Shopping for Spices

Amina, the chef at our riad, guided us past stalls of fruit sellers, artisans and shopkeeps, through tight corridors and low arched ceilings until we were outside the walls of the medina at a dead end in the labyrinth where the smell of spices traveled up our noses and down our throats. We saw huge piles of garlic in giant burlap sacks, old men in beige tunics skimming thin papery peels with calloused hands, littering the floor with a flimsy, transparent garlicky crunch.

Spices pointed to the ceiling, towering mountains of brilliant yellow, orange, and red, along with giant bins of fragrant dried herbs of every description. The pungency was overwhelming.

Amina made her selections and paid for them, then gave us our change discretely. On our way back, my eyes wandered to a selection of oils, and spotting my gaze, the vendor seduced us into his stall. He held a glass jar to our noses, something that looked like shards of salt, but its smell was as strong as a shot of whisky, a peppermint vitality almost lifelike in its strength.

Then a young man came from nowhere with a silver tray on which four small glasses and an ornate silver tea pot were beautifully arranged. The vendor poured steaming tea, which we drank despite the intense heat, and he showed us his oils while I felt sweat drizzle on my back and in my eyes.

He took a dust-sized particle from the glass jar we had just smelled and brushed a molecule of its contents into our tea. It was peculiar and delicious, and we felt it tingle our sinuses. While he measured our oil, Amina discretely took more money, went to another vendor, and purchased a measure of the curious rock for us to take home, all of us aware of her superior skill in negotiating a deal.

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