An Ode to Spices

Categories Food, Jordan, Morocco, Myanmar (Burma), Personal Musings, Where Have I Been?

I discovered spices in 2002, when I was living in the South of France. Not content with the fresh produce in my temporary home of Aix-en-Provence, I was drawn to the bright colours piled high and sold in a corner of the market. With a British mother and a Polish father, spices never figured prominently in my childhood cuisine and the pungent smells were fascinating to me.  The man who sold the spices was Moroccan, and would quietly watch for days as I picked up my daily fruit. I always drifted by his stall, closing my eyes to take in the smells. After a week, he finally broke his silence. “You’re never going to buy anything, are you?”

It caught me off guard; I could only laugh and shrug my shoulders sheepishly. “I’m living in university dorms – I don’t even have a kitchen!” But I needed to understand why these spices smelled the way they did and what they were used for. And I offered up a trade: I would teach him English to use with the tourists in town, and he would teach me about spices.

Tumeric in BurmaTumeric at a market in Inle Lake, Burma

A routine fell into place during my later months in Aix. On the days without morning classes, I would swing by the market for a crash course in cumin. I’d skip Economic Integration Law to learn about tagine and the complicated thread of flavours that made it the beautiful dish that it is – one spice changed, one ingredient moved around and it become a different taste altogether. Nestled in clay, a multitude of possibilities unfolded. With an intricate blend of cinnamon and tumeric, saffron and paprika and the crème de la crème, the spice blend of Ras-el-hanout, my hands (and nostrils) were full. Ras-el-hanout in particular was mystifying: mixing dozens of spices, up to 30 or more in some cases, the complicated subtleties of the blend was a point of pride for spice vendors. This was a far cry from my usual, casual salt and pepper dusting. This was a whole new world. It slowly became apparent, long before I discovered the wondrous prose of Tahir Shah, that I needed to go to Morocco.

Peppercorns from JordanMulticoloured peppercorns from Jordan

I spent mere days in the country, forced back to Aix for my final exams (in economic integration law, no less). But in my brief time in Marrakesh, I was awash in souks and smells and newfound tastes and returned to France with a deep appreciation for the building blocks of food.

To think that one egg (one simple egg!) could become a thousand dishes merely by adding aromas and spices was an obvious discovery. But the way that we see food in North America doesn’t account for this simple calculus. While attitudes toward food are changing in some spheres, the general gist remains the same. With time as a valuable commodity on many levels, processed, packaged food is easiest and often cheapest. And with farm-to-table culture remaining more expensive than the alternative, those building blocks of food fade into the background. Spices were my first foray into discovering that the way I saw food was altogether twisted. And my love affair with all things edible – built on a fundamental respect for those fragrant bundles that made it taste so good – really took form.

It’s no surprise that my goodbye party from Aix-en-Provence consisted of a huge Moroccan feast.

Fuul from JordanFuul from Jordan, topped with sumac and za’atar

Fortuitously, my discovery of spices coincided with a forced change in my eating habits. Shortly after arriving in France, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, a condition that required me to cut out all gluten from my diet. Meaning that I’d be unable to eat bread in a country renowned for its baking prowess. The diagnosis came after months of weakness and exhaustion; having never heard of celiac prior, I had no idea what was making me so tired. My first instinct was to cut back on dairy (my mother is lactose intolerant) and increase my bread intake. Of course, this was a terrible idea. Severe anemia, a nutrient deficiency, general sleep deprivation and lots of stomach issues followed. By the time I went to the hospital for testing, I had lost 15 pounds and was too tired to walk up the stairs to my room on the 4th floor.

With my diet now severely hampered by the diagnosis, I needed to get creative with what I could eat, and happily I had the mechanism to do just that. I could add garlic and rosemary and paprika to chicken, or I could add cumin and coriander and lemongrass to chicken. Two entirely distinct meals, each with their own associated thought patterns and backgrounds. Giddy with the possibilities, spices managed to negate the thundercloud of negativity surrounding this big change in my eating habits. I started running, for the first time in my life. I started watching the glycemic index in the foods I ate. And I started to read what I could about complexity of taste in food.

Spices in Burmese MarketSpice stalls at the market in Inle Lake, Burma

When I started working in New York in 2003, my newfound passion fell to the wayside. In those intervening years, the ones between France and my current travels, I cared about food (just ask any of my friends who were stuck eating with me when I didn’t enjoy the meal) but the intensity was lost. With the pleasure of slowness taken out of my meals, I stopped honing in the brightness and tastes. I’d occasionally talk about wanting to write a book about the history of saffron or how spices make our lives better, but my heart wasn’t in it.

