Gates of Damascus chili — the spice trade and worldbuilding

April 4th, 2007

One of the most valuable reference books I have in my fiction writer’s library is The Complete Book of Spices by Jill Norman. It details, simply and photographicly, the history of the world spice trade and the major regional spice blends. From a writing standpoint, this helps to flavor a world, because few things give a sense of place so much as the cuisine, and nothing places a cuisine so well as the spice.

The meanderings and peregrinations of the spice trade are why cardamom is so favored in Swedish desserts, Indian black pepper replaced African grains of paradise in European cuisine, and Texas has chili cookoffs.

I’ve never cooked chili before, but a group of friends has been doing potlucks a couple times a month, and the challenge was given to have a “chili cookoff night” which then became a more sensible serial chili cookoff, where so far we’ve sampled two different chilis and now it’s my turn.

Of course, being a writer, nothing is ever simple and everything is research, and I like research. And, as a number of years ago a scorched pot of apricot jam was saved by turning it into apricot-ancho chili barbecue sauce, I knew that apricots worked well with chili, so why not postulate a world where the tomato had never gotten to the Old World and Texas-ish chili con carne was invented somewhere else with the local produce? Like, oh, say, Damascus, also noted for its apricots?

I based my first inspiration of one of the best food-as-culture descriptions I’ve ever read, this snipped from “The Gates of Damascus” by James Elroy Flecker:

Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots:

And thou shalt sell thy wares for thrice the Damascene retailers’ price

Did I mention that a while ago I’d tried to buy some Aleppo pepper, but couldn’t, because of the damnable war? It turns out you can now get Aleppo pepper again, but I’d bought some nice Chinese chili flake, which is like Aleppo pepper but a bit hotter, so I’d still use it to substitute. Obviously it could come through the trade routes. Likewise with cumin, ajowan seeds, nigella, Spanish paprika, Hungarian paprika, cinnamon, tumeric, ordinary chili flakes, cayenne, coriander, bay leaves, marjoram, and finally the twenty different herbs and spices that make up “Ras el Hanout,” the famous spice blend from Morocco which a friend picked up for me a few years ago in Fez. And of course beef, onions, pomegranate molasses and lemon juice, in addition to the stewed dried apricots. And the core of a pineapple, because it needed a touch more acid, and I wasn’t going to get silly on a ban on all New World produce.

Interestingly, after the chili was simmering, additional research revealed that the Persians had already had a similar idea. Of course, the recipe I found online listed lamb instead of beef, but the spice mixture had a lot in common and the stewed dried apricots were pretty much exactly what I did, and I’m certain that more than one Iranian housewife has substituted beef for lamb when that’s what you have on hand.

Research also turned up wonderful cultural details about “The Chili Queens of San Antonio,” a custom which could easily be transported into a fantasy world–something, in fact, that I’m highly tempted to do.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that if you follow the spice trade in your world, you’ll get both culture and commerce, and with those, a far greater degree of texture and richness than a world with no spice.

5 Responses to “Gates of Damascus chili — the spice trade and worldbuilding”

  1. Charleson 04 Apr 2007 at 5:37 pm

    While I haven’t developed location specific recipes (yet) — I’ve concentrated on the location specific drinks — commerce and trade in general play an important role in my writings. In fact, trade routes are responsible for starting the first major war in the world I am writing about. I’ll have to add the spice book to my list. Next up for me in terms of research is: The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral by Robert Scott.

  2. Constance Ashon 04 Apr 2007 at 6:37 pm

    I spent much of today making New Mexico posole, with ingredients brought in from New Mexico: the parched corn, the chile pods, the ground chile (molido). Many thanks to friend Peter, who brought me back a care package when he closed the sale of his Santa Fe house!

    The onions, garlic, cilantro and lime juice, however, and the pork, are from elsewhere — many elsewheres.

    Spices were as valuable as gold. Columbus wanted both equally as he sailed the blue in 1492.

    Love, C.

  3. LauraJMixonon 06 Apr 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Great post, Kevin. This is true for me as well — odd facts and twists that associate sensory detail with culture, history, or technology make great references.

  4. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 06 Apr 2007 at 3:41 pm



    Browsing about the web looking for recipe bits, I found this great 1865 extract of a lady’s diary from a trip to Palestine. The cultural and sensory details are great, and there’s even this nice Indiana Jones-style scene with her being lowered down a well to recover a lost holy book:

    I’m going to have to read it more fully later.

  5. vidugaviaon 16 Apr 2007 at 4:49 am

    Doesn’t everyone use cardamom in their buns…?

    – an ethnocentric swede

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