Discover Ethiopia: Spices and the Mind

Ethiopia is known as “nature’s finest spice gardens,” for its “terroire”–that combination 256px-Cinnamon-cassiaof soil and climate which, as in France with wine or Brazil with coffee, provides the perfect growing environment for high quality spices.

Ethiopians have also perfected unique blends of spices that linger in the mind long after they have faded from the tongue.  Berbere, the most famous of these, is a crucial element of Ethiopian cuisine.  It is composed of well known herbs and spices–chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, and fenugreek–as well as plants that grow wild in Ethiopia, like korarima, and long pepper.  Other ingredients little known in the West include rue, ajwain, nigella, and radhuni.

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That a spice can be used to summon a place–and from there, a memory–was recently recognized in a New York Times magazine article about New York spice mixer Lior Lev Sercarz.  Besides supplying many of New York’s finest chefs, Sercarz practices what he calls “spice therapy,” designing custom blends for clients that reflects their backgrounds and how they lived.  After his third day using the mixture Sercarz made him, author Alex Halberstadt writes, “My brain began to regurgitate childhood memories. First there was my mother’s beef flank, simmered in gravy to a punishing doneness; then the smell of a sweet clear brew, dispensed from Moscow store counters, called birch juice; and finally I recalled mushrooms. My great-grandmother and I foraged for them around the polluted lake in the village where she rented a cabin in the summers, and afterward we combed the woods that ran along the wheat fields of the collective farm. She showed me how to pickle and jar them, and in the fall I presented the results to my parents and assembled kin, who congratulated me and bit into the mushrooms with an exaggerated relish, at least until the food poisoning set in. I must have been about 6…I sat engrossed until someone at the table waved a hand in front of my face.”

Halberstadt later spoke to Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who studies the neurological effects of spices. “Smell has a very potent effect on the brain and, as a sense, Cloves-penang-zanzibarit’s very primitive,” Pillay says. As it turns out, smell is the only one of our senses that communicates directly with the cortex in the brain without stopping at the thalamus, a sort of relay station for most of our sense data. So “for all its modish decadence,” Halberstadt writes, “Lev Sercarz’s trade is older than the Silk Road; the spices in the two-ounce jar he gave me provided a neurological link to my patrimony, however fleeting.”

Come discover more about Ethiopia’s spice patrimony, and experience the scents and flavors emerging from that country’s long memory at Discover Ethiopia, our next Language of Food event, on April 27th.  For more information, or to register, visit our website.