The Dubai Spice Souq

I can smell it as the local wooden boat, abra, touch-parks at the riverbank. The aromas lead me stumbling up the gangplanks and into a throbbing intersection. I ponder for a moment: safe stroll through the subway, or manic death-wish rush through Deira traffic? I opt for the road, the thought of darkness, dankness and urine assaulting the senses is unbearable.

Suddenly I find myself on the other side, and snicker at the fools coughing and spluttering while collapsing out of the vile tunnel. I am already striding ahead into a different cloud of air pollution, the kind you find at a spice souq.

Souq, souk and suq are all appropriate spellings, and they all mean the same thing: they are Arabic words for ‘market”. The Spice Souq is my favorite of all in Dubai. Sure, it’s ripe with the standard pitfalls of a tourist trap: cheap rubbish dressed in clever disguise, laughably high prices that are never offered to the locals, shouting salesmen offering fake designer handbags and watches. But this, to me, is the closest we get to a traditional Arab market, and the atmosphere is intoxicating.

There are fewer westerners here than in the Old, Textile, or Gold Souqs, particularly as you delve into the deeper, narrower aisles. On many visits I am a lone white face, and the only unveiled female. The stall holders always think I’m German, and when I don’t respond to their greetings, they switch to French, then finally English. I marvel at their unappreciated skill with language, yet skirt them expertly. I have “my guy”, the man whose prices start halfway up the scale, now he knows my face.

I pass pots large enough to cook Hansel and Gretel, rows of shisha pipes, plastic bowls that look like porcelain, dinky toys, perfumes, henna dye and hair jewellery. Finally I find him, on the corner, near the money exchange. He smiles and welcomes me in, never remembering I have been here before until I request the spicy cashews that often are not on the shelf. His father sits at the desk beside the other exit, grumbling occasionally, snorting and frowning until I finally buy something.

And what do I buy?

  • Za’atar – a herb mix of thyme and sesame that is a great bread-dipping base, but I use for all kinds of things
  • Sumac – zingy, citrussy, magenta-coloured powder that I mainly use with fish, but also to flavour salad dressings (it is a necessary ingredient in Fattoush)
  • Saffron – honey flavored and as expensive as gold. Just make sure you get the real stuff, not the terribly inferior substitutes.
  • Baharat – the Arabic alternative to curry powder – a fragrant hot powdery mix especially good as a rub for barbecued fish and chicken.
  • Hibiscus and chamomile flowers – for caffeine free tea, particularly good when sweet and iced with lashings of lemon.
  • Turmeric- in root or powder. Its flavor is subtle – slightly nutty and herbaceous, but I love the colour. It’s nearly always essential in curries.
  • Rosewater and orange-blossom water – for salad dressings, sugar syrup base for baklava, and to put in my bath.
  • Cardamom – again, for the sugar syrup, and also to flavour my tea. A fragrant, fresh spice that lends itself to both sweet and savory dishes.
  • Oud – slivers of the highly aromatic wood that rivals saffron’s price. A piece just 1cm square will burn on charcoal in a terra-cotta pot in my living room and leave it’s magical scent for days.

And of course, the spicy roasted cashews….

The spice souq is not the only place you can purchase these things in Dubai, even the local Carrefour sells spices by the scoop out of a sack here, and probably cheaper. But the souq is a journey through space and time and not just a shopping destination. It is open daily from 10 am till late, with the standard siesta hour or so from 1pm to 4pm, and it is closed on Friday mornings. Like all markets however, the opening hours of individual shops may vary.

It can be found next to the Dubai Creek, on the Deira side – identified by a row of decrepit beige wind towers, and of course, the smell. It’s walking distance from the Gold Souq (in mild weather), and an easy abra, or wooden boat, ride from the old souq, which resides on the other side of the sprawling Dubai Creek.

You can find recipes using many of these ingredients on my website, at

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