Condiments from Around the World (And Why They Matter)

Categories Food, Jordan, Laos, Morocco, Turkey

I grew up in a house where dinnertable discussions centred on historical battles, told either in my mother’s wonderful cadence, with infectious enthusiasm or my father’s perfect-pitch storytelling. Through both, my brother and I were taught to see the world by connecting dots between all the little and seemingly unrelated parts in it.

I never expected to be travelling as long as I have and while I am happy to report that I haven’t lost sight of the wider picture, the tightly stacked memories do tend to blur one into the other after a few years time. However, for some reason, within all of those tangled piles of words and memories and photos, food stands out from everything else. Over the years the most equalizing, fascinating and exciting dots for me to connect have involved what we eat, a way of categorizing our universe in a system I understand. I don’t seem to forget a meal, and have no problem recalling each of the tastes that went into it. When someone asks me about a particular destination, I usually launch into a discussion about what they can eat there instead of what sights are worthwhile to visit. Food figures prominently, but tastes are paramount – what went into the dish to make it special? How did one person cook differently than the next?  And no conversation about taste and flavour is complete without going right down to table level and examining condiments.

Chicken gizzard never tasted so good. At Kismet Muhallebecisi in Istanbul.

Chicken gizzard never tasted so good. A great meal at Kismet Muhallebecisi in Istanbul.

Why Do Condiments Matter?

This summer, I wrote a post called Ode to Spices, explaining that for me food does not just provide a connection to local people, but also an insight into the naturalness of creation that goes into roadside cooking. One egg becomes a multitude things, merely by virtue of two or three other ingredients. The flip side to this coin is to whittle food down to its essential flavours, and then use those flavours as a conduit for learning about history and the cultural quirks of the places I visit. What better place to start than looking at condiments and table spices?

Each country and often towns within them have their own ways of eating, adding extra bits of spice or sourness to an already completed dish. Whereas in North America, condiments are minimal – ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise or steak sauce are as far as most restaurants go – elsewhere they are plentiful, creative and integral to overall enjoyment of the meal. And what we now consider basic table spices were, as many have noted, previously weighed in gold and blood.

Table condiments at a street stall in Marrakesh, Morocco

Table condiments at a street stall in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Tableside Cumin in Morocco

In my recent travels through Morocco, I found myself in a tiny town called Ouarzazate, a gateway to the edges of Morocco’s Sahara. I had just driven across the High Atlas mountains and down to the parched lands below. I wanted to stop for the night in Ouarzazate before making my way to the end of the road, a tiny dusty town called M’Hamid. Because I have celiac disease, Morocco’s foodstuffs are slightly limited; tagines are not an issue but the couscous and breads that accompany them (and are so integral to eating in the country) are off limits. I took to apologetically explaining in French that my stomach couldn’t handle wheat or bread, and could they please make me eggs instead? Luckily, eggs were available in even the most remote of towns, and an omelette was always delivered with a smile.

While waiting for my breakfast omelette in Ouarzazate, I looked down at the table and saw three table condiments waiting for me: cumin, salt and pepper.

Table spices in Ourzazate, Morocco

Table spices in Ourzazate, Morocco.

Pepper has little redeeming nutritional value, but is one of the more historically significant spices of them all, growing as a perennial climbing vine endemic to the lower slopes of the Western Ghats on India’s Malabar coast. Malabar was central to the global spice trade for centuries, in large part due to the pepper harvest. The European discoverers were looking for Malabar when they set off, seeking a new route to a mystical world, one where pepper and other spices (cloves and mace, as well as nutmeg) grew in abundance. Though pepper is now harvested elsewhere too, no examination of the spice is complete without tracing it back to its source in the tropics of India.

We all know salt, of course – also a source of much volatility and fighting over the years. Mark Kurlansky’s book of the same name, Salt, is an ideal micro-history of the mineral and food preservative. I won’t delve into its background here, but I do highly recommend the read. It’s a fascinating snapshot of how history might have been different had salt not existed.

