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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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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.