The Spice Route
There are many versions of the spice route written in history, as there were several different routes based on location.
One story states that the spice route originated in India and made its way through Arabia, North Africa, Egypt and western Europe.1 Trade in spices began in ancient times and was significant for economic, political and cultural reasons. Control of the spice trade passed between Arabia, the Venetian Republic, Portugal, Spain, England and the Netherlands over several centuries.
Gaining control of the spice trade was a goal of many countries until traveler Marco Polo revealed information that Arab merchants had struggled to keep secret from their European customers: the source of the spices. This knowledge put the Venetians’ monopoly of the spice trade in jeopardy as the race began to find a route directly to the spices. As several countries succeeded in the voyage of discovery, the power of one country to monopolize the spice trade fell and the business of trading spices expanded to the free market.
Ethnic Flavor Trends
The free trade of spices led to the availability of spices for more people. With industrial, technological and digital advances these spices became more accessible and desirable. Global ethnic flavors resonate with today’s consumers. They are inspired by travel and a desire for adventure. Today, 35% of U.S. consumers would be tempted to try a new dish if it had unique flavors or ingredients and 80% of people like trying new seasonings, spices and flavors. 66% of U.S. consumers said that they are interested in Middle Eastern foods at restaurants, according to Mintel.
The following are trending blends that originated in the Middle East and North Africa that are becoming more accessible and mainstream in the food industry today.
Significant Middle Eastern and African Flavors
Definition: Traditional Arabic spice blend, also known as Omani spice or “Arabic masala mix”.
Flavor Profile: Characterized by fennel, cumin, black pepper and cinnamon with hints of cardamom and coriander.
History: A popular spice blend in the United Arab Emirates, this blend is made from spices that are roasted or toasted then ground. It is similar in flavor to garam masala that is used in India.
Definition: ‘Pepper’ or ‘hot’. Amharic language scholars speculate that the name ‘barbare’ came from ‘papare,’ the Ge’ez (language of ancient Ethiopia) word for pepper.2
Flavor Profile: Earthy notes characterized by paprika, onion and ginger with hints of fenugreek, coriander and nutmeg.
History: This spice blend links back to the fabled Silk Road, where Axumite traders gained access to goods from China.2 As a result, spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, clove and turmeric made their way into Ethiopia. These spice began appearing in markets, and locals began experimenting with different blends. Households developed their own mix to be handed down over generations, and the term berbere signaled this spice blend.
Definition: A spicy North African paste made from dried chilies, salt, oil and other seasonings.3
Flavor Profile: Differentiated by earthy notes of paprika and cumin with garlic, coriander and caraway followed by a mild pungency.
History: Harissa is thought to be derived from the Spanish occupation of Tunisia in the 16th century when chilies were brought over to the country.
Definition: Spice mixture; wild oregano (thyme).
Flavor Profile: Embodies the thyme, sumac and sesame flavors typical of this standard Middle Eastern spice blend.
History: The origin of za’atar can be traced back to biblical times.4 In the 12th century, philosopher Maimonides is said to have prescribed za’atar to his patients to treat a variety of ailments.
Definition: ‘Spice’ in Arabic, Bahar itself means ‘pepper’.5
Flavor Profile: A complex blend characterized by warm spices, mint, oregano and bay with hints of fennel, mustard and clove. The Turkish version is distinguishable by the addition of mint.
History: Baharat is a versatile blend used in cooking and as a condiment in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan.
Middle Eastern and African Flavors in Your Product
If you are looking to add some flavor from the Middle East and Africa to your product, request samples:
Journey Through the Middle East and North Africa
Explore savory flavor profiles from the Middle East and North Africa with this animated video. Follow Marco, a food blogger, as he travels through the region and documents his journey:
- Northrup, Cynthia Clark, et al. Encyclopedia of World Trade: from Ancient Times to the Present, Routledge, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wmichlib-ebooks/detail.action?docID=2011181.
- Ethiopian Berbere Spice: A History. (2018, August 10). Retrieved from https://www.demandafrica.com/food/ethiopian-berbere-spice-a-history/
- Harissa. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/harissa
- Inskeep, S., & Godoy, M. (2013, June 11). Za’atar: A Spice Mix With Biblical Roots And Brain Food Reputation. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/06/11/190672515/zaatar-a-spice-mix-with-biblical-roots-and-brain-food-reputation
- Sisters, R. (2013, September 05). Spice merchant diary: Baharat. Retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2013/09/05/spice-merchant-diary-baharat