The difference in Morocco, of course, is the cumin. Many of us in North America associate cumin with Mexican food, but the spice originated elsewhere, in Mediterranean countries and in Persia.  And as Jack Turner notes in Spice: A History of Temptation,

Locally produced seasoning had been used in the Mediterranean world since at least the time of the ancient Syrian civilization of Mari, late in the third millennium B.C., where inscriptions on clay tablets record the use of cumin and coriander to flavour beer. When Rome was still a village, Greek cooks knew a host of different seasonings.”

While it is prevalent in many Mexican dishes in North America, Mexican food itself chooses to make use of cumin more sparingly, relying on more traditional staples such as chiles, oregano, cilantro, epazote, cinnamon, and cocoa. Some websites falsely claim cumin an integral ingredient to foods from Mexico, but it has historically been found elsewhere, such as Morocco. In Morocco, cumin is everywhere – when not on the table as in the photo above, a quick wave for the waiter will get you a small bowl filled with the khaki powder and an approving nod, as if to say “one who asks for cumin to accompany their meal clearly knows how to eat food.”

Pickling in Turkey

While the Turkish table often includes the same salt and pepper we’re accustomed to in North America it also houses a tiny jar of chili powder and, inevitably, something pickled. Known as turşu, pickled eats are certainly not isolated to Turkish food, but they are almost everywhere and considered a necessity. As Turkeys for Life notes on their blog, “They are just a fact of life in Turkey. You eat pickles with your food.”

While we tend to think of pickling as relating to pickles themselves, very little is off-limits in pickle-crazy Turkey. Cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, chilis, carrots, onions – you name it, all pickled in grape vinegar, salt and spices. There are even stores where you can bring your produce and pick it up later, pickled to satisfaction.

Pickles as condiments in Istanbul, Turkey

Pickled chilis as condiments in Istanbul, Turkey.

Pickling was historically a way to preserve food for long journeys, to increase the flavour and inject some vitamins into your meal (during the fermentation in pickling, bacteria produce vitamins as they digest vegetable matter and can result in enriched products). Its useful genesis aside, pickled vegetables remain a much-loved condiment in Turkey. While I will write more about the wonderful foods from the country, this historical holdover shouldn’t be ignored. Plus, a jar of bright pickled vegetables on a street stall table is always a welcoming sight.

 Za’atar in Jordan

What cumin is to Morocco, za’atar is to Jordan, available on almost every table and easily accessible if absent. When used in Jordan, za’atar refers to a blend of herbs and spices such as thyme, oregano, savoury and often sumac and sesame. Added in the morning to fresh pita, later on in the day to salads and on meat dishes its prevalence is unmissable. In addition, its history is fascinating because no one seems to be able to agree where it came from. The word za’atar has been used to mean a spice blend from Jordan, Syria or Lebanon, a variety of thyme plant in Egypt (then called saem), and the majorana syriaca plant used so frequently that it has been harvested to the brink of extinction. Digging up a definitive history can lead one as far back as Biblical times, with no clear answers.

When in Jordan, several people told me that za’atar had medicinal properties, that it helped memory sharpness and stomach troubles. The same statements were repeated elsewhere in the Middle East many years ago, when I first tried za’atar around my 13th birthday.  Regardless of provenance (and perhaps a small bit because of it) it’s a delicious addition to any meal.

Za'atar from Jordan

Za'atar from Jordan

A Circle of Flavours in Thailand

Thais tend to customize their food once it arrives on the table. While we would think it offensive to receive a dish and then start liberally adding new tastes, such is the norm in most of Thailand. Much like eating utensils in the country (chopsticks for soups, spoon and fork for rice dishes and hands for Northern Thai food), what you add depends on the food used.

