There is a stall at our market place that sells Indian food; curries, dal, samossa, tandori, nan, biryani, dishes both spiced and mild. Aluminum warming trays display the dishes side by side, too hard to refuse as we scurry by. 6 chicken tandoori brochettes, dal for three, nan, two plain, two with cheese, throw in a serving each of chutney and raita please. The woman behind the counter with her accented French and her gentle voice, her kind smile and graceful gestures, scoops up ladlefuls of everything I desire, spoons each into tiny plastic tubs and seals them.
To the right of the cash register lie the spices, more than I could ever need, although that never stops me from wanting all of them. Spices by the dozens in little clear plastic packets, so beautiful, so seductive. Spices ground and spices whole. Cardamom pods in pale green, lovely star anise, mustard seeds in black and gold, peppercorns in white, black and pink. Turmeric and ginger, cinnamon sticks elegantly, intriguingly curled into themselves, whole nutmeg like odd, rough nuts. And the colors! The cayenne, the deep desert red threads of saffron, the deep blue of the poppy seeds. This is an Ali Baba’s cavern of treasures, these spices tell stories of One Thousand and One Nights, of gold and gems and secrets of peoples and cultures. For only 2€ a packet.
I think of baskets of perfect pyramids of spices in markets across the Dark Continent from Morocco to Nigeria, of spices sold in souks in the Middle East, in markets in India. Fantastic tales of traders, ships upon wild seas, camels gliding across desert continents. An imagination spiced and seasoned, poignant and perfumed.
Many men have wooed me with food. With the unbridled enthusiasm of a child bringing a handful of pollywogs to his mom, they placed platters of freshly steamed asparagus or shimmering gold boxes of Godiva chocolate before me; they ushered me gallantly to elegant restaurants or stood in the kitchen sliding baking dishes of parsleyed trout from the oven, served me hamburgers in Nigeria and oysters in Paris. They wooed and pursued, urgently offering me dishes and treats, the way to my heart most apparently over my tastebuds.
An elegant, soft-spoken man, one for whom the word gentleman fit so perfectly, would stop to chat with me whenever our paths crossed on campus. A visiting professor, he spoke passionately of his home country Ethiopia, longing to impart the heat of the sun, the colors of the culture to me, a simple, untraveled, wide-eyed young woman. His dark face, pure white shirt buttoned up to the collar, his plain black trousers, his stiff, upright posture and his quiet, rhythmic voice were intriguing indeed; he was very formal, very polite in a respectful and old-fashioned way.
He desired nothing more than to cook for me, invite me to his humble abode and share traditional Ethiopian dishes with me. We set a date and I arrived in time for lunch, curious, intrigued, trying to imagine what his cuisine was like. We sat on cushions on the floor and he served us rice topped with meat in a tomato-based sauce. A spiced sauce. An incredibly hot, fiery hot spicy sauce. He had tamed it just for me, he claimed, for my western tastebuds, tamed it as he knew his American guests could not bear the spicy heat. Try as I might, I could not eat any of it. The disappointment on his face, the apologies that tumbled from his lips and my utter embarrassment and the friendship seemed to fade away.
A neighbor, young and handsome; no, more than handsome… outrageously gorgeous, a neighbor and I fell into step, desiring to get to know each other. As shy as I, the steps were tentative, a slow, quiet mating dance. He asked me to dinner and I accepted. “I know a marvelous Thai restaurant that serves traditional Thai food… I lived in Thailand for a couple of years, fell in love with the cuisine and I want nothing more than to share it with you,” he explained, love and desire burning deep in his eyes, in his soul. He was head over heals. We stared at each other nervously across the table, he ordered for two. “Make it mild for her,” he begged the waitress, even as he explained that traditionally Thai is a spicy cuisine.
Once again, I let a man down, no turning back, hurt him to his very soul. Food heavily spiced, hot, searing, burning beyond my own desire for the man. Spiced food cooled the heat between us.
I brought the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. The chili powder and smoky paprika. The cloves. Not to mention the Old Bay and the gumbo filé. Sweet and spicy pumpkin pies, apples kicked up, earthy and warm. The big pots of seafood creole and steamed this and that. Thanksgiving dinners and winter desserts, Christmas puddings and stunning Bundt cakes. Crisps and crumbles and cobblers, Buckles and Brown Betties. A dusting of this one, a sprinkle of that and the fruit that he had known forever was suddenly transformed into something all-American.
He brought the cumin and coriander, the turmeric and saffron. He brought the hot and the sizzling, the exotic; colors and heat, visions of spice markets and voyages in a far off land. Fragrant and heady, couscous and tagine, Yassa and Maafe, Cari and curries, he spiced up my life when I walked into his.
Like brides and grooms of old, like Magi carrying frankincense, and myrrh, we each brought our own spices to the marriage. Just to spice things up a bit. A little bit of piquancy, a little bit of tang, a whole lot of gusto, a marriage to relish.
It was a silly thing for five grown women to do, but there was nothing to stop us, either. We decided to dub ourselves the Spice Girls. We might not have been as sleek and sexy as those others, but we certainly had the pep, and most definitely we had the bite. Sweet and fiery. Spiced.
Sporty Spice was a willowy, waiflike creature, bubbly and spirited, spicy indeed. Her sneakered feet were ever moving, she was always full of energy and full of pep. Zesty Spice was dark and exotic, yet snappy, peppery… definitely effervescent. Then there were Snarky and Sweary Spice, just for the hell of it. Words sizzling hot, humor pungent and piquant.
And I was Sassy Spice. Yeah. Sassy. I can certainly be. Cheeky, just a bit, I was the gentle fragrance instead of the hot spiciness, the hint of cinnamon or nutmeg to their blazing chili.
Cranberries strung on string, stained fingers pushing the needle through each bright red orb then gliding the berry down to its place snug next to its kin. Popcorn, one for the mouth, two for the garland, sliding it the long distance to its place gently without breaking it, snapping it into a million little crumbs.
Strings of cranberries, ruby red, and strings of popcorn, ivory white, looped gracefully through the boughs and branches, coiled around the evergreen in elegant swags.
Sitting at the table poking whole cloves, heady fragrance, a spicy nip to the senses, poking cloves into oranges, around and around, a dizzy circle of cloves like a whirpool. Or stab the cloves, pop into the skin of the fruit, up and down in perfectly parallel lines, then tied with a pretty ribbon and hung on the tree.
Winter oranges pierced with cloves perched on the radiator, lined up to dry. Orange and cloves, a Christmas ritual, a fine spray of citrus oil, an exquisite scent of orange and a seductive, teasing perfume of spiced cloves like some exotic incense.
ILVA'S SPICE SALT
125 ml/ 0,5 cup coarse salt
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp pink peppercorns
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
4 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Put all ingredients in a small electrical blender and whizz until you are happy with the blend. Store in airtight container.