Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Cumin, Camels, and Caravans": A Review

Gary Paul Nabhan writes very complex books. His latest, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, may be even more complex than the earlier ones I've read. However, I'm finding it very much worth the effort.

Family, identity, travel, political history, cuisine, sensory experience of spices, roles of many ethnic groups, and globalization -- Nabhan covers all these topics in every chapter.

Each chapter begins with a narrative about travel, history, and spice trade. By visiting many locations where ancient spice routes once existed and meeting local contacts, Naban pursued a search for his own identity. His family descended from the ancient Nabateans, a clan that originated in Yemen and now has members worldwide. In each chapter, he searches out other members of his clan when he can, in souks, in run-down neighborhoods, or wherever his guides would take him.

When he finds distant cousins, his interactions are interesting. When he can't find any distant relatives, it's often for a good reason. For example, the possible Nabhan kin he had identified in Tajikistan turned out to be arms dealers working on the Afghan border: not very safe for an American like Nabhan to meet (Kindle location 2929). Despite his affinity for his clan, he's actually a second or third-generation Lebanese American professor, agriculture researcher, and conservationist, and his identity very much reflects these activities and his life in the American Southwest.

As Nabhan visits and follows the spice routes, he presents their history in chronological order. Each chapter advances the historic record of trade and interaction of various ethnic people. Fascinating: as early as ancient Egyptian times, groups who engaged in long-distance trade transformed from rooted agriculturalists to long-distance travelers. Their religions changed, maybe, from beliefs rooted in a locale to belief in more universal deities; especially those of Jews and later Arabs. And skillful spice dealers over time learned to tell tales to make their products more appealing. Nabhan explores many obscure locations in China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Nabhan's consciousness of Jewish role in spice trade especially interested me, for example his references to early Jewish caravan traders in the Middle East, Europe, and China; to medieval travelers like Benjamin of Tudela at the end of the twelfth century; and to the secret Jews after 1492, especially enormously wealthy business woman Dona Gracia Nasi during the sixteenth century. A search for secret Jews descended from Spanish colonialists in the Southwestern US is another line of inquiry in the book.

Following the historic and travel narratives, every chapter includes one or more information boxes about a single spice. Nabhan includes a description of how the spice looks, how it tastes, where it originated, how it spread to various parts of the world, how it grows, and its uses. And spices have so many uses including, obviously, to flavor foods, but also to cure or prevent illness, to add to incense, and to be used in perfume, hair products, or body oil. To illustrate the level of detail: at the end of Chapter 8, "The Crumbling of Convivencia and the Rise of Transnational Guilds," there's a box titled "Coriander - Cilantro" which describes the flavor of coriander leaves as having:
"a citruslike aroma complemented by notes of sage and freshly cut grass. Their pyrazine-rich flavors are warm and somewhat nutty, with floral undertones that have been likened to lemon or orange blossoms. Although the flat parsleylike leaves of the coriander plant are known as cilantro in much of the world today, they have an entirely different flavor, which some people, perhaps by genetic disposition, find agreeable and others repugnant." 
Nabhan continues with the history of coriander, which was first mentioned as "a medical plant in an Egyptian papyrus dating from 2500 to 1550 BCE." He discusses the words used for coriander in various language, and what these words tell us. And concludes by mentioning that "Today, coriander seeds are essential ingredients in Indian curries and garma masala, Yemeni zhoug, Ethiopian berbere, Moroccan ras el hanout, and baharat mixes throughout the Arab world." So much information about just one of the 25 spices he describes in these text boxes! (Kindle location 4076 to 4106)

After the spice descriptions, at the end of every chapter is a recipe chosen for its relation to the themes of history and globalized spice in cuisine. The recipe at the end of the first chapter is particularly a tour de force. This lamb and garbanzo bean stew, he says, "may have emerged at different times in multiple places, but it clearly spread with Arab and Persian influence as far east as Mongolia, and with Jewish and Arab-Berber influence as far west as the Hispanic communities of Mexico."  Nabhan found nearly identical versions of this recipe in two incredibly separated places. The first version he cites was collected in 1939 in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, and elaborated by Paula Wolfert in connection with Moroccan cuisine. The second version he cites was included in a set of medical dietary recipes written down in China by Hu Szu-hui in the early 1300s. Nabhan's introductory chapter presents a number of reasons why the same recipe in two seemingly unrelated times/places was not a coincidence, but a result of the worldwide spice trade that he's exploring. (Kindle location 473)

To summarize my experience: I had to read Nabhan's book Why Some Like it Hot twice to figure out what it was about as I wrote here. I did that with this book too.


Jeanie said...

I can see why you had to read twice -- it sounds very dense and with incredible information. But fascinating. I'm imagining all the smells from the spice market I visited Friday and thinking how divine to know the stories, too!

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

An interesting read. I love spices and learning more about their origins.