We head to the spice souk for frankincense and myrrh
Anyone who claims there’s no ‘organic street life’ in Dubai has obviously never explored the streets of Deira. The trip involves strolling – well, hustling – from the Gold Souk, past alleyways and shops selling what looks like the exports from an entire industrial city in China. Then there’s the beautiful deep blue mosque of Al Ras, before you finally end up in the Spice Souk.
Run almost entirely by Iranians, the narrow-laned souk jostles with people – from open-armed, baying salesmen to cap-wearing, sweaty tourists – and is lined with open sacks of every spice and herb imaginable: from preserved lemons to dried roses, hibiscus to behemoth vanilla pods – even the Biblical frankincense and myrrh.
Parallel to the creek and just off Baniyas Road, the space was Dubai’s original souk, and the vendors tell us it’s been there for at least 60 years (some go as far as to say 80). They’re happy to talk about their spices, but most are also eager to discuss their home towns: almost all of them come from villages near Shiraz in Iran. Everyone claims that their village ‘runs’ the souk. ‘Ali Abad village has 200 houses, and we’re all here,’ one man claims. But then another man from Laor Istan village tells us that Ali Abad is a poky village of just 50 houses and that his village is the one that rules the aromatic roost. Quite what is the case never becomes clear.
Yet one thing that not many people are happy to talk about is how business is going. We ask 15 men whether their business has been affected by the fact that most malls, supermarkets and co-ops now sell spices. We also point out that there may be hundreds of tourists poking their ludicrously large camera lenses into the star anise, but very few seem to actually buy anything.
Finally one man, who is unwilling to give me his name (maybe so his boss can’t identify him) tells us that the actual retail side is a very small slice of their business – one that was much more profitable a mere 15 years ago – and that they’re mainly kept afloat through bulk buyers from Africa and wholesale business with local supermarkets. So, happily, it looks like these slender wood-lined streets are here to stay – we’re still convinced it’s the cheapest place to buy saffron and more (if you haggle). Here, we meet two more vendors who are sure business is doing well…
Mousa Askar, 38, works at Abdul Hamid Al Redha Trading Co (04 226 4775) and is from Laor Istan. He has lived and worked in Dubai for 15 years – he works for six months, then goes home for six months every year. He works with his uncle Abdul Hadi, who has worked in the store for 45 years, and says most of his customers are from Oman. He particularly loves saffron, which sells for about Dhs8 per gram (compared to about Dhs31 per gram at high-end supermarkets).
Hassan Murtafaq Shahqir, 37, from Shiraz, works at Ali Akbar Zamani Trading (04 225 4611) and tells us that the most popular spices are curry powder and turmeric. Most of his customers are either locals who live in the area, or people from Egypt, Sudan or Nigeria.
What exactly are frankincense and myrrh?
We find out more about these two seasonal gifts Both frankincense and myrrh are derived from tree sap. The former is a milky-white resin extracted from the boswellia tree, which grows in the cooler and more arid areas of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Oman; the latter is a reddish resin from the commiphora trees, found in rocky areas of Oman and Saudi Arabia, as well as in parts of Africa. Extracting the sap involves making a cut into a tree’s trunk and letting it slowly ooze down the tree. Teardrop-shaped drops of sap then harden on the side of the tree and are ready to harvest in about two weeks.
Frankincense is said to have been traded in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa for more than 5,000 years, and is primarily used as incense and for its essential oil. The scent it gives off is floral, citrusy and woody. In the ancient world the oil was used to treat depression, and recent studies by an Omani doctor and the University of Oklahoma have found that it may help to halt the growth of cancerous cells.
Myrrh, meanwhile, means ‘bitter’ in Arabic and its scent is just that, yet it’s still pleasant and herbaceous. It has been proven to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol while raising the healthy kind, and is said to have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It can also, apparently, be used as a dental rinse – just soak it in water for a few days, then gargle with the resulting liquid.
How much does it all cost? Mousa Askar (pictured, top) told us his frankincense comes from as near as Salalah and as far as Ethiopia (the latter proving to be the finest kind) and costs around Dhs100 per kg. His best myrrh comes from Somalia and is Dhs75 per kg. The Spice Souk is across Baniyas Road to the left of Deira’s abra station. Open Sat-Thu 10am-1pm, Fri 4pm-10pm.