As my friends in the country have noted, every Thai has a personal ritual when they receive a dish, their very own meditation on how to increase the heat or sweetness of their meal. Streetside stalls and fancy restaurants alike will have a puang kreuang prung on the table (literally, a circle of seasonings) a plastic or metal holder with a quad of additional condiments: naam plaa (fish sauce), prik pom (chili powder), prik naam plaa (chopped chilis in fish sauce, sometimes in vinegar instead), and sugar. Each of my Thai friends had a different way of eating their foods, but all modified based on a mixture of the hot, sour, salty and sweet rules, with emphasis on one flavour coupling.

Much has been said about Thai food and the complexity of its composition, but it always made me smile to see a flavour-filled dish come out of the wok, only to be re-layered in taste before it is consumed. Especially when the “circle of seasonings” came in a baby bottle, as with my favourite pad thai stall on the streets of Chiang Mai.

Chili flakes and sugar on a Chiang Mai table

Chili flakes and sugar on a Chiang Mai table (in a baby bottle).

Chili, Lime and Onions in Laos

Contrary to its sweet-tooth neighbour, Thailand, savoury foods in Laos are not served with a jar of sugar on the table. Instead, dishes are sometimes quite bitter, often spicy and more salty than I was used to. Another difference is the table accompaniment: instead of the circle of spices, a large plate of fresh herbs and lime, chili and green onions is plonked down in front of you, shared by all. Fresh mint and dill, rarely used in Thai foods, were often on the platter and liberally added to soups and meat dishes.  While many compare the foods from Laos to those of Northern Thailand, there are subtle differences between Laos and its neighbours. To me, the plate of table condiments is both a perfect companion to the savoury foods in the country and a great stepping stone to examining the eating habits as a whole.

Chili, spring onions and lime in Luang Prabang, Laos

Tableside flavour at a street stall in Luang Prabang, Laos

* * *

It might seems strange in a world full of flavour and texture to devote a full post to condiments and table spices. The examples above are by no means exhaustive, but rather a snapshot of some fun and interesting options as I’ve eaten my way around the world. The way that I see food and travel, inexorably intertwined, isn’t just about tastebuds. On one level, the tastes themselves: each of the foodstuffs that make up the dish.  But superimposed on all these different colours and tastes, the histories of each. How did a particular food get to be prevalent in this place? How was it originally seen as something of value, and where?

So, condiments and table spices. Simple, sometimes funny (when served in baby bottles) and often overlooked.  But you’d be doing yourself and your destination a disservice in ignoring what is placed on your table as you travel. Right in front of you, a long history of why people eat the way they do and the food culture that has grown around it.

-Jodi

75 comments to Condiments from Around the World (And Why They Matter)

  1. This just makes me want to eat! And lots of everything!

  2. YUM. I love condiments, more than anything. They add so much to any meal – and your photos of the baby bottles makes me smile!

    • Hey Jessie. When I sat at the table I couldn’t stop laughing, and the lovely Thai man who was making my pad thai found it extremely odd that I thought the baby bottles to be smile-inducing. But they were! And they still are :) Happy holidays to the family!

  3. What an awesome and well written post; food is huge for us when traveling too glad to find your blog. Rebecca

  4. Excellent and highly informative – thanks!

  5. Thanks so much for the mention. Great post to read for someone like me who is in full appreciation of those little extras on the food table.
    Julia

    • Thanks Julia! I wished to have had more time to visit you two in Turkey but perhaps next time. It’s all those little things that makes travel worthwhile, I agree. And like you, I ate all the pickles I could get as a kid. Hope to cross paths soon!

  6. I’ve really come to appreciate and enjoy pepper and some spicy foods. However, I am not really big on condiments at all.

  7. This is actually why we think so much alike. I find the combination and integration of foods across the world incredibly interesting. As a related matter, have you ever thought about how colonization has impacted the cuisine of most countries across the world?

