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27 July 2017Last updated
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Food | Recipes

Dubai’s spice souk needs a revival

Arva Ahmed calls for a revamp of this incredible – but ignored – resource

By Arva Ahmed
15 Apr 2017 | 11:30 am
  • At Dubai spice souk with Homa Al Hashemi, an Emirati mother whose recent workshop at the Sharjah Art Foundation covered herbal brews.

    Source:Anas Thacharpadikkal Image 1 of 2
  • ‘Rashad’, or garden cress seeds, are popularly consumed in Emirati households as a warming, healing drink with water, toasted flour, saffron and spices.

    Source:Anas Thacharpadikkal Image 2 of 2

The scented alleys of the Deira spice souk evoke magical tales from the Arabian Nights, but its manners irk like an irrepressible pop-up advertisement on the Internet.

It is a well-known fact that local residents have betrayed its sacks of turmeric root and dried limes for sealed plastic packs at the nearest hypermarket. Many old-time patrons no longer trust the freshness and purity of what it stocks; their children no longer appreciate its existence beyond a vintage-filtered Instagram frame. Rather than a thriving market place for locals, it is left to the whims of tourists who angle their cameras for a quick digital memory, before scurrying off behind a fluttering flag to the next stop on their trip checklist.

Despite my jaded view of the souk, I am keenly aware that it is a treasure chest of history. Its alleys narrate stories of trade in ingredients, their use in cuisine and their impact on healing. These stories were originally woven by the Greeks, Persians, Romans and Indians in the Old World, and then subsequently revived by Arab alchemists during the Middle Ages of Islam. These stories have been preserved by generations of mothers practicing herbal remedies for their families, but those visiting the souk today lack access to these storytellers.

As an effort to reconnect the storytellers with the broader public, the Sharjah Art Foundation has been curating workshops with Emirati mothers who can share their childhood experiences and ongoing research around local herbal remedies. A recent session with a grandmother from Fujairah opened my eyes to the sheer variety of seeds, leaves and barks that have traditionally been used for life’s niggling ailments. Her kohl-lined eyes sparkle in earnest as she describes a curative drink with dried turmeric root, fenugreek, nigella seeds and milk. She urges us to mix powdered indigo extract, jasmine and dried tan limes as a healing ointment for body cramps. This is the sort of workshop that has the potential to revitalize interest in the souk as an educational museum and vibrant marketplace, rather than a mere folder of vacation photographs.

The sales pitch at the souk desperately needs an overhaul; the multi-lingual heckling of victimized passers-by should give way to a more informative and less intrusive discourse. Tourism companies and schools can help by enlisting credible ‘souk ambassadors’ who have grown up in the UAE and seen their mothers and grandmothers wash, grind and brew various home remedies during their childhood.

I found such an ambassador in Homa Al Hashemi, an Emirati mother who shared her passion for traditional herbal brews at her recent workshop in the Sharjah Art Foundation. Some of these remedies originated in the Arabian Peninsula while others have been inspired through centuries of trade with India, Iran, Africa and East Asia.

Homa is a credible ambassador because she is equally well-read about age-old remedies as she is about modern-day ‘superfoods.’ This is important for ensuring that she does not alienate that slice of the young, Internet-educated population which holds raw cacao nibs and baobab powder close to heart. Her discussion of ‘rashad’ or garden cress seeds that are popularly consumed in Emirati households is accompanied with a comparison to chia seeds. Both seeds bloom when soaked in water, though the former is a traditional Arabian remedy that has been used to strengthen bones, heal new mothers after childbirth and treat indigestion, diabetes, sore throat and kidney stones in the Gulf region long before chia made its way across from South America. Contrary to a tourist’s passive interaction with these seeds at the souk, Homa brings in a prepared drink where the soaked and boiled seeds have been suspended in a silky saffron-infused custard. This rich drink tastes as wholesome and healing as its effect on the body, though Homa is quick to add that the custard is a new age addition – the traditional version is with water, toasted flour, saffron and warming spices like cardamom, black pepper and cinnamon for the intended curative impact.

Workshops like the ones hosted by the grandmother from Fujairah or by Homa are no different to culinary demonstrations and tastings at our neighbourhood hypermarkets. They spread awareness about new – or as in the case of the souk, abandoned – ingredients.

A pile of lacklustre green leaves described as the purgative ‘senna’ may be instantly forgotten as the tour guide flits to the next sack. A more memorable approach would be to show visitors how the leaves can be brewed into a restorative tisane, the kind that Homa’s mother used to give her as a child once a month, early on a Friday morning, to cleanse her stomach and boost digestive health. She urges us to inhale the aromatic difference between the finger-thin ‘male’ turmeric root and the stout ‘female’ roots that she prefers to use in her healing brews. Despite having grown up in Dubai, I had never known that turmeric, deseeded dates and salt could be cooked into a pain-relieving poultice – the kind that Huma packs around the arm of an eager volunteer at her Sharjah workshop. She demonstrates the exfoliating quality of ground nigella seeds, also known as the black seed or the ‘seed of blessing’ which is highly revered in the Islamic world because the Prophet (PBUH) claimed that it is ‘the cure to everything, except death.’ When coarsely ground, it can be mixed with water for a skin scrub, or with yeast, yogurt, lemon and olive oil for a homemade face pack. A simple demonstration of one of these many ‘souk to scrub’ treatments would close a sale far faster than the multi-lingual heckling that arguably scares many a potential customer away. Higher sales will lead to fresher stocks and eventually lure old patrons back into the souk’s alleys.

There is a fine balance between sharing information on traditional medicine and playing doctor at the souk, the latter of which shopkeepers are aptly barred from doing. Training, resources and oversight should be offered for those mothers in the community who volunteer their time to revive practices of the past. A starting point might be the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine in Abu Dhabi, where extensive studies of medicinal plants used in the UAE have been conducted and compiled into an encyclopaedia that is conveniently available online.

It is time to bring resident relationships back to the souk, rather than one-time transactions by unsuspecting tourists keen to invest the price of saffron into stale dried safflowers. Traditional remedies are becoming fashionable again today, and our souk is sitting on a treasure chest of precisely those herbs that will become exorbitantly expensive when their time to trend comes.

By Arva Ahmed

By Arva Ahmed