Caravans traversing the ancient overland Incense Route carried frankincense, gold, textiles and spices from the Far East via the ports of modern-day Yemen and Oman up through Saudi. The trade route diverged in southern Saudi at the oasis of Najran, where one road led through the mountains to Egypt and the Mediterranean and the other veered north along the edge of the desert into Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The spices of South Asia, the Indonesian Spice Islands and the Far East made their way along this route and have since come to define the flavors of Arabia.
There may be no greater example of the way Saudi cooks have made use of the bounty of the trade routes than the iconic dish kabsa. This one-pot meal is often called Saudi’s national dish and is made by simmering rice and chicken or lamb in a rich broth flavored with black pepper, cloves, cumin, coriander, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay leaves and nutmeg. Though Saudi cuisine is not spicy in terms of picante heat, it is one of the most flavorful in the sheer variety of spices used daily.
Cardamom is thought to be one of the world’s oldest spices, first grown in southern India and introduced to the Middle East via the trade routes more than 4,000 years ago. There are records of ancient Egyptians chewing cardamom to freshen their breath, but these days it is an invaluable part of the Middle Eastern pantry, imparting a strong floral, citruslike flavor to both sweet and savory dishes. It is also ground with coffee beans to create the signature qahwa (coffee) of the region. And it is an essential ingredient in the beloved Saudi dish saleeg, which is often described as “Arabian risotto.” To make it, rice is slowly cooked in milk and broth and topped with cardamom-spiced chicken.
Also called dried lime or limo Omani, this distinctive ingredient was born out of necessity on the trade routes. To preserve Malaysian limes for long overland journeys, the fruit was dried on straw mats in the ports of Oman and in the process was transformed into a musky, tart ingredient relied upon in kitchens around the Arabian Gulf. To use in cooking, the limes can be pierced with a knife and added whole to stews, soups or rice dishes, or ground and mixed into spice blends.
Cloves were prized in ancient times for their medicinal qualities (antiseptic, breath freshener, etc.) as well as for their culinary purposes. Cloves have a strong sweet-spicy flavor that perfumes everything from desserts to roasted meat. Cloves originated in the Maluku Islands in Indonesia — where it was illegal to take the plant or the seed from the islands. Despite the risk, an Arab trader smuggled a plant off the islands and presented it as a gift to the ruler of Zanzibar, where it was subsequently grown and popularized throughout the Middle East. In Saudi, the spice is used in everything from kabsa to qahwa.
This spice can trace its origins to the Mediterranean northwest of Saudi, and to South Asia in the east, so it stands to reason that it would be known by many names. In India and Pakistan, cumin is known as jeera; in Iran and Central Asia, cumin is known as zira; in northwestern China, it’s called ziran; and in Arabia, it is known as al-kamuwn. It is likely that this popular spice was transported across Saudi in both directions, and these days the distinctively savory, earthy spice can be found in almost all savory rice dishes, roast meat recipes, stews and baharat spice blends in Arabia, making it the most common spice aside from black pepper.