And then I quit my job, started travelling and fell in love with spices all over again.

Chilli Ladder in Northern Laos Chilli Ladder in Laos.

It has been almost a decade since France, and each time I walk into a market, I can easily reach the newness and excitement that I felt back in Aix-en-Provence. I’ve still got celiac disease, but I’m not as diligent about it as I ought to be – during my time in Jordan, I couldn’t resist the soft, piping hot Bedouin bread, cooked on a saj right in front of me. I paid for that in spades, but my stomach pain was mitigated by the fact that I was back in a land of spices, back to the knowledge that food could be a pleasure even though much of it was off limits. Instead of Ras-el-hanout, I inhaled piles of za’atar, a blend of sumac and thyme, sesame and oregano, each vendor’s recipe different from the next.

Zata'ar in JordanTwo different types of za’atar spice mix (with turmeric and cinnamon in the background)

Breakfast in Amman - manakeesh and fresh vegetablesBreakfast in Amman, pita covered in za’atar and labne (one that my tastebuds loved but my stomach rejected).

Most of the time, however, I do what I’m supposed to do and avoid gluten, something easily accomplished in my primary geographic focus of Southeast Asia. Instead of spices and thrilling accoutrements like pomegranate molasses, Asia opens up a whole different set of tastes and themes. Hot, salty, sour and sweet, with each dish tasting more like something than I can ever adequately explain. The solid, tangible tastefulness is hard to impart, as knowledge goes. Most people don’t understand the infinite wonder and my choice to spend days roaming through markets and watching people cook under a hot fire. I do often see the sights, but all the while I’m itching to get back to the food. These colourful creations, each evoking stronger memories than anything I could get at home, effortlessly made in front of me and overwhelmingly flavourful. And yet, chilli and sauces and fresh herbs are piled atop the plate after it is served, adding layers of seasoning on an already-seasoned dish. Instead of a mishmash of chaotic flavours, it all balances out.

Years after my arrival to Asia, I have so much to learn.

Fresh herbs at the Pa-O market on Inle LakeFresh herbs at a market in Burma

Spices Inle LakeSpices at a market in Bangkok

Street food figures prominently in my travels not just because it is an ideal way to connect with locals but also because I am genuinely fascinated by the naturalness of creation that goes into roadside cooking. That one can whip up a complicated dish of curry and meat and egg and spices in minutes, with the same basics we use at home but with neverending flavour sets, brings a big smile to my face. And with each completely balanced dish emerging out of one sole wok in Asia, I can’t help but think back to where it all began for me. The magic of the tagine, one clay pot holding secrets to a series of foods I never knew existed.

SumacSumac: strong, flavourful & used in an incredible array of dishes in the Middle East

Author’s note: When I started this site, I rarely wrote about food; it was less of a priority than it is now. But as Legal Nomads has grown, my travels have tipped into food more than ever before and I’ve started posting about my culinary experiences. As I’ve honed in on the types of travel and writing that I feel passionate about, food crops up startlingly often. I am now accustomed to fellow travellers looking at me askew when I veer off into some intense, angst-y tangent about kaffir lime leaves.

So what’s next? Leading street food tours in Asia? A book about sumac? A restaurant serving one sole dish, prepared a myriad of ways using different condiments? The possibilities are endless, so long as one of my projects involves food. I love to travel, to soak in chaos and movement and the pulse of a new place. But the nut graph has shifted from from pure travel to experiencing places through food. No matter where I am, I’d be smiling with only a clay pot and a pile of spices to call my own.

-Jodi

74 comments to An Ode to Spices

  1. What a deeply insightful post. Or a post about some deep insight.

    I love it. We’ve just decided we’re going to do our own travel the world thing in a year’s time. I can’t wait to fall back in love with food.

    • Glad to hear you’ll be taking the Langdon show on the road! Is Montreal still on the list? If so, plenty of resto recommendations for you, in a variety of food groups. Looking forward to reading about your travels!

  2. I’ve just discovered your blog and am excited by your descriptions. I’ve done quite a bit of travel through Asia, but my partner hasn’t shared my joy of food in the same way and i’m now living vicariously through your writing and my memories.

