Seven of the world’s most exciting spice markets
Colourful, sometimes chaotic and always atmospheric, spice markets are often the high point of a city trip. From Oaxaca to Mombasa, here are some of the world’s most unmissable ones.
From gravity-defying heaps of jewel-coloured spices to scents that thicken the air and fill the nostrils, the world’s best spice markets are home to intoxicating scenes and experiences. These are labyrinths to get lost in; maze-like alleyways where your nose will lead you from one heady experience to the next. What’s more, they’re found all over the globe. Here are seven to seek out.
1. Dubai Spice Souk
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Powders and petals in hues from chartreuse to crimson are stacked in tall baskets down the alleyways of Dubai Spice Souk, part of Deira’s market area, which was established in 1850. It’s separated from Downtown’s shiny, high-rise modernity by Dubai Creek, yet in its own way it’s just as dizzying as the Emirate’s trademark forest of skyscrapers. The vertiginous towers of cardamom, turmeric and hibiscus flowers can be overwhelming for first timers, so don’t be afraid to ask questions — or to haggle.
Must-try: Dried black limes — used to add flavour to sauces and stews — are a speciality.
2. Mercado Benito Juárez
This covered market, sprawling over an entire block, sells more than simply spices; the vendors here offer everything from tamales and textiles to mezcal and moles. There’s certainly plenty here to draw both the eye and nose, not least the array of dried chillies, from ancho to the native pasilla de Oaxaca.
Must-try: A rainbow of mole sauces showcases the local spices at their heady, complex best.
3. Rahba Kedima
The souks of the city’s walled Medina are intoxicating — none more so than Spice Square, as this bustling plaza 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 centre of the square is abuzz with people selling anything from argan oil to plant-based cosmetics.
Must-try: The aromatic spice mixes — including ras el hanout: a concoction of up to 30 spices — are particularly good.
4. Mısır Çarşısı
While the striped, vaulted roof of Mısır Çarşısı — also known as the Egyptian Bazaar — is eye-catching, the heaps of earthy toned spices that fill the stalls at the 17th-century market compete for your attention. And amid the strings of dried chillies and hills of garam masala are baskets overflowing with dried fruits, pomegranate flowers and sugar-dusted Turkish delight.
Must-try: This was historically the final stop for camel caravans heading along the Silk Route.
5. Khari Baoli
n the labyrinthine lanes of this vast spice market in Old Delhi, the scenes and scents that reveal themselves can be almost overwhelming. The market’s air is thick with the fragrances of cardamom, cinnamon and complex curry powders, which are heaped in huge sacks. It’s hectic, heady and utterly hypnotic.
Must-try: The market, established in the 16th century, is the largest of its kind in Asia.
6. Mombasa Spice Market
The spices that overflow from bags and buckets in this frenetic spice market — stretching along two roads near the Old Town — are as vivid as powdered paints in eye-popping shades of fuchsia, ochre, pistachio and burnt orange. This is where Mombasa’s Middle Eastern and South Asian influences mingle with native produce, so expect an intoxicating mix of spices like turmeric, masala and expertly blended curry powders.
Must-try: Mombasa pepper, the local speciality, isn’t for the faint-hearted — it’s typically hotter than cayenne.
7. La Boqueria
The smoky-sweet spices that fill the air in this arched-roofed market — Barcelona’s busiest — are exhilarating. There are a few spice stalls, while most counters are fringed by strings of garlic and yellow, red