    For example, did you know that the essential base of curries/vegetables — tomatoes, onions, and salt — is found in India, Zambia, South Africa, and the Southeastern United States (i.e. Louisiana gumbo)? Totally different parts of the world, but they’re cooking very much in the same way. I’ve talked to food theorists and chefs about this phenomena and they suggest that it’s because the English went and colonized in these different areas, bringing with them their slaves who were impacted by other slaves.

    And, as you note, pepper is by no means a common or even compulsory condiment. Though the chili pepper is used so frequently in both India and Thailand, that essential ingredient only came to Asia via the Portuguese from South America. On the other hand, black pepper — which is integral to the western palate — originated in Thailand and China and was brought to Europe and subsequently the Americas via the trading routes.

    Anyway, this is neither here nor there but just another way to say yes, we should never ignore what is placed on our table. Great, great post Jodi — actually I think this might be my very favorite post you’ve ever written!

    • Thanks for the long comment, Akila! Yes, the spice routes were certainly intertwined with colonization and the slave trade, a self-perpetuating (destructive) cycle. I remember learning that the chili so prevalent in Asia was actually found in South America, and the same plant that Columbus deluded himself into thinking was “Indian Pepper”. :)

      One note: as I said in the post, black pepper actually originated in India, primarily clustered on the Malabar coast. With the monsoon rains, the vines grew and with those rains the cycle harvest and trade moved forward. However, Chinese communities had settled in Malabar from early AD, drawn (like the Greeks and later Portuguese and other discoverers) by the spice trades. Vietnam is now a big producer of black pepper, but the spice has never been a primary growth or harvest in Thailand.

      Great to have seen you two briefly in the UK and hope to do so again soon!

      • I was pretty surprised that Cambodia has some great pepper, called Kampot pepper after the place where it’s grown. The French, especially, love it.

  8. Jodles,

    On the off chance you haven’t already read it, there’s a really neat examination of salt and, more particularly, pepper, in Bill Bryson’s book called “AT HOME: A Short History of Private Life”

    T

  9. Za’atar sounds really interesting. Any chance of finding it outside of Jordan?

    • If you’re talking about the spice blend, certainly! I’ve bought some in Montreal, in Bangkok and elsewhere. If you find a Middle Eastern shoppe, be it Syrian or Jordanian or Lebanese or Israeli, they are bound to have za’atar in stock. Enjoy!

  10. I so enjoyed this: your narrative made my mouth water, and that baby-bottle photo made me smile..:-)

  11. Beautifully written, as always. And, yes, you’ve made me hungry too! If you’re still in England, talking of pickled things – in some of the traditional English pubs you can get pickled, hard-boiled eggs! Certainly in the north of England anyway – I’m not sure about the south. I never, ever plucked up enough curiosity to try one, though I love both eggs and pickles, the two just never seemed to be right together somehow!

  12. Sometimes I come to your blog just to look at the pictures… I love the colors, and I feel like I can almost smell the food…
    Thank you for sharing, and for being so passionate about what you do.

  13. Great post– it’s well worth the 2,000+ word read :) I love trying out the condiments in different countries; something about that four-pack, portable rack of Thai sauces gets my heart racing when I dine out. (Although I can’t eat the fish sauce as a vegetarian). It doesn’t seem like having Celiac disease has slowed you down at all!

    • It should have slowed me down more than it has; I’ve found myself getting sick every so often because I’m not as diligent as I ought to be. (And there was that time in Turkey when I ate the doner with pita bread – WORTH IT! Mostly. For the moment. Ok, probably a bad idea). Interestingly, the celiac problem has also made me look at food more microscopically, not just because of the ingredients potentially harming me, but because it became a pleasure to break down food into its smallest parts and think about it that way. Thanks for reading and happy holidays to you and the rest of the society page crew ;)

  14. I love, love, love this post! I enjoy reading commodity histories like Kurlansky’s Salt (his book on Cod is also good) and really like examining food habits from historical and anthropological perspectives. So I really enjoyed reading about condiments! Here in Korea the typical ones are gochujang (red pepper paste) for most meals, with onions and garlic (for meat meals) and sometimes soy sauce (for dumplings) and fermented soy paste (haven’t noticed a pattern for when that’s brought out). And of course, you can basically consider kimchi a condiment – it’s used like one and present at every meal.

