Sugar, Spice, and Souks: Deira Spice Souk
If you came to the United Arab Emirates in search of old world vignettes, tucked in narrow alleyways, filled with magic carpets, Arab men in colorful head scarves and puffs of jasmine flavored incense, you may be disappointed when confronted with the modern city. While Dubai rises high into the clouds with its contemporary sky scrapers, tradition can still be found around every corner. One sure spot to scope the cultural heritage of the UAE is the Deira spice souk, along the Dubai creek.
Starting on the creek’s West bank, visitors can meander through the textile souk, picking through cashmere pashminas, and stalls filled with vibrant fabrics. Beware of zealous merchants going to extremes in order to catch your attention with their goods. Within moments of entering, the vultures descended, not even bothering to circle first before throwing scarves and bangles over my unsuspecting body. The technique worked, and I ended up walking away with a hand stitched garment from Pakistan, a pair of Ali Baba shoes for a very special three year old, and a giant hookah… My arms were in serious need of some pack camel assistance to carry my loot, and I hadn’t even crossed the creek yet!
The real treasure hunt begins on the East bank of the creek, known as Deira. This collection of souks hold spices, gold and other precious trinkets, as well as picture perfect photo ops in every turn. To get across to Deira from the textile souk, simply hop on one of Dubai creek’s Abra boat taxis, costing only 1 dirham, leaving approximately every other second, from wherever you are standing. The abras go across to a few different points along the creek so just gesture toward the spice souk and your driver will make sure you get to where you want to go. Matt wasn’t satisfied with just one ride on the traditional boat, with its cool breeze and ample people watching, but after three trips across I distracted him with a coconut vendor and we finally docked.
At the mouth to the Deira markets is a bustling intersection with bus transfers, water taxi stations, and street vendors selling “Natural Viagra.” Yes the souk really does carry something for everyone. Now one might think that shopping for spices involves buying three lbs of vacuum sealed black pepper at your local Costco, but I assure you, there is so much more sniffing and tasting fun to be had!
I pride myself on a well developed palate, thanks to a few years of traveling and sampling a diverse range of flavors, so I was thrilled when the first vendor we happened upon wanted to test me on my spice knowledge. By sight I passed five out of six spices including: Frankincense, lemon balm, dried rose hips, cinnamon, and saffron. Where I went wrong was failing to identify the Arabic spice combination that is Ras El Hanout. In my defense, this traditional spice combines many of the ingredients I called out in a guessing frenzy including, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. I can’t wait to take my Summer holiday to the USA next week and deliver a few new salts to the one and only, SaltySeattle!!!
The complexity of layered flavors in Arabic cuisine can be attributed to a long standing history of spice trade throughout India and the Middle East. A trip to the Deira souk provides a look at the rich and spicy history of a nation becoming quickly modernized. Enjoy your backyard grilling and seasoning this July, and save me a salty salmon burger!