Nestled at the bottom of a semi-desertic valley, Aleppo, in Syria, one of the oldest most continuously inhabited cities in the world and at present the theatre of a sombre human drama, has a long history of trading in spices and herbs. The princess city, clothed in priceless silks, was once a gleaming gem of the Ottoman Empire’s golden age. An indisputable stopover for any trader travelling the Silk Road, it offered merchants a multitude of supplies we are still familiar with today: pistachios, sesame seeds, which produces the oldest oil yielding crop known, nigella seeds, reputed to, as the saying goes, “heal all ills except for death,” zata, or thyme, chamomile, marshmallow (the plant, not the sweet!), eucalyptus leaves, bay leaves, to name a few. Pistachio
Once decreed as an exclusively royal food by the Queen of Sheba, the nut has now thankfully fallen into more pedestrian hands since then. Recent archeological digs have shown that people have enjoyed pistachios as early as 7,000 B.C. The trees, stalwarts of the plant world, will grow in the poorest of soils, where no other tree will grow. They were and still are medicinally used to treat such varied ailments as a raging toothache and sclerosis of the liver. As food, the nut’s high nutritional value and long storage qualities were prized by long distance merchants, whose treks easily lasted for several months. In today’s diet, the pistachio, rich in nutritional value and antioxidants, has found it’s place on our daily plate. Not unlike travelling merchants, the pistachio tree made it’s way to North America in the 1880s. Served on their own, baked into sweet baklavas, or added to Middle-Eastern rice pilafs, they are a flavourful reminder that the human palate is, indeed, universal.
Sesame “Open Sesame!” Who, in their childhood, hasn’t heard of the magical phrase? No one really knows how the phrase came about, but some people have linked it to the plant’s ripened pod to explode when ripe. Drought-tolerant and able to grow in the most arid of regions where any other crop fails, sesame, one of the oldest sources of oil, was domesticated in the Middle East more than 3,000 years ago. According to Assyrian legend, when the gods met to create the world, they toasted their deal with a glass of sesame wine. Crushed as a paste, it yields to a food known as tahini, a basis of the much loved hummus. The roasted seeds are added to tantalizing spice mixes: zatar, dukkah. The aromatic mixtures, sprinkled over rice and meat dishes are slowly making their way into our kitchens. Sumac
Long before the arrival of the lemon in the Middle East, sumac and the sour juice of the pomegranate were used as a souring agent. They are still used as such in some parts of Syria where lemons are rare. Ground and mixed with water, it was used as a stomach remedy, but today, the sumac’s dark red berries, tinged with purple with its lemony, woody taste, have made their way into Arab cuisine. The powdered seeds are sprinkled over grilled fish and kebabs. Once responsible for the bread and pastry trade in Syria, the Armenians devised an excellent Arab-style pizza, sprinkled with sumac, and is still very much a part of today’s street food in the Orient. Here in Canada sumac grows in the south-eastern part of the country where some beekeepers use its dried bob as fuel for their smokers. Compiled by monique kroeger