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Cooking: The Spice Trade & the Jews
by Tina D. Wasserman

rice dishToday the compliment “worth your salt” might be cause for a smile, but in ancient times the same saying was cause for celebration!

In antiquity, spices were essential to healthy living. Salt not only enhanced the taste of food; it was the only method of food preservation. It was so valuable, the word salary goes all the way back to the salt payment which was given to Roman soldiers for service to the Empire. Also in demand were pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, which counteracted the saltiness of food, making it more palatable. In the 5th century, the invading Visigoths demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as partial payment for sparing Rome.

Jews played a significant role in the spice trade as early as the biblical times of Solomon (10th century B.C.E.). We know from I Kings (chapters 5 and 10) that King David bequeathed to Solomon vast lands which gave him control of the major trade routes to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia as well as routes to the southern Arabian peninsula, where the vast majority of spices were traded from the Far East. In search of spices, Solomon later embarked on a three-year trade expedition by sea from Ezion-Geber (near Eilat) to the island of Chryse (in the Indian Ocean).

While such expeditions were perilous and costly, the growing demand for spices made the risks worth taking, and ushered in the age of exploration. Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492; five years later the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed east in search of a quick route to the Spice Islands; and Ferdinand Magellan set sail across the Pacific on a similar quest in 1521.

In the late 15th century, following the Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal, many Jews settled in the Netherlands, South America, and the West Indies. Over time, Sephardic Jews who had settled in Holland established a vast trading empire grounded in their connections with other Sephardic Jews around the world. By the mid-1500s the Mendes family of Antwerp (former conversos from Portugal) controlled the major portion of the pepper and spice trade in northern Europe. Jewish traders also brought spices from Yemen, India, and the Dutch East Indies to Europe and the New World.

Little surprise, then, that Jews of the era, especially those who lived near the major trading centers (Aleppo in Syria, Cochin in India, the Moluccas Islands in Dutch East India, Cape Town in South Africa, and throughout the Netherlands), flavored their foods with ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, and other delectables.

Thanks in part to our courageous and clever ancestors, the spice trade flourished—and with it, culinary diversity around the globe. They truly were “…worth their weight in salt.”

Nasi Goreng

I ate nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) for the first time in Amsterdam when it was served as one of many dishes on a Rijsttafel or “rice table.” During their occupation of Indonesia, the Dutch adopted the Indonesian style of offering a variety of dishes on a table that resembles a Ferris wheel—many flavorful dishes were placed on four large horizontal trays connected to the center of the table; as you rotated the trays, you selected the dishes you wished to sample.

Here I have combined the basic concept of nasi goreng, which uses Indonesian spices, with flavors from the west coast of Africa near Elmina, where the Dutch obtained spices, palm oil, timber, and gold for export to Europe and the New World.

2 cups of basmati or medium grain rice
3 1⁄2 cups chicken broth
1⁄4 cup oil
2 medium onions, cut into 1⁄2-inch dice
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups cooked chicken or leftover turkey, julienne
1⁄4 pound merguez (lamb sausage), Italian sausage, or smoked turkey, cubed
2 Tablespoons Tsire (recipe follows)
4 Tablespoons peanut butter

  1. Combine the rice and the broth in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
  2. Spread the cooked rice on a rimmed cookie sheet for 1 hour to cool and dry.
  3. Make the Tsire spice mix. Set aside.
  4. Place a wok or 4-quart pot over medium-high heat for 15 seconds. Add the oil and cook for another 15 seconds. Sauté the onion over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 5 minutes more until it’s lightly golden.
  5. Add the rice. Stirring constantly, cook for approximately 5 minutes, until the rice is lightly browned.
  6. Add the prepared Tsire, peanut butter, and meats. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the dish is heated through. Serves 4-6.

Tsire Peanut and Spice Mix

1⁄2 cup dry roasted or cocktail peanuts
10 whole spice cloves
2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1⁄2 teaspoon whole allspice
1⁄2 teaspoon red chili flakes
1⁄2 teaspoon ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1⁄2 teaspoon salt

  1. Heat a small pan for 15 seconds.
  2. Add the cloves, allspice, and cinnamon, stirring until the spices become fragrant.
  3. Remove from the heat and grind the spices to a powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
  4. Add the remaining spices and the peanuts to a small processor workbowl, and pulse on and off about 20 times until the mixture is finely chopped. Alternatively, place the nuts and spices in a heavy plastic bag and pound them with a rolling pin until they’re well combined.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To make cubes of meat easily at home, ask the deli to slice fully cooked chicken or turkey into 1⁄2-inch pieces; then you can just cut the slices into cubes.
  • To preserve the flavor of dark-colored spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg—especially those you don’t use very often—store them in glass jars in your freezer. Spices remain fresh in a freezer for up to a year, but lose their flavor within weeks when left on a shelf. When you’re ready to cook, use the spice frozen—it defrosts immediately.

Curried Lentils and Vegetables

In the 17th through 19th centuries, British, Dutch, and Portuguese traders sailing the Spice Route made a mandatory stop in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) for nutmeg, mace, and cloves; and Sri Lanka and the Malabar Coast (on the southwestern tip of India) for their exclusively grown Malabar cinnamon and Malabar black pepper. These spices, plus the chilies and cardamom from inland routes, were the basis of many of the region’s curry spice blends. Contrary to popular belief, curry powder is not a single spice but in fact a blend of many spices (seven in this recipe). Here, the combination of spices with tomato is indicative of New Delhi origins.

1 cup red lentils
2 medium onions, chopped
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 good pinches of ground cloves
1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
3 yellow crookneck squash, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 cup vegetable broth
1⁄2 6-ounce can of tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 8-oz. can chickpeas, drained
3 cups of cooked basmati or jasmine rice (1 cup raw rice + 2 cups water)
1⁄2 cup roasted peanuts
1⁄2 cup unflavored yogurt (thick Greek yogurt is best)

  • Boil the lentils in water to cover for approximately 25 minutes, until they are soft but not mushy. Set aside.
  • Heat the oil. Sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat until the onions are soft and the garlic is light golden.
  • Mix in the spices and vegetables and sauté for 3 minutes.
  • Add the broth, tomato paste, chickpeas, and salt (if needed). Cover and simmer for about 8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
  • Drain the lentils and add to the vegetables. Stir in the nuts and serve over the rice with yogurt if desired. Serves 4-6.

Tina’s Tidbit:

  • Try to avoid using curry powder—cooking with fresh individual spices produces an incomparable flavor.

Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.

Any Questions?

If you’re attending the San Diego Biennial,
stop by Reform Judaism Magazine
Booths 638 and 640
at any time to meet and learn from
cooking expert Tina Wasserman.

And take note (it’s not in the program):
Tina will be offering a complimentary challah-braiding demonstration
12:00pm–1:00pm on Friday, December 14.
See you at the RJ Booth.


Union for Reform Judaism.