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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Other Spice Girl

“I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates? - none, that's out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o' the sun.” ~ The Winter's Tale


(This post is inspired by my dreamer friend Relyn and my gourmet gal pal Christie at Fig & Cherry, thank you!)

I am a Spice Girl. Not a Posh or Baby or Sporty or even a Tango Spice Girl (she is the secret Spice Girl you may not know about).

I am a Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme Girl. Actually more like a Saffron, Herbes de Provence, Garam Masala, Cardamom and Coriander Girl. You purists are going to say that some of these are herbs, not spices, and yes, you are right. But bear with me.

Before I moved to San Francisco, I used to cook a lot. One of the benefits of living in this town is that the opportunities for adventuring in the world of food is pretty endless and is as irresistable as catnip for any foodie.

So, why cook when you can explore? To me, eating is another form of travel, especially when you can try foods from all over the world in just one place.

Although my neighborhood trends more towards Asian cuisines--fresh Hong Kong-style dim sum, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese--I can also easily get a variety of other cuisines, including Mexican, Italian, Indian, Fusion, Mediterranean, Ethiopian (which I have not tried yet but mean to) as well as good ol' American fare like hamburgers and onion rings. That is not counting the bakeries, cheese shop, gelateria and numerous coffee houses.

All of this bounty lies one, two, three blocks from my front door. The possibilities are even more exponential if I hop on the N-Judah to the next neighborhoods of Cole Valley or the Haight or the Castro, or grab a cab to destinations farther across town.

One of the things I do miss though is the exploration and acquisition of unique food stuffs. When I lived in Silicon Valley, my favorite haunts were the Indian and Middle Eastern groceries. I loved filling my basket with herbs and spices I'd never heard of but wanting to have them in my larder, just in case.

I am, or was, a spice collector. I don't know why. A lot of the things I never even used. But it was such great fun finding them and wondering what they were. The Indian groceries especially were a delight.

In between the piles of colorful boxes of incense and black hair dye, you could find aesofotida, which I purchased but never used, or glass jars of pickled limes or dented cans of coconut cream from lands far, far away. You could peruse the countless types of dal while listening to Bollywood hits and watching women in colorful saris pick out their vegetables. Just being in those small, independent markets was like an instant passport to somewhere else, all for the price of a bag of interesting groceries.

I've done my share of exploring the Asian markets at the end of Irving Street, where the live fish swim in tanks before they meet their makers and where tough old Chinese ladies push each other (and you) to get at the produce, and I've wandered the less exotic Russian market where the stony-faced man guards the deli case full of bland-looking meats and sausages, but these shops don't have the fantasy-producing ingredients of the spice markets I've left behind.


The photos in this post are some of my favorites. Taken in Venice, which to me evokes dreams of the Spice Trade and ships laden with nutmegs and cinnamon and black pepper, is this shop in Cannaregio, very close to the Rialto Bridge.

When I saw this shop window, I stopped dead in my tracks. It was the Spice Shop of My Dreams. The displays were so perfect and lovingly prepared with every imaginable kind of spice and seasoning.

In thinking about this post, I've been doing my homework about the Spice Trade and its history. Unfortunately, it's a history fraught with the destruction of habitats, cultures and empires.

But the more I read and learn about history, it seems that most human endeavors are filled with such things. I tend to go for the fantasy and leave the hard truth behind at times.

Perhaps knowing more about the history and spirit of where these spices came from gives me more to digest that just the taste they bring to the food I eat. And hopefully because of it, I might appreciate my food all the more.

For more interesting information about spices and the Spice Trade, check here, here and here.


Debbi April 9, 2008 at 5:45 PM  

I can SMELL the display in your photo!! I love the smell of fresh herbs and spices.... makes my mouth water and my brain go into ecstasies of recipes.... There is a teeny tiny shop in Western Mass near Tanglewood where I work in the summer than distills their own bourbon vanilla.... I buy 2 4oz bottles every year. I'll never go back to supermarket brand vanilla after having this intoxicating elixir, the smell of the shop itself.... mmmmmm....
So jealous you found that shop! Did it smell as wonderful as it looks?

Relyn Lawson April 9, 2008 at 7:15 PM  

In college I dated a boy whose family was originally from Pakistan. His sister was my best friend, and I was at their house often. His father ran a grocery store like the one you described.

Your post brought back such wonderful memories. Every time I would go to their house for a visit his mother would have an incredible need to feed me. I never resisted. Delicious!

I was there once and had the beginnings of a terrible cold. His mother made him drive to the shop and get some ginger. Mamma Taj was so sure he would mess it up that she called her husband at the store to make sure we got exactly what she wanted. When we got back with the ginger, she made me the most vile tasting concoction I have ever put in my mouth. I only drank that tea because I loved his mother.

Believe it or not, Mamma Taj had found the cure for the common cold. Ginger tea.

Anonymous April 10, 2008 at 3:32 AM  

I read your post nodding furiously! I whole heartedly agree with you about spices; they evoke memories, change moods and make eating worthwhile.

Thanks for the journey! xx

Debbi April 10, 2008 at 7:00 AM  

Relyn! You are so right! Boiling some fresh ginger root until it is strong enough to wake the dead is a great cure of both colds and upset stomachs. I add a little honey to make it more palatable, but it works like a charm. A friend from Persia (yes, I know, Iran, but he insists he is Persian, not Iranian) - told me this secret years ago.

Anonymous April 10, 2008 at 8:24 AM  

This is the best kind of traveling: no packing or security lines.

We have yet another point of common interest TB: I have a shot of a spice display too - taken in India, no less!

paris parfait April 10, 2008 at 9:01 AM  

Oh this is beautiful - takes me back to my days in the Middle East, where spices are piled high in pyramid shapes and the smells are intoxicating! xo

tangobaby April 10, 2008 at 1:45 PM  

Hi Debbi,

That bourbon vanilla must smell insanely good. I used to have a recipe for carmelized pears where you made the carmel with sugar and a vanilla pod. It was the most amazing fragrance.

I am sad to say that the shop was closed when I passed by. It was all I could do not to leave nose and fingerprints all over the glass. But perhaps someday you will go to Venice and let me know what the shop was like.

Hi Relyn,

I bet you're right and that these home remedies have a lot of beneficial effects. I wish I had known about the ginger tea last December!

That is sweet about your story of Mamma Taj. I bet you have some other great tales to tell.

Hi Christie,

Do I forsee a post on Fig & Cherry about your favorite spice someday? You inspire me to get out my pots and pans.

Hi Johanna,

Please share your photo with us. I am sure it is wonderful! Spice fiends unite.

Hi Paris Parfait,

I cannot WAIT to hear about all of your adventures. I can picture those pyramids of spices, but I want you to be my storyteller.

Anonymous September 4, 2008 at 6:04 PM  

what a good story teller you are! i hopped over from a link at margie and kath's place and found far more than a spice photo. who knew that the love of spice can take you to such dizzying heights of fantasy! i love the fact that you bought those amazing ingredients with no idea hat to do with them. you are a true nomad!

tangobaby September 5, 2008 at 11:31 AM  

thank you, robin-bird!

Wandering in your imagination has to do when you can get a plane ticket, right? I'm glad you enjoyed my musings here.