Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan: A Spice Odyssey
Back when I was in university, many of my favourite courses covered topics like food security, agricultural methods, food in pop culture, and how food affects (and is affected by) globalization. I even tried to take a certain number of courses on food and agriculture to earn a specialization on my degree, but juggling that along with two majors just didn’t work out.
Nevertheless, since then I’ve always enjoyed reading books about how food and culture influence each other, and Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan is an excellent addition to that part of my library. My sister gave it to me for my birthday in September — proof not only that she knows me very well, but also that she’s freaking awesome.
Cumin, Camels, and Caravans is a history of the spice trade across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas ranging from thousands of years ago to the beginning of the colonization of the New World in the 1500s. Nabhan, a professor who has written several books about food, agriculture, health, and the economy, intersperses his historical examination of developments in the spice trade across the centuries with his own observations based on travelling to various important hubs along spice routes: Damascus, Grenada, Cairo, Oman, Burkhara, Quanzhou, and more.
Almost no spice or aromatic herb important to the history of world trade escapes Nabhan’s attention. In addition to actual world history, each chapter contains inserts discussing individual spices in detail, including how their changing names across cultures reveal the flow of trade. Food? Awesome. Food and etymology? Fuck yes.
What’s even better is that these inserts answered questions I always had but never asked out loud. For example: if chili peppers are from the New World, how come their spice is so prevalent in certain Asian and Indian cuisines? How could a foreign spice have become so thoroughly integrated into such food in only a few centuries? Well, it turns out that those questions are based on a few faulty assumptions. Firstly, it can take a surprisingly small amount of time for a new food or spice to be integrated into an existing cultural tradition — heck, that’s one of the major themes of the entire book. Secondly, just because chile peppers are native to the Americas doesn’t mean that there weren’t already plants endemic to Asia with similar taste profiles. Up until this book came into my life, I had never heard of melegueta pepper, or known that Sichuan pepper was its own separate thing.
It’s also amazing just how much this book has filled in certain gaps about my knowledge of the world, like the founding of Islam and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate. Also, while I rationally knew that Middle Eastern and Arab merchants facilitated trade between Europe and Asia, I didn’t fully appreciate what that meant for cultural interchange — I didn’t understand how much of a presence Muslim traders had in Chinese history, or how those same traders influenced life in Spain up until the Inquisition.
By the way, this book really makes you realize what a bunch of assholes the Christian kings of Spain and Portugal were — kicking out Muslims and Jews, executing them, forcing them to convert to Christianity and (just to spice things up) replacing all the herds of goats and sheep with pigs as a way to make the converted prove they were “really” Christian by willingly eating pork. God, how vindictive. Plus, Vasco de Gama was a huuuuuuuge douchebag. Huge.
In addition to the edifying lessons on history and cuisine, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans also contains quite a few recipes. I have yet to try cooking any myself, but I am intensely curious about them. However, some recipes sound like they’d be much easier to prepare than others. The rice pilaf with saffron and quince sounds lovely, as does the chicken stew with ground almonds. The recipe that involves actual live locusts, though? Not so much.
However, the book isn’t completely smooth sailing. Some of the prose is repetitive, and Nabhan sometimes gets so swept up in the romance of his travels that his writing goes beyond purple all the way around to orientalist. He also engages in some awkward metaphors that are far from appetizing, like comparing food to sex in all its stickiness.
There’s also the pang of bittersweetness that comes from realizing that some of the places Nabhan is describing during his travels will never again be like they were when he saw them: we may still have Damascus roses, but Damascus itself is nearly destroyed as of 2015, and so are other cities he mentions, like Aleppo. Did he know when he was visiting those places that the book would soon close on them, or at least switch to a drastically different chapter? It’s hard to say.