I stood there, dumbfounded, staring at a little basket full of small, dull, knobby brown rocks. The sign said, in Hebrew and English, “Frankincense,” as if it were an item commonly found daily in a public market full of very busy, very 21st-century people.
Since I was a child, I have harbored the illusion that frankincense and myrrh were extremely exotic, almost mythical elements that must have held mighty powers, since one only heard their names spoken in conjunction with an ancient event. I knew nearly nothing about, but it seemed to be taken very seriously by the majority of Christians around me.
Yet here it was, raw, nubby frankincense, in an open-ended spice shop in one of the bigger shouks (markets) in Jerusalem. It sat calmly in a basket as if no time had passed since, as legend has it, three wise men carried it through the dessert to Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago. Seeing my hollow stare, the keeper of the spice stand said in Hebrew-flavored English,
“Oh, yes, frankincense, wonderful smell, very good to burn in the house to get rid of bad air and bad humor. You burn it on a special little charcoal burner, see? First you light the charcoal, then put a lump of frankincense on top and the smell is everywhere. And look, there is myrrh behind you — it’s also good for the household, cures illness in the house. You burn it the same way.”
Myrrh too? I spun around to see another basket full of dark lumps, slightly deeper in color and astringent but strangely sweet when I smelled it.
“Here, I’ll light some for you — you gonna be here for a little while?”
Well, my new spice buddy had won a customer “for a little while.” I would have stayed the whole morning to get a whiff of such exotic stuff. I thought I recalled myrrh being used in some herbal tincture perhaps a roommate or I had gotten from a naturopath long ago. But this was myrrh in the same state that people would have used it more than two millennia ago, here in Israel, to try to banish disease from their homes.
I was now both dumbfounded and thrilled. I felt I had walked through history, about to smell the spice of life the way it was for our ancestors, walking the same stones of this Jerusalem shouk, seeking a spice monger much like this one selling frankincense or myrrh, or cinnamon, rose water, coriander or clove.
I wondered if many of us in the U.S. know much about how the history of the spice trade intertwines with the history of the Jews in the land of Israel. Much before 1000 B.C.E., two north-south trade routes crossed the Canaan territories. “Via Maris,” the Mediterranean coastal route, brought a profusion of spices (for food preservation), plus textiles and gold from Egypt and northeast Africa through Canaan to the northern West Asian empires.
For centuries, it transported military campaigns launched by the Assyrians, Philistines and Babylonians in the north, the Egyptians in the south, and the Greeks and Cypriots in the west, making the Canaanite territories crucial real estate for those various civilizations trying to dominate a region ranging from southern Egypt to north of the Fertile Crescent.
The “Kings Highway” was the eastern trade route, running north from the Red Sea, connecting the Canaanite/Israeli region by ship with the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Far East — land of spice, knowledge and mystery.
So the ancient spice and military trades made whomever controlled the region crucially powerful. Israel’s early kings levied taxes on all people traveling on the roads, as had the kingships preceding Israeli control. Many of the strikes by other monarchies against Israel before and during King David’s time were initiated in trying to achieve control of the trade roads.
Historical legend says that Solomon built his empire by using this powerful regional bargaining chip in pursuing lucrative deals with traders, nobles and regional rulers. Indeed, the Queen of Sheba is said to have journeyed from Ethiopia, bringing her entourage along the Kings Highway, to make King Solomon gifts of frankincense and myrrh.
But back to my sojourn into the scents of the ancients, now wafting through the little spice shop and down the shouk’s cobbled streets. Frankincense, a dried resin harvested from trees in the “Boswellia” genus, seemed more sweet and intensely musky, while myrrh, resin from commphora or Indian mukul myrrh trees, was sharper but floral and slightly redolent of citrus.
I was in heaven, not only from the perfumes of venerable incense, but by what I saw around me: a collection of herbs, spices, leaves and flowers that would be repeated, with varying members, in every spice shop I visited all over Israel. Here were sticks of cinnamon more than a foot long, pepper berries in colors I had never imagined, meter-tall cone-shaped towers of ground chilies in shades of fire and burnt roses. And roses! Bins and bags of dried buds and petals with half a dozen fragrances for making the rose waters that flavor myriad foods of the Middle East.
A group of spice mixes beckoned me and when my friendly spice buddy explained that they were flavorings for rice, crafted to emulate the cuisines of modern Middle Eastern cultures (whose ancestors had certainly traveled Israel’s ancient spice roads), I had to have them all. When I got them home and began to use them, I realized I could dissect their flavor elements and recreate my favorites when I began to run out. Kind of like a trip to Israel in a jar!
• • •
To use the spice mixes, cook basmati rice, using 1 cup of rinsed rice to 1-1/2 cups of water. Put the rice and water in a small saucepan with a tight fitting lid. Mix in 1/4 cup to 6 Tbs. of the spice mix (or more if you like), bring the water to a boil, put on the lid and reduce the heat to very low. Let just simmer for 20 minutes; do not peek. After 20 minutes, check the rice for doneness. If not tender, replace the lid and cook for 5 to 10 minutes longer. When the rice is cooked, fluff the rice with a fork and add salt to taste.
Mejama Iraqi Mix
3/4 c. toasted yellow lentils
(Indian toovar dal) — toast in a dry pan, stirring till deep golden brown
1/2 c. toasted sliced almonds — toast in 350? oven for 5 to 6 minutes (no longer!)
1/4 c. dried garlic slices
1/2 c. dried onion pieces
1 Tbs. ground cumin
1 Tbs. ground turmeric
1/4 c. dried parsley
1/4 c. dried mint
1/4 c. golden raisins
2 tsp. kosher salt
Yield: about 2 cups
South Indian Mix
Dried vegetables are available
at most stores that sell bulk spices
1/2 c. Indian chana dal (whole yellow peas)
1/4 c. dried diced potatoes
1/4 c. dried diced red bell pepper
1/4 c. dried diced carrots
1/2 c. dried sweet sliced onions
1/4 c. dark raisins, or diced dates or figs
1/4 c. dark, medium spicy curry powder
2 Tbs. dried diced garlic
1/2 c. dried parsley or cilantro
1 Tbs. kosher salt
Yield: about 2-3/4 cups
Dry Mix for Salads and Cheese
This one is so delicious for sprinkling
on just about anything, even inside
grilled cheese sandwiches!
1 c. dried, toasted, sliced sweet onions
1/2 c. tiny diced, dried sweet apple pieces
1 c. toasted sesame seeds
1 c. toasted sunflower seeds
2 Tbs. sea salt
1/2 c. dried parsley
1/2 c. dried mint
Yield: 4-1/2 cups