Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey


Gary Paul Nabhan takes the reader on a vivid and far-ranging journey across time and space in this fascinating look at the relationship between the spice trade and culinary imperialism. Drawing on his own family's history as spice traders, as well as travel narratives, historical accounts, and his expertise as an ethnobotanist, Nabhan describes the critical roles that Semitic peoples and desert floras had in setting the stage for globalized spice trade.

Traveling along four prominent trade routes--the Silk Road, the Frankincense Trail, the Spice Route, and the Camino Real (for chiles and chocolate)--Nabhan follows the caravans of itinerant spice merchants from the frankincense-gathering grounds and ancient harbors of the Arabian Peninsula to the port of Zayton on the China Sea to Santa Fe in the southwest United States. His stories, recipes, and linguistic analyses of cultural diffusion routes reveal the extent to which aromatics such as cumin, cinnamon, saffron, and peppers became adopted worldwide as signature ingredients of diverse cuisines. Cumin, Camels, and Caravans demonstrates that two particular desert cultures often depicted in constant conflict--Arabs and Jews--have spent much of their history collaborating in the spice trade and suggests how a more virtuous multicultural globalized society may be achieved in the future.


Perhaps my lifelong love of aromatics—from allspice to za’atar—served as the genesis of this reflective inquiry. But somewhere along the line, I realized that one could not truly love spices without conceding that their use is never politically, economically, or even culturally neutral. It is impossible to reflect on the significance of aromatics and their history without acknowledging that imperialism, cultural competition and collaboration, religious belief, and social status are embedded in every milligram of cardamom, cinnamon, or cumin.

And so, this book is less the story of any single spice or spice trader and more about the cultural, economic, and political factors that propelled spices across the face of the earth, depleting some species while causing others to proliferate. It is a multilayered narrative that is as much about alchemy as it is about chemistry, cultural history as it is about natural history, and culinary imperialism as it is about transcontinental and multicultural collaboration. In short, the history of the spice trade is an object lesson in how, step by step, globalization has developed and sealed off other formerly prevalent options for business and cross-cultural negotiation among the world’s diverse peoples.

If this story line occasionally strays away from the trajectory that particular incenses, gums, and culinary and medicinal herbs took as they traveled around the world, so be it, for I am ultimately trying to answer a series of much larger questions. When, where, how, and through whose hands did the process of globalization begin? What have . . .

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