Dubai’s spice souq, says Arva Ahmed, needs spice ambassadors, not pushy hecklers.
Dubai’s spice souq is an incredible resource – but it’s underused and often not approachable, says Arva Ahmed
The scented alleys of the Deira spice souq evoke magical tales from The Arabian Nights, but its manners irk like an irrepressible pop-up ad online. Residents have betrayed its sacks of turmeric root and dried limes for sealed plastic packs at the nearest hypermarket. Many old-time patrons no longer trust the freshness and purity of what it stocks; their children no longer appreciate its existence, beyond a vintage-filtered Instagram frame. Rather than a thriving marketplace for locals, it is left to the whims of tourists who angle their cameras for a quick digital memory. Despite my jaded view of the souq, I am aware that it is a treasure chest of history. Its alleys narrate stories of trade in ingredients, their use in cuisine and healing. These stories have been preserved by generations of mothers practising herbal remedies for their families, but those visiting the souq today lack access to these storytellers.
As an effort to reconnect the storytellers with the broader public, the Sharjah Art Foundation curates workshops with Emirati mothers who can share their experiences and research around local herbal remedies. This kind of workshop has the potential to revitalise interest in the souq.
The sales pitch at the souq needs an overhaul; the multilingual heckling of passersby should give way to a more informative discourse. Tourism companies and schools can help by enlisting credible ‘souq ambassadors’ who have grown up in the UAE and seen their mothers and grandmothers wash, grind and brew various home remedies during their childhood.
Ambassadors like Homa Al Hashemi, an Emirati lady whose passion for herbal brews stems from her mother and her subsequent training as a biologist and chemist. Now a mother and grandmother herself, she shared her knowledge with an eager audience at a recent Sharjah Art Foundation workshop. Homa is a credible ambassador because she is equally well-read about age-old remedies as she is about modern day ‘superfoods.’ This is important for ensuring she does not alienate that slice of the young, interneteducated population which holds raw cacao nibs and baobab powder close to their hearts. Her discussion of ‘rashad’ or garden cress seeds that are popularly consumed in Emirati households is accompanied with a comparison to chia seeds. Both seeds bloom when soaked in water, though the former is a traditional Arabian remedy that has been used to strengthen bones, heal new mothers after childbirth and treat indigestion, diabetes, sore throat and kidney stones in the Gulf long before chia arrived from South America.
Contrary to a tourist’s passive interaction with these seeds at the souq, Homa brings in a drink where the soaked and boiled seeds are suspended in a silky saffron-infused custard. This rich drink tastes as wholesome and healing as its effect on the body, though Homa is quick to add that the custard is a new-age addition – the traditional version is with water, toasted flour, saffron and warming spices like cardamom, black pepper and cinnamon for the intended curative impact.
A pile of lacklustre green leaves described as the purgative ‘senna’ may be instantly forgotten as the tour guide flits to the next
The sales pitch at the souq needs an OVERHAUL; the heckling of passers-by should give way to a more INFORMATIVE discourse by enlisting credible ‘souq AMBASSADORS’ who’ve grown up in the UAE
sack. A more memorable approach would be to show visitors how the leaves can be brewed into a restorative tisane, the kind that Homa’s mother used to give her as a child once a month, early on a Friday morning, to cleanse her stomach and boost digestive health. She urges us to inhale the aromatic difference between the finger-thin ‘male’ turmeric root and the stout ‘female’ roots that she prefers to use in her healing brews. She demonstrates the exfoliating quality of ground nigella seeds, which is highly revered in the Islamic world because Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) claimed that it is ‘the cure to everything, except death’. When coarsely ground, it can be mixed with water for a skin scrub, or with yeast, yogurt, lemon and olive oil for a home-made face pack. A simple demonstration of one of these many ‘souq to scrub’ treatments would close a sale far faster than the multi-lingual heckling that arguably scares many a potential customer away. Higher sales will lead to fresher stocks and lure old patrons back.
It’s time to bring residents back to the souq rather than one-time tourists.
Traditional remedies are becoming fashionable again, and our souq is sitting on a treasure chest of precisely those herbs that will become exorbitantly expensive when their time to trend comes.