If variety is the spice of life, then that might explain why novelty and hot sauce are two of my favourite things. Botanical in origin and byzantine in range, spice is a reference to relish, pep and joie de vivre. An ordinary spice rack can contain magical spices, medicinal ones, and among them, the everyday garden variety kitchen spices that can be sourced from seed (fennel), bark (cinnamon), flower bud (clove), resin (asafoetida), root (turmeric), rhizome (ginger), aril (mace) or stigma (saffron).
In what is now modern-day Syria, archaeological digs have unearthed an incinerated kitchen dated thousands of years ago with a single clove burnt into the floor. It was around 300 years earlier that cinnamon and pepper launched the spice trade throughout the Middle East, though the earliest evidence of the use of spice by humans is dated many millennia before that. Arab traders, predominantly of Omani and Yemeni descent, were the alpha males of the Indian Ocean, commanding maritime routes from regions like the clandestine archipelagos in Indonesia known as the Spice Islands.
In the recently released Sex and The City 2, a scene so risible it borders on unbearable, is set in a fictional Abu Dhabi souq. The film's sprightly protagonist, Carrie, traipses whimsically through a bacchanalian bazaar where scales and platters sigh beneath pyramids of jewel-toned spices. The truth, however, isn't what sells a Disney story, of course; you can yell 'open sesame!' until the camels come home, but there are no Moroccan-style markets here and no secret portals to them, even with VIP connections.
Fortunately, the spice aisles at our local hypermarket are more than adequate. Just when I was getting ready to scream blue murder at the film's merciless bludgeoning of cultural clichés (and considering a quick theatre exit by way of my handy magic carpet), the dust and frankincense in Carrie's Arabian wonderland part, revealing a blue-eyed beacon in the exotic mists of ardour; her former sweetheart from New York City, standing a mere few metres away from her.
This shouldn't have come as a surprise; it has long been perpetuated through time and text that the heady, expensive aromas of spice are a classic aphrodisiac - so it follows that a spice market would make an inspiring environment for a romantic encounter. Courtship may be ancient, but the spice trade didn't start yesterday either. The Old Testament's Song of Solomon contains romantic verses that wax on about the sensory excitement offered by the perfumes of cinnamon and saffron.
And the 15th century Perfumed Garden written by Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi glorified nutmeg, cloves, cardamon and ginger. "Extra spicy!" exclaims the proprietor when I phone in my order at the Indian restaurant up the street. He has a special fondness for me, impressed by my tolerance for hot foods - and blithely convinced, I think, that it's the result of an undiscovered Kashmiri in my biological woodpile.
He gives me a cup of masala chai when I show up a few minutes early for my dinner, and it's great; more concentrated, robust and aromatic than the ubiquitous spiced "chai tea lattes" in western-style coffee houses, loosely based on the formula for masala chai, but now mass-produced and over-sweetened and sold in cartons in supermarkets. In her book Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf, Sarah Al-Hamad writes that the UAE's national dish, machbous, is "a celebration of robust perfumes and ingredients".
Traditional Gulf desserts tend to be simple and very sweet. What they lack in nuance they make up for with heavy spicing, which tastes clean and pure at best, but can err on the side of being overwhelmingly perfumed and one-dimensional. The Arabic word for spices, "baharat" is also the word for a spice mixture used throughout the Arab world and beyond and constituents of which the vary from one place to the next.
In the Gulf, it is often called kebsa and contains loomi (dried black lime), which gives local dishes a distinctive tang. The North African spice blend ras el hanout ("top of the shop" in Arabic) refers to another pantry staple with no definitive recipe. It is simply a mixture of the best spices a spice merchant has to offer. Cardamom, with its unmistakable resiny taste, is a perpetual undercurrent in Gulf food and drink, especially in muhalabiya, a milky rice pudding infused with green cardamom pods, and crumbly khabees, made with toasted flour and ground cardamom.
I like cardamom, but I think of it as the spice equivalent of green bell peppers, which have a tendency to bully competing flavours into a dark corner, so it helps to have a light hand. Mughli (which means boiled) is a cardamom-free spiced pudding made with rice flour, flecked with cinnamon and caraway, and showered with chopped raw nuts and coconut. It is usually served to guests by the family of a newborn. It is mild, cooling and gel-like, and after my youngest sister was born, I ate it by the quart to quell my raging metabolism.
Indeed, many of the Arab world's most iconic dishes are highly spiced. Musakhan is an addictive savoury Palestinian dish of roasted chicken with sumac, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg under a mantle of bread and melting, tender onions. Bisteeya is a Moroccan sweet and savory pigeon pie (often made with chicken) in which flaky crust meets powdered sugar, enveloping a filling of shredded cinnamon-spiced meat and ground almonds.
My favourite dessert cookbook, The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, has a chapter devoted to spices. In its introduction, writer and pâtissier Claudia Fleming asks: "Where would we be without spices? Everything would be plain vanilla." I know it's just a figure of speech, but vanilla remains my ivory tower amid a hustle of potpourri. Unfortunately, after saffron, vanilla is the world's most expensive spice, due mostly to the challenges of cultivating and harvesting the seedpods.
So my ultimate fantasy of installing an automatic soft-serve machine at home that dispenses satiny vanilla ice cream flush with vanilla seeds will have to wait until I'm flush, too.