I posted a picture on Instagram (@mycustardpie) the other day. It was of the spices in my local supermarket and got an enthusiastic response from around the world. “How I wish I had that on my doorstep!!” and “One of the things we most miss about Dubai” were just two of the comments. It’s easy to take the profusion of exotic ingredients available here for granted. When Ottolenghi’s Nopi cookbook was released recently, there was a rush to find hard to source ingredients in the UK and US. Not so here where only black garlic remains elusive. The challenge in Dubai is finding quality over quantity. Spices may confront you in profusion every time you go shopping but what’s the inside track for getting the very best?
If you buy those little jars of imported herbs and spices, please think again. The contents have often been sourced from countries within our region, then shipped (for many weeks) to Europe where they are decanted, packed, labelled and then go off for another long sea voyage. ‘Use by’ dates are definitely not the same as ‘best by’ dates with spices where freshness is key. Look for the sealed packs imported from India that usually works out a lot cheaper. If you can’t find what you are after, look for an alternative name. For example, cumin is often called jeera on the packet. You can transfer into small jars if you insist on matchy matchy.
Carrefour and Union Coop both have large ranges of loose spices as well as packets. Choose a branch that has a high turnover of stock. Smell the spices before you buy – if there is no aroma, they are stale. It’s a good way to buy small amounts of something you don’t use that often. There is often a choice of the same spice from different origins, reflected in the price.
What to buy: Sumac, cardamom and bay leaves.
The Spice Souk
This seems an obvious place but ‘buyer beware’! The shop assistants are world class at selling. They all know a snippet of different languages related to culinary uses for spices. “Risotto Milanese” for instance, when persuading Italians to buy saffron. I spent a long time in one shop and witnessed tourists hand over AED 400 for a bag of mixed spices, a dazed look in their eyes as they handed over the cash. The best way is to take your time, choose a favourite shop and get to know the owner. If you visit and buy regularly you’ll avoid the hard sell reserved for tourists.
What to buy: B’zar – the Emirati spice blend.
Down to Earth Organic is my favourite place for spices. It’s a small part of a much larger initiative in India aimed at protecting small, organic farmers and empowering women. I’ve visited their offices and factory in Rajasthan and it’s truly admirable. But my decision to buy from them is because the spices are organic, super potent and fragrant. The only downside is that they often run out of stock. You can order online at www.downtoearthorganic.ae or visit their location in the Sheikh Hamdan Complex.
What to buy: turmeric and chilli powder are particularly good (you don’t need to use much of the latter).
If you are looking for a spice from a certain cuisine, look for a specialist. Mr Reza of Sadaf Iranian Sweets sells fantastic Iranian dried fruits, nuts, sweets and also spices. Sadaf Iranian Sweets is located in Rigga Al Buteen Plaza on Maktoum Road.
What to buy: Sarghol or negheen (more expensive) saffron, dried mixed herbs – which can be soaked and washed and then used in Persian kuku (similar to quiche).
Dima Sharif, who has recently publisher her book on Palestinian cuisine – Plated Heirlooms, sells a small range of Palestinian spice blends at her stall at The Farmers Market on the Terrace every Friday at Bay Avenue (in front of Executive Towers). While you are there you could also buy fresh organic herbs from the farmers and dry your own.
What to buy: Organic dried za’atar mix which is really sublime, spice mixes for meat or fish from Dima and fresh zaatar from the farmers
Tips for using and storing
- Buy whole wherever possible and grind in small quantities before using. You will get a much more intense and exciting flavour. You get to control the texture too. Use a pestle and mortar for building your arm muscles or buy an electric spice grinder (coffee grinders work too but keep it for this purpose only).
- If decanting your spices label the purchase dates. I have a big clear out once a year so my cupboards don’t harbour tasteless powder!
- Store spices in a cool, dark place. The cupboard above the cooker is the worst place for condensation and heat. Label the top of jars and keep them in a drawer.
Note: Check before bringing in spices from other countries. Poppy seeds, for instance, are banned in the U.A.E.
[This story has been written exclusively for FoodeMag dxb]