    Last week I discovered at my local shopping centre in Sydney the very Vietnamese baguette with pate, pork, herbs and chilli you have described. After many moments of bliss and internal (and outloud to my baby!) about the perfect combination of sweet, sour, fresh and hot, my tongue was set on fire by the masses of chilli hidden in ‘all the salad’. Reading back-pages last night of your website has got me yearning for this sensation again today. I know where to go.

    Goood luck with your travels and long may you continue to document them here!

    • I understand completely. Many people in my immediate family appreciate good food, but they don’t seek it out or get as excited as I do when I have a great meal. It’s pretty incredible to eat something once and then, years later, have the same combination of tastes and get transported back to where it began for you. Have you seen Naomi Duguid’s Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet cookbook? I did a Q&A with her here on Legal Nomads. Incredible, lovingly crafted book.

  3. How beautifully written and photographed!

    I loved the part about exchanging knowledge with the Moroccan man you met in France. It proves that both language and food are two of the largest bridges that cross the gaps between cultures. Inspiring.

    • That’s very true! And my initial experience (and its success) led me to do something similar in later travels, bringing people from my hostel to eat at a street stall in exchange for shadowing the stall for a few days, in order to learn what they made and how they made it. I never wrote about it here, but it’s been a true pleasure in my travels, and a great way to understand more about what makes a place tick.

  4. Brava, Jodi! Your passion for the topic is evident in every photo, every line. I love that story about the spice seller. Yes, I do think carving a business niche for yourself that involves food (and possibly travel) would make a ton of sense. Is there a Foods of Asia cookbook in your future? Hmm….

    • Thank you Gray! You’ve wandered through the streets of Paris in search of food with me, so you know how much I talk about it :) I’m not sure about a cookbook, but a recipe per chapter talking about a specific country? That might be nice…

  5. Going on the strength of this post I truly hope you write a book on spice. Great writing, Jodi.

  6. Love this post, Jodi. And the pictures! If you ever get a chance to go to Addis Ababa, check out the Mercato Market. They sell some wild African spices there–bought a kilogram of one called Mitmite. Spicy and delicious. The spice market in Istanbul is also a favorite. Have you read the book, Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner? Dense, but you’d dig it.

    • Yes, great read! Enjoyed it thoroughly. There are so many countries I have yet to experience, and you can bet I plan them out based on food. Thanks for the suggestions and safe travels to you!

  7. Great post! I really enjoyed reading this, and not only because I’m travelling with my four kids who are all coeliac, too.

    • Wow four kids with celiac! I’d be curious to know how you make this work on the road. Is Asia your easiest country to travel with them, too? I’ve found that Italy was extremely sympathetic to celiac, but had a hard time with the tapas in Spain (mostly because I was tempted to just lick all the bread, it looked so good).

  8. Beautifully-crafted post! But it makes me hungry . . .

  9. When Dan and I lived in Prague, we brought back spices from the markets in every place we visited. It was an impressive collection, but what made it even more meaningful was that each spice had a story, a market, a conversation behind it. A few nights before we had to leave our apartment, we invited foodie friends over, opened some bottles of wine and divided our spice collection amongst friends. It was the hardest thing we had to get rid of when we left Prague for this journey.

    I can definitely understand how spices, flavors, combinations can fascinate and draw you in to want to learn more and more. To me, the book idea about sumac sounds fascinating – as you research and learn about one spice, a whole new world of history and culture will open up. Look forward to reading it one day.

    • That’s a lovely way to leave the city, with your friends using the spices that came with a story of their own. I know you and Dan feel as strongly about food as I do! We need to get more meals together like the ones we had in Bangkok.

  10. No joking, my mouth actually started watering when you described the distinct ways to make chicken.

  11. i love this – because, really, food is so very important and makes the world go around. food is the language of love, friendship, joy, life. and spices? yes, they are the foundation. brava!

  12. I love this post! I love spices, but don’t know nearly enough about them. So…. will you write that book on spices? Or write a series of posts? Either way, I’m in :)

  13. Jodles,

    Please to write about ‘saucisson sec’ and the infinite varieties thereof. Yum.

    T

    • Oh that would be an excellent taste test. You won’t need to twist my arm to do some research for that, Tony. When I’m in Toronto later this summer, we’ll just have to do a saucisson-run to see what’s in town.

  14. Awesome post Jodi! The best travel writing and photography takes us on a journey as we read and this entry did just that for me. It felt like a mini-trip with breakfast! I’m hungry now AND ready to hop on a plane to Marrakesh! Thanks much.