    • Hi Rachel, thank you for stopping by. I also enjoyed Cod and recently saw a book on curry (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/aug/27/featuresreviews.guardianreview5) in the bookstore and it’s now next on my list. Korean food is certainly lost without kimchi present in some way; I had to cut off the post somewhere but it was definitely one I would have added if I kept going! Do you like the gochujang better than Sriracha? Strong opinions on pepper pastes abound :) Safe travels to you.

      • Thanks for the tip on the Curry book! Definitely going on my to-read list. I don’t think I can make a gochujang/sriracha comparison yet because I haven’t been to sriracha’s homeland yet – just had the stuff in the chicken bottle back in the US. I like both – gochujang seems saltier and a bit less spicy, but again maybe that’s just compared to the bottled kind.

  15. Interesting and awesome post! It reminds me of when I was traveling in Kenya, and I asked for salt and pepper. They brought me a little bowl of salt, and some fresh jalapenos! I’ll have to dig up that photo. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Susan – thanks for the comment. I noticed the same in the Philippines, where soy sauce had little chili peppers chopped up inside, served with calamansi limes. It’s a fun way to keep track of where you’re headed. Send the photo if you find it!

  16. Mmm, I love condiments so this was a great (and unusual) read. Pickles (tsukemono) are big in Japan too – they pickle everything and I loved them. They work well with the more subtle flavours of some of the other dishes.

    • I’ve yet to visit Japan and it’s definitely somewhere I want to spend some considerable time, given the breadth and complexity of what’s on offer food-wise. Hope you’re enjoying Chiang Mai!

  17. One of our favorite condiments is Salsa de Aji in Ecuador. It seems to be unique to Ecuador and is so good that we have actually considered returning just so we could eat it again. :)

  18. I wrote a ditty 4 months ago called in Praise of the Gap Year. In it I mentioned your Ode to Spices post Jodi (see below). I think this article above might well be better – I think a lot of bloggers (and writers) can learn from this piece. That sense of place and taste is woefully undervalued in travel blogposts. Top piece. Loved it.

    Smell vs a 56 inch plasma widescreen: For the price of a RTW you could buy the world’s largest monster plasma screen 3D all singing dancing television. You could then invest in some sofa time and become a seriously lazy oaf whose only experience of life is through someone else’s experience and camera skills. Or you could go travelling and regain your senses. Start with smell. Read this article by Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads on spices: it’s superb. http://www.roundtheworldflights.com/rtw-blogs/index.php/talking-rtw/in-praise-of-the-gap-year.html

    • Hi Stu, wonderful to meet you last week and put a face to the Twitter handle and name. I’m glad you liked this piece, especially since we talked about the Ode to Spices one over coffee. For me, using food as a lens to see the wider world is what remains the most satisfying, and that involves looking both at the little things (like what’s on the table) and how they fit into the overall picture of our society. I never expected to be as fixated as I am on food, but we all have our tools with which we explain our philosophies, and food is apparently mine! Glad you enjoyed the read and thank you for the compliments.

  19. Ketchup make the world go round!

  20. I’m always impressed by how much you know and think about the story behind the food. I find it interesting to read, but I have to admit that in my own travels, I tend to just eat and enjoy without taking time to ponder. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  21. Only you Jodi can make condiments look and sound important!

  22. Hi, what a lovely idea for a post. When I arrived at my new office in Berlin one of the first things I noticed was that there were condiments for the staff, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and curry powder. I didn’t ever use the curry powder, but then again I could buy ‘currywurst’ just round the corner, sausages cut up with ketchup and curry powder sprinkled on top. It’s not fine dining, but tasty nonetheless.

