Syria: The Long Journey of the history of spices

Early on, spices were used as a source of trading and during the ancient Roman Empire, trading largely came from Arabian Al-Jazeera region.

The history of spices is almost as old as human civilization. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times.During the middle Ages, spices were as valuable in Europe as gold and gems and the single most important force driving the world’s economy.

Prophet Mohammed (570-632), who established the principles of Islam in the Koran, also co-owned a shop that stocked myrrh, frankincense, and Asian spices. For four centuries following the death of Prophet Mohammed, his followers created a flourishing civilization and Moslems were outstanding scientists for their time. They advanced the process of extracting flower scents from blossoms and herbs and created distillation techniques to distill essential oils from aromatic plants. Later (around the 9th century), Arab physicians used spices and herbs to formulate syrups and flavoring extracts.

The Middle Eastern cuisine is one of the world’s most venerable, combining sweet and savory spices with warm, toasted nuts and dried fruits to create some of the world’s greatest exotic dishes.

Spices can greatly enhance the flavor of all your dishes, and the Syrian kitchen never fails to find the right seasoning.

Adding cinnamon to more than just rice pudding and other sweet dishes is somehow unexpected to the Western palate. However, we, Syrians love to spice up hearty meat mains and vegetable fillings with it.

‘Baharat’ simply means ‘spices’ in Arabic language. This all-purpose blend seasoning is most often found in Middle Eastern, Turkish and Greek cuisine, and varies slightly from region to region. Before you even have a taste, those freshly mixed spices will be filling your kitchen with a unique and exotic aroma.

The spices of the Middle East region overlap slightly with ones used in South Asian/Indian and even Latin American cuisines (cumin and coriander, for example), but most are uniquely splendid in their flavor profile. So before the next time you find yourself eating a kebab dish with friends, you may want to learn more about the wonderful spices that enhance these foods.

Syria Times e-newspaper throws light on the Syrian spices as Syria Times team visited Al-Bzouria market in Damascus and carried out numerous interviews

Mr. Husni Al-Zerlay, the merchant of spices in souk Al-Bzouria said that, “it is no surprise that the Middle East’s most popular crushed pepper flake comes from the city of Aleppo, which was the hub of the Silk Road for centuries. This ancient market, Al-Bzouria for spice production and trade has long been a natural place for culinary innovation, and numerous spice blends and dishes, like Syrian kebabs, originated there. It was through spice trading centers like Aleppo that chili peppers were introduced to the Middle East. Sometimes called Halaby pepper, the Aleppo pepper’s crushed red flakes are used to adorn kebabs, shawarmas, hummus, fattoush, and a multitude of other popular Middle Eastern dishes”, Mr. Husni added.

“Despite these experiments and tweaks on the part of chefs and devotees of Aleppo pepper, the spice’s stature remains distinctively Syrian, and Aleppan for a city with a rich culinary heritage”, Mr. Husni clarified.

Mr. Husni continued by saying about Aleppo pepper that, “the Aleppo pepper’s compact yet versatile flavor can be attributed to the innovative chefs, and the spice merchants that shaped its long, proud history. Finding alternatives can be tricky, although Maras pepper and Korean pepper make worthy substitutes, because true Syrian pepper is simply no longer available, due to the terrorist war which destroyed the agriculture land in Aleppo, in addition to the matter of obligatory displacement of farmers, but we can say that Aleppo pepper’s flavors still live on in our kitchens.

Mr. Husni talked to us about caraway, which is one of the most magnificent spices by saying that, the most important regions, which grow caraway, are Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Edlib. Caraway has great importance for us as Syrian people. We offer caraway dishes on important occasions. Caraway seed is prepared to be exported to many countries as it has a special taste and flavor, various medical uses and it is used widely in food.

The unjust coercive measures against Syria affected us negatively so much that buying and selling had reached its lowest ebb in Al-Bzouria Markect and others, Mr. Husni concluded his speech.

Syria Times newspaper also talks to Mr. Hasan Al-Attar, the owner of a shop in souk Al-Bzouria who described the Syrian caraway as one of the strongly aromatic and warm medical plants and its origin is Syrian. Syrian farmers have planted caraway seeds for a long time. It is sowed during December and January and harvested in June, and to grow it needs specific environment & conditions. 

Old Damascus mills nostalgia for the past

When we entered the old markets of Damascus to see the history and civilization manifested in the landmarks and shops of these markets, and as soon as we entered the "Khan Al- Sla’ah” (Weapons Alley) you will smell the sweet smell of spices ground in an old mill a mill that supplies the surrounding markets with all kinds of spices.

 Syria Times e-newspaper team ,when visiting Khan "Al –Sla’ah” ,  met with Mr. "Bashar Rankousi", owner of Rankousi mill, who told us about it by saying that, “the mill is old - actually ancient”. I have been working in it since I was young with my father and still up until now I grind all kinds of spices in it like, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper", as well as wheat to prepare fine and coarse bulgur. 
Mr. Rankousi continued by saying that, “all machines that work on electricity are considered modern machines like this mill, unlike the old mills that used to work on thrust through a turbine that derives its movement from the water current, so these mills were located on the edge of rivers – that now no longer exist. As for the Rankousi mill, it is an ancient mill because it is of the generations.