  15. While I don’t pay much attention to food and spices when I travel, visiting markets in other countries is an interesting look at the delicacies and local flavors. While in Budapest, purchased some paprika which was very cheap compared to the US. As I have started to cook a little more, I tend to be a bit more simple in the flavors that I choose but like you, I enjoy the various array of spices and flavors that I can add to chicken.

    As for the celiac disease, that’s tough to deal with. I heard someone talking about this the other day. I didn’t realize you went through all of those health issues years ago. However, it’s great that this disease became a sort of outlet to discover spices and making old foods new again!

    • Thanks Jer. I’m definitely less diligent than I should be when it comes to celiac, but it’s something I can’t ignore either (since I pay for it when I do!).

  16. What an eloquent post! Whenever I travel somewhere and I wander past their local spice market I’m always inspired to learn more. Spices are so beautiful to photograph!!!

  17. That initial trade that led you down the path to where you now envelope your readers in a bouquet of exotic scents and color, is a brilliant example of how we live to learn. it goes without saying that food figures prominently in our survival. It is always a pleasure, though, to see it featured prominently in the way we love to live. Thank you for this fantastic post!

    • Thank you Karla. Food is important to all of us, but obviously everyone has their priorities – for me, what we eat has been climbing that priority ladder for quite some time. Glad you enjoyed!

  18. Great post Jodi. I make it a priority in my day-to-day life to do everything differently … change is good! Activities, adventures, and food are the usual changes, but I never considered spices! Hmmm, “Food” for thought …

    Thanks Jodi!

  19. I appreciate your passion! Morocco is an amazing place & the colors so vibrant. I’d love to spend some time in Asia The food in your pictures looks amazing and this post was a joy to read. Thank you for the virtual adventure! If you’d like to see some photos of Morocco, let me know – I’d be happy to share!

  20. Jodi, I adore this post! Thank you, thank you, for sharing your tales and perspective… My food choices have changed and grown over the past several years, and discovering the rich legacy of spices and indigenous cooking has spurred on many of our travel plans for our coming trip around the globe. Hopefully 2012 will bring even more first-hand experiences (and tastes!)… Thank you for sharing your inspirations with the world!

  21. The narrative is dead. Long live the narrative!

    How great is this? And I’m so glad you put it up – I’ve recently started a sort of culinary journey myself, and it’s leading me to some interesting discoveries. Since this is MY comments section I’m gonna tell you about it.

    A couple weeks ago I began a low-alkaline diet prescribed by a Tibetan Reiki practitioner who left me, when the dust cleared, with food choices nearly polar opposite to what I’d been eating pretty much my whole life since high school. The initial frustration I felt with the limitations of the diet was replaced with a new found respect for complex food and a surprising freshness of cooking options I hadn’t even considered before: fresh, decidedly not processed, organically grown, nutrition-based foods I could actually take pride in having on my plate. It’s allowing me a whole new approach to eating, which, and you’re absolutely right, isn’t just about survival but a way to experience life in a new and elevated way. Eating, and so many people forget this, is one of the vital experiences we can have during the course of a day, so it makes sense to approach it like we approach anything of great importance, with reverence. Your experiences with spices and their fragrances mirrors the experience we can have with anything of value in life.

    I’m pretty sure your time in Aix (I love that town by the way – I was there in June and my wife lived there for a year) allowed you an introduction into new ways to revere the complexities of the palate. With my new respect for food I’m finally starting to appreciate this.

    This post looks good on you Jodi, thanks for sharing it.

    • Thanks for sharing Nico! As others have said in the comments, eating is something that braids through our days no matter where we are (the need for it or the necessity to build it into our lives) and it can be everything from frustrating to beautiful depending on how we approach it. Best of luck with the new food changes! Good that you’re in SF where you can find the kinds of specific foodstuffs you need. Bon appetit!

  22. Marvelous post both content and writing! Happily I had an absolutely wonderful lunch in a new Lebanese restaurant today. Otherwise I think I would be heading out the door to go there right now! The way you wrote brought all the wonderful flavors of cumin and cinnamon and parsley and everything back!

  23. Thanks for the post. My wife has celiac, and Thai food being largely gluten free has opened up a whole world for us.

  24. On June 22, 2011 at 7:56 pm Marlene Hensler said:

    I love “An Ode to Spices” and the lovely pictures. You write so beautifully!!

