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

Friday - - Contents - Arva of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­tures.com)

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.

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