Regarding the materials that are grinded, he said that “we import raw materials in the form of “seeds”, and we grind them twice and then package and distribute them according to demand. This for spice orders that are not available in the market in contrast to cumin and coriander, for example, which are found in the local market and in abundance”. 

He added that, “sometimes we grind several types of grains with each other and in certain proportions to be used in the preparation of many foods, such as Kabsa spices, meat and fish seasonings, and it is possible to grind all kinds of spices that merchants and shopkeepers ask us according to their desires: soft, medium or coarse”.

Rankousi explains that Indian spices are distinguished from Levantine ones with new mixtures, such as curry. India was the first country in making this mixture, but the Levantine spices are distinguished by the quality of grinding and extraction of their materials, as well as distinctive mixes that are only found in Damascus and are also exported under the name of Damascene mixtures, such as a mixture of seasoning for chicken, meat, vegetables and many types.

Then he concluded his speech, saying that, “I will preserve this machine despite the great development in milling machines that have shortened time and effort, but the old mills give spices a delicious taste, in addition to that I will preserve this old shop that I inherited from my father and grandparents, which is more than two hundred years old and I will pass it on to my children”. He affirmed that only seven mills remain in Damascus to cover the needs of the local market.

Mrs. "Nadera Attia", whom we met in the market and asked her about old mills, she replied that, “in the past we used to use the mill to grind what we had for winter days, such as wheat, bulgur and some spices. Now everything is ready and packed as desired, but this does not prevent the purchase of ground spices from old mills because they have a better flavor”. 

Mr.Tawfiq , whom we  met also in the market said to us that, prior to 2011,  tourists outnumbered locals in Al- Al-Bzouria market, many people ordered spices that were later shipped to Germany.

Mr. Imad El Din Mowsli, one of the owners of a spice shop said that, “I sell various types of spices in my local area. I rely on a modern mill as it saves me a lot of time and effort, in addition to our ability to control the degree of grinding according to the customers' desire”.

Mr. Mowsli said that the signature Syrian spice (Aleppo red peppers), caught up in the war in Syria, became scarce in the foreign countries like the United States just as its popularity boomed. But importers and vendors are finding new ways to get it.

Early during the war in Syria, American imports of Syria’s signature spice dried, ground Aleppo chilies dropped drastically.

What is meant by seven spices?

Before talking about the ingredients and method of preparing the famous seven spices, it is necessary to review its concept and the most prominent information related to it. The mixture of seven spices is classified as one of the most famous spices that are widely used in the field of cooking, in many kitchens around the world, especially in the Arab kitchens, and in the Levant, specifically in Syria. The Syrian city of Aleppo is the original home of this delicious mixture, which then spread in various Arab countries and countries of the world.

The seven spices have many uses, as they are used in preparing rice and sauces, and in seasoning meats of all kinds. This mixture differs according to the different countries that use it, as each country has its composition, according to their favorite spices. It is worth noting that this recipe is not limited to the delicious taste only, rather, it has a high nutritional value, due to its natural composition that is important to health, and it was named by that name based on the number of its seven components.

The common recipe for seven spices consists of the following ingredients: Black pepper. Cumin seeds, Cardamom beans, dry coriander seeds. Cinnamon sticks, Clove seeds (screw) and Saffron powder.

Common Syrian spices

Caraway, which is used in making sweets and pastries, and it is very useful during menstruation and for breastfeeding mothers as it induces the flow of milk.

Cinnamon, to be used for sweets and pastries, and in cooking and stewed fruit.

Cloves, to be used for broth and in cooking and placed with Arabic coffee

Ginger, for cooking and sweets, useful in cases of bone and joint pain

Garlic powder, for pizza and it is said to be lighter than fresh garlic

Bay leaves, which are used in broths and sauces, especially with chicken

Cardamom, for cooking and sweetness

Hot pepper is chili powder for spicy dishes

Cumin, for Arabic dishes, useful as a drink

Red pepper, used in sauces and soups

White Pepper, on chicken dishes and others

Dry Coriander, for starters and some dishes

Anise, soothing mixture, also used in sweet food

Thyme, seasoning for food, used in salad

It is worth noting that, the New York Times wrote about the Aleppo pepper and the distinctive taste of Syrian spices, as most restaurants in America cannot do without Aleppo pepper, and the Americans were upset by the sanctions imposed by President Trump on Syrian exports for the sake of Aleppo pepper and its authentic taste.  An article written by Tom Verde gives the addresses of the stores where the authentic Syrian spice is found in U.S.

Interviewed by:  Haifaa Mafalani & Raghda Sawas

Photos by: Mafouz Abu-Hadier