  25. Beautifully written, your journey through spices is very fascinating. I love spices and how they can enhance the taste of a dish. I too was mesmerized by a spice market in France, in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence, and I bought so many, even before knowing how to use them. Cooking with spices is not only tasty, is more inspiring altogether.
    Now I’m looking forward to your book on spices and, of course, your restaurant! ;)

  26. Jodi, your passion for food really comes through in this post and I think it’s some of your best writing. I would totally sign up for a street food tour with you. Can’t wait to read more posts like this.

  27. Very beautiful pictures and well written content. I seldom read blog posts that are sincere and organized. This post is one of them. This piece is so valuable that it should be published in reputable travel magazines. :-)

    Anyway, I love cooking. And that is the reason why I love spices, especially those that are not so accessible in my country Philippines. Especially here on your posts. I want to explore more about cooking different recipes, local and international. One of my dream is to go abroad and taste and learn different kinds of food. My dream destination is New York and France.:-)

    • Thank you for the kind words. The Philippines were lovely – I spent four months in the country early on in this adventure – but the spices were definitely lacking. My poor brother came to visit in the Philippines and I could only sit and wax poetic about the spices in Thailand. New York is a great destination foodwise because the city and its outer boroughs have so many international options that you’ll never get bored. I’m looking forward to heading back there in a few weeks and eating my way around town! Thanks for reading and I hope you get to taste the world, as planned.

  28. Absolutely gorgeous! I am in love with the spices too, but as for now i didn’t have had a chance to explore them around the world. Salutes from Macedonia

  29. Wow. You’ve got me wanting to go find a spice salesman and taste-test. :)

    I’ve always wanted to buy stuff from them, but have no idea what to use it for. I guess asking for their advice would be a good plan in the future.

  30. This is a sweet article Jodi! I enjoyed reading all the descriptions of the spices and hearing about your tie and connection into the various flavors.

    Spices not only make our food taste outstanding, but I also think they highly improve our sense of happiness (for me, probably for you too). Bland food just doesn’t cut it for us…

    I’m waiting for you to publish your book about spices!

  31. What a surprisingly fragrant and delicious post. One thing that I’m fortunate to be a Southeast Asian is to have all these wonderful spices within my reach whenever I want it. After all, what’s Southeast Asian food without all these spices? And these were the exact commodities that first brought Europeans here from afar. :)

  32. Lovely pictures and spices. Great post i like it:)

  33. Oh, so exquisitely written, as always, and such amazing photographs! I was jolted by your comment that adding even one spice in a different order can make a dish taste entirely different. My adopted family in Nepal has been teaching me to cook Nepali dishes and Sara told me exactly the same thing: “the turmeric (curcuma) must be added before the other spices or the vegetables will not turn yellow and will taste entirely different.”

    Like you, my blog did not originally address food, but the more I travel and focus on cultural subjects, the more I realize that international cuisine is an important part of the mix and I find myself writing about food more often.

    Thanks for this post. Now you must excuse me as I go wipe the drool off my chin.

    • It’s incredible, isn’t it? People who say they don’t like a particular spice often don’t like merely one way that the spice can be used to prepare food. There’s such a vastness to the possible that there is usually at least one dish that’ll please everyone ;) Discovering cultures through food has been a hugely important part of my journey, but as you’ve said one that increases exponentially as I continue to explore. Safe travels, Barbara! Thank you for the kind words.

  34. Gorgeous pics and eloquently written. I love spices too :)

  35. Jodi, the colors are fascinating. I love Indian spices but I am originally from Iran so Sumac and Saffron as well as dried dill, mint, and many other herbs are the staples of Persian foods. Mostly aroma than the hot spices used in Indian foods. Your photos are stunning. Thank you for writing about spices, what a – no play on words but – hot topic :)!

  36. I love your in-praise-of-food posts – I just read the one on Laotian food for the umpteenth time, as my husband and I are hoping to go back to Cambodia, and visit Laos for the first time, later this year. My memories of South East Asia up till now are deliciously infused with the sights, smells, and tastes of the wonderfulness we ate. Thank you for being a constant inspiration!

  37. Just saw this fly by on Twitter again today. That settles it: breaking out some hummus and sumac for lunch — cuz I haven’t got lebne – thanks for rubbing that in ;)

  38. Jodi – I heard you speak at WDS and both then and now (while reading this article) I was struck with how food travel lights you up. So lovely. That lit-uppedness came through in this beautiful piece.

    • Thank you Christine. It’s true that food is something I feel passionate about, and I love sharing the history of why spices and food ended up where they are, and how things evolve. I’m happy that comes across (and even came across when I was extremely nervous onstage!). Have a great rest of the week.

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