Today, April 7, I tidied the spice racks in my grocery cupboard. They were a mess: duplicates, dusty and out of date. I remember from Durban, where I lived for 23 years, we used to go down to the ‘Indian’ market where the spices were displayed in open bucket-topped piles: the golden turmeric; the burnt-orange paprika; the curls of hot chillies and a huge range of ready mixed curry powders from mild to heart-stompingly hot. No self-respecting cook of Indian food would keep spices as long as I do. They must be fresh. Mine are not fresh, but today they were sorted and some discarded. Order restored. Coming from Africa, we hate throwing things out: even old spices.
In 2017, we travelled on the Ombak Putih pinisi to the eastern Indonesian spice islands where the green cloves, nutmegs and mace are spread out in the sun to dry. The locals, in beach-side villages, receive little for their harvest. Poverty is everywhere, but they live in a paradise, as I did once.
The spice I love most is cloves. The rich smell of cloves pervaded the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. When we lived there, 80% of the world’s production came from these islands. Their smell takes me back to my childhood – a remembrance of things past – of riding my red bicycle through the winding streets of Stonetown where every little duka (shop) had something exotic for sale and the old mzee (man) would sit cross-legged on the baraza (concrete step lining the streets) and greet his friends.
And when the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, the mzee would lean his chair against the door frame and walk to the mosque. There was no need to lock up.
I have been known to open the tops of clove spice bottles in supermarkets in foreign lands, just to reach that smell. It’s easy to describe: rich, fecund, mind-clearing, healing. I can breathe in and go back home.