  23. This is a wonderful piece. I think it’s often the invisible threads between things that tell the greatest stories about society and culture. I love how you’ve brought them so elegantly to the forefront.

  24. Jodi – that first paragraph is sheer poetry! What a lovely depiction of dinner. No wonder you’ve gone on to explore the culinary delights that the world has to offer. :)

  25. This is such a great post!! I love learning more about food and spices all over the world-and can’t wait to try these in Laos, Jordan, and Thailand next year!! I recently picked up Salt after reading Kurlansky’s Cod a few years ago, I’m really looking forward to reading it. I wonder if you’ve ever read “Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen? It’s about Magellan’s quest for the Spice Route-your post reminded me of it. It’s pretty crazy to think about how interconnected the world really has been for so long!

  26. SO Proud :)

  27. I love the baby bottle dispensers! I think I will give those as Christmas gifts next year… :)

  28. this was so great! vivid and interesting and informative. food really is one of the most delightful parts of travel.

  29. One of my favorite posts thus far. As someone originally from the US (spending time in MTL with family over the holidays), spices are something I’ve come to love as my tastes developed over the years.

    Friends visiting for a meal often comment on the selection of spices we have, and invariably we need to explain how or why we use them. There are so many and the variety is a big part of what can make an otherwise simple meal just delightful.

  30. Surprised and delighted to see za’atar included – it’s one of my favourite breakfasts. Take a slice of Syrian bread, dip it in fresh olive oil, and then into za’atar. Both my parents were brought up in the Middle East so it’s been a staple at home since my childhood. In fact I think I’ll get up and go eat some now! As you mentioned earlier, you can find it anywhere now – I live in rural France and there’s a Syrian grocer an hour’s drive away. He has an entire counter stocked with… za’atar!

    • Glad to hear you’re a fan of the za’atar too! It’s so versatile and yet it gives such a strong, crisp flavour to your meal that I’m hard pressed to think of what my tastebuds would be like without it. Enjoy your cooking in France – where are you located there?

  31. Great post Jodi, this was really interesting to read, and beautifully written. I love exploring the connections between food and cultural history. When I first arrived in Korea (where I currently lived) I was suprised to find that kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) acted as both a condiment and side dish to every single meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Once I had gotten over the tart taste of it, I started to wonder what exactly makes kimchi so special to Koreans. As it turns out, kimchi has been popular in Korea for thousands of years. Korea is roughly the same size as my home country, England, and in the winter vegetables are equally hard to come by. England combated this problem by invading other countries and either taking or importing food from them to keep everyone fed over the long winters. Korea, on the other hand, thought of a more practical solution – they came up with kimchi. The fermenting process of kimchi means that vegetables can be harvested during the summer, and then kept right through the winter, providing well-needed nutrition during the winter months. It is used in a wide variety of dishes, and a side of it is always served with your meal. For example even if you ordered a kimchi stew, it would still come with a side dish of kimchi. It really is an ingenious invention, and says a lot about Korea, a country which has continually throughout history found solutions to their problems without ever having to invade other countries.

    • Thank you for the long comment Natalie. Fermentation has long been a way to maintain foods without losing them to bacteria or spoilage, and kimchi is a perfect example (and a tasty one at that!). Hope you have many delicious meals during your time in Korea!

  32. Thanks for helping me associate names with all those flavors. I’ve tried most of them, but I’ll be damned if I can ever remember what they’re called. My fave I do know that you didn’t mention is harissa on cous cous.

    • Hi Tom, I’ve been thinking of doing a part two of this series as the piece was already quite long (2000 words!) and there were many condiments, harissa included, that I didn’t fit in. Glad you liked the post!

  33. Thanks for sharing this. I love learning about the foods in other countries. Food can tell a lot about the country’s culture. I have to say that the food in Laos sounds very good. Fresh herbs, lime, chilies, and onions sound delicious added to any dish!

