Walk down the alleys of the old Al-Hussein district in the heart of Cairo, and the powerful aroma of spices will greet you. The omnipresent fragrances are signature to the importance of spices in Egypt’s culinary culture and history.
At Al-Hussein, stacks of the spices and herbs which are used daily in Egyptian meals adorn huge warehouse like stores, whose names have become a landmark.
A shop selling spices in Al-Hussein district
In the city of Alexandria by the Mediterranean, the district of El-Attareen (whose literal meaning is spice merchants), although no longer trading in spices, still carries the name by which it was once known. Between the seventh and thirteenth centuries AD, El-Attareen was a world-famous hub which traded spices hailing from China, India and Tibet.
El-Attareen in Alexandria (photo: Blogspot)
Preceding the spice eras of El-Attareen and Al-Hussein were those of the Pharaohs. Ancient Egyptian tombs reveal abundant residues of spices and herbs. Safflower was used as a hair dye, and coriander and cumin were used for seasoning.
Aniseed, rosemary, thyme and mint were staples of the kitchen. Nigella and sesame seeds were favourite additives, as detailed by an interesting book entitled “Egyptian Spices and their Recipes” published by the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULNAT).
Spice market in Luxor, Egypt (photo: Panoramio)
With the advent of the Islamic era, new spices made their way into Egypt through El-Attareen. These included cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and black pepper, all imported from the Far East.
As every cook and food connoisseur knows, spices and the fine measure with which they are used can make or break a dish. But the value of spices does not only lie in their tasteful flavour.
Modern scientific research is increasingly vindicating what traditional medical lore as well as some spiritual beliefs (such as the Ayurvedic tradition of India) maintain regarding the healing power of spices and herbs.
(photo: Word Press)
Spices top the list of antioxidant-rich foods and play an important role in fighting inflammation.
The cancer-fighting attributes of curcumin found only in the spice called turmeric, has been attested to by reputable medical journals. From helping fight the onset of Alzheimer’s disease to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, the benefits of an apparently ambient spice like cinnamon, for instance, are daily being revealed through medicinal research.
Turmeric spice has amazing health benefits (photo: Premier Ortho)
The Egyptians’ favourite herbs and spices like sesame, nigella and cumin and coriander all carry strong antioxidative benefits. Saffron, an Egyptian favourite, is anectodally reputed to help improve eyesight in the elderly.
The age-old traditional belief in the potency of black pepper is also revealed by the Ancient Egyptians’ ‘stuffing’ of pepper seeds in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II.
Black pepper (photo: Puuuv Soap)
Studies also suggest that eating a small amount of ginger daily not only improves digestion, but also reduces muscle pain and inflammation after exercise.
Spices ginger (photo: Premium Group)
Provided that one does not have a sensitivity to spices in any form, one easy method of benefiting from them is to sprinkle them directly on food.
Turmeric, cinnamon and ginger can replace salt and help reduce the harmful sodium content of meals. These spices can also assist in weight control, since they speed up metabolism while staving off feelings of hunger.
Here are two spice-based easy to prepare winter drinks:
Pungent Spice Drink
Turmeric, Cinnamon & Ginger.
Ginger, Turmeric, Cinnamon (photo: wordpress)
Heat milk and add to it a blend of cinnammon, turmeric and ginger.
You can omit any of these spices that is not to your taste.
Non-pungent Spice drink
Warm Cardamom, Vanilla & Honey Milk.
Vanilla Cardamom Milk (photo: forageddish)
Combine 1 cup of milk and half teaspoon of brown cardamom seeds in a small saucepan until warm.
Remove the pan from heat and add 3 teaspoons of honey and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Stir and let steep for 5 minutes.
Cardamom has anti-inflammatory properties and helps ease anxiety.
Vanilla is a spice that contains traces of B-Complex vitamins and minerals.