From jewel-toned spices that defy gravity to scents that thicken the air and fill your nostrils, the world’s best spice markets offer intoxicating scenes and experiences. These are labyrinths to get lost in; maze-like alleyways where your nose takes you from one exhilarating experience to the next. In addition, they can be found all over the world. Here are seven to look for.
1. Dubai Spice Souk
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Powders and petals in shades of yellow-green to purple are piled in tall baskets in the alleys of the Dubai Spice Souk, part of the Deira market area established in the 1850s. It’s separated from Downtown’s gleaming high-rise modernity by the Dubai Creek, yet in its own way it’s just as dizzying as the skyscraper forest that’s the emirate’s landmark. The dizzying towers of cardamom, turmeric, and hibiscus flowers can be overwhelming for beginners, so don’t be afraid to ask questions — or haggle.
Must try: A specialty are dried black limes, used to add flavor to sauces and stews.
2. Mercado Benito Juarez
This covered market, which spans an entire block, sells more than just spices; Vendors here offer everything from tamales and textiles to mezcal and moles. There’s certainly plenty here to appeal to both the eye and the nose, not least the selection of dried chillies, from ancho to Oaxaca’s native pasilla.
Must try: A rainbow of mole sauces showcases local spices at their heady, complex side.
3. Rahba Kedima
The souks of the city’s walled medina are intoxicating – no more so than Spice Square, as this bustling square is commonly known. Stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops offer everything from star anise to cinnamon sticks and saffron strands at relatively low prices, while the center of the square is packed with people selling everything from argan oil to plant-based cosmetics.
Must try: The aromatic spice mixtures are particularly good – including ras el hanout: a mixture of up to 30 spices.
4. Mısır Çarşısı
While the striped, domed roof of Mısır Çarşısı — also known as the Egyptian Bazaar — catches the eye, the heaps of earth-toned spices that fill the stalls in the 17th-century market compete for your attention. And amidst the dried chilies and mounds of garam masala are baskets of dried fruit, pomegranate blossoms and sugar-dusted Turkish delights.
Must try: Historically, this was the last stop for camel caravans traveling along the Silk Road.
5. Khari Baoli
In the labyrinthine lanes of this vast Old Delhi spice market, the scenes and scents that unfold can be almost overwhelming. The air of the market is filled with the scents of cardamom, cinnamon and complex curry powders piled in huge sacks. It’s frantic, exhilarating, and utterly hypnotic.
Must try: Established in the 16th century, the market is the largest of its kind in Asia.
6. Spice Market in Mombasa
The spices spilling out of bags and buckets at this hectic spice market, which stretches along two streets near the old town, are as vibrant as powdered paint in eye-catching shades of fuchsia, ochre, pistachio and burnt orange. Here, Mombasa‘s Middle Eastern and South Asian influences blend with local produce, so expect a heady mix of spices like turmeric, masala and expertly blended curry powders.
Must try: Mombasa pepper, the local specialty, is not for the faint of heart — it’s usually hotter than cayenne pepper.
7. La Boqueria
The smoky-sweet spices that fill the air in this domed market – Barcelona’s busiest – are intoxicating. There are a few spice stalls, while most counters are lined with garlic and yellow, red, and orange chilies. Bell peppers, loose or in pretty cans, are just the thing to have at home.
Must try: There has been a market here since at least 1200, but La Boqueria didn’t get its roof until 1914.
Appeared in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of food from National Geographic Traveler (UK)
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