  34. As a fellow food-lover, I very much enjoyed this post. Nice job Jodi. I have a bottle of the za’atar spice blend in my cabinet right now. Found it in a Chicago Persian shop after returning from the middle east a couple years ago. Sumac is a big ingredient in it, which is also often found on tables in Turkey. Something fun and yummy: za’atar aioli.

  35. This is one of the reason that makes me eat more. You should check macedonian food. According to me it is one of the best in Europe. I have lived there for 2 years i gain lots of weight i have to admit :).

  36. I also love to travel and have celiac disease. I have to admit celiac has slowed down my collection of stamps in my passport. I am always afraid I will starve or get sick while travelling. It is nice to see a fellow traveller who can make it work!

    • Thank you for the comment Jen! I’ve unfortunately found I do tend to get sick – it’s almost impossible to avoid gluten, but I find in parts of Asia (within rice basins) it’s a lot easier than elsewhere, and in South America where yuca replaces flour and corn wheat it’s also doable. I’ve struggled this year in the Middle East and North Africa, however – lots and lots of pitas! I just wish couscous wasn’t off limits; it’s so good.

      I’ll be profiling another celiac traveler shortly, Katie (also a former lawyer) but you can check her out in the interim at http://www.katiegoingglobal.com.

      Safe travels!

  37. I love this post! And not just because I love food, but I think you’re absolutely right about condiments and spices serving as a historical perspective on a culture. It’s interesting to me to see the influences of other countries in food, too. Coming from Mexican heritage and having studied in Spain, it was interesting to see the influences they had on each other’s cuisines.

    Also, you’ve given me yet another reason to visit Turkey–I love pickled anything! Although it’s kind of a trend here in Portland as you can see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYey8ntlK_E

    • Thanks for stopping by Carmel! I’ve been to Portland and indulged in some of the pickle madness. Brooklyn, too, seems to have a fondness for it, especially at the flea markets. Lots of pickling to go around :) Thanks for reading.

  38. I love how the Chili flakes are in a baby bottle. And I like your insight on how food connects to the people and their culture. It certainly increases you interest and love for every place that you’ve visited.

  39. My sister spent some time in Turkey. While there, she wanted to make a Mexican dinner for friends and went to the market place in search of hot peppers. She had some basic conversational skills but used a phrase book to try to find the term for ‘spicy peppers.’ As she went from stall to stall, come people giggled and others were outraged. Yes, they do have spicy peppers in Turkey, but what she was asking for was basically pornographic peppers.

  40. Hi Jodi, thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m also very interested in table spices in different cuisines and different countries. I find it interesting that you see American table spices as minimal, because I am often struck by how much stuff stands on many in California, where I grew up. Where I now live, Germany, tables often are all but naked- with nothing but salt and pepper on them (even the napkins and silverware are brought after you order). In California, especially in diners, there’s a whole constellation of different sugar packets, salt and pepper, a big napkin dispenser, ketchup, and of course, hot sauce – often a Mexican brand, regardless of whether the place serves Mexican food. Maybe not so exciting compared to the Thai ‘circle of flavors’ but makes me feel at home!

  41. I really enjoyed reading this informative post. My husband is a gourmet cook and uses many of the spices you mentioned here in his cooking; always a delicious treat for us to eat and enjoy. We have also encountered some of the same things you mentioned in our travels around the world, amazing how we associate spices with a particular culture. I now feel better informed about some of these spices, thanks so much for sharing.

  42. My friends call me the ‘condiment king’, I couldn’t think of eating a meal without having access to some of my condiments, I always carry a bottle of tabasco in my pocket because I NEED it on everything. Za’atar sounds interesting I’ll have to give that a go, I’m sure I could reshuffle a few bottles to fit it in the cupboard :)

  43. Love Za’atar! I first came across it at a talk about Palestinian cooking and I love adding it to all sorts of things.

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