My parents arrived yesterday from the Middle East bearing all kinds of treats native to the Persian Gulf region. Along with tried-and-true faves like the exotic dates stuffed with almonds, candied lemon peel, and candied orange peel, Iranian saffron, and lemony roasted pistachios, we also received a box of traditional desserts such as ma’amoul, sesame crisps, and a whole assortment of phenomenally fresh almond and pistachio treats. The delicacy that best bookended a week that had started with our discovery of Ras el Hanout, though, was Kabsa, the most distinctive spice mix from the Arabian peninsula.
The nations that make up the Arabian peninsula today don’t have nearly the reputation for cuisine (and especially for the complex use of spices) that, say, Morocco does, but spices have long been a central preoccupation of the region nevertheless. The rise of Islam and the spice trade were absolutely and inextricably linked—not only did the spice trade finance the birth of Islam, but the Spice Route became the primary conduit for the teachings of Islam, spreading the new faith from the Arabian peninsula all the way to the Spice Islands (modern-day Indonesia and Malaysia) in the east, and as far west as Morocco and the Iberian peninsula.
Kabsa is a spice mix made up of everything from coriander, cinnamon, and turmeric, to pepper, cardamom, clove, dried ginger root, and dried Omani limes, and it lends its name to the most famous of Arabian dishes, Al-Kabsa, which can be made with a variety of different meats, but is most commonly made with lamb or chicken, along with rice, nuts, and dried fruit. We got one bag of pre-ground Kabsa and another of unground “raw” spices (you can get a sense of what it looks like from the photo above). The bag of whole ingredients looks and smells amazing, but we’ve got no idea how we’re going to manage to grind it. As soon as we do, and we get a chance to whip up a batch of chicken Al-Kabsa, we’ll let you know.