable coincidence: an Arab/Persian lamb and garbanzo bean stew recipe that he and colleagues recorded in their Mongolian medicinal cookbook, Soup for the Qan, also made its way half way around the world to Hispanic communities in Northern New Mexico.
Only one ingredient, mastic (which was unavailable in New Mexico at the time), was different.