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The Red Sea Coast: A treasure trove of spicy history and flavorful discoveries

By Michael Slage, Ventures Director at The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC)

When you visit Saudi Arabia make sure to take time to see the ferocious cinnamon bird, or Cinnamologus found only on the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps you have never heard of a Cinnamologus but for more than 5,000 years, Arab traders selling cinnamon told the tale of how the giant birds collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew, and used them to construct their nests, fastened to high trees or sheer cliffs.

The traders would cut oxen and other large animals into pieces, place them near the birds' nests and hide nearby. The birds would then carry the chunks of meat back to their nests, where the weight would cause them to fall down and the traders could collect the fallen cinnamon to sell to the rest of the world.

Of course, there really isn’t a ferocious cinnamon bird and we now know that Arab traders were importing cinnamon from India and Sri Lanka, but the story kept a monopoly on cinnamon trading for Arab traders for centuries. 

But cinnamon is not the only spice linked to the history of the Arabian Peninsula. For centuries Arab traders were renowned sellers of ginger, cardamon, nutmeg, pepper, and more, which were transported to Venice and from there, distributed throughout Europe.

Spices were appreciated across the Middle East for their fragrances and their medicinal properties, as well as for their enhancement of flavor in food. Herodotus, one of the earliest historians, wrote in the fifth century BC of the spices of Arabia that "the whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvelously sweet."

For centuries the Roman Empire, with its insatiable demand for Eastern spices, kept caravans crisscrossing the Peninsula, bringing such important spices as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, spikenard, nutmeg and cloves to the West. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself, as a young man before the Koran was revealed to him, accompanied caravans across the Peninsula to Syria, carrying goods which included spices.

After Islam was established, believers came to Makkah from all over the world to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, and enriched the Peninsula with enormously varied culinary traditions. Arabian cooks developed a mastery of flavoring, using a multitude of spices in each dish to create a taste which is rich and subtle, never overpowering but magnificently enhancing to each dish.

We tend to take for granted cheap and plentiful spices. But at one time rents and even taxes were paid with spices. A handful of cardamom was worth as much as a poor man's yearly wages, and many slaves were bought and sold for a few cups of peppercorns.

An important part of Arab culture takes place around the table, savoring a good dish made irresistible through the magic of spices. Some of the spices you will encounter when you decide to take a culinary adventure to Saudi Arabia include sesame seeds, cardamom, dried limes, mahlab, mastic, nutmeg, rosewater, shaybah, saffron, sumac, tamarind, zatar, cloves, cumin, mint and nigella seed.

There are literally hundreds of other spices, herbs, seasonings, and flavors to discover along the Red Sea coast. I hope this brief introduction will create a hunger both literally and figuratively to plan a taste adventure to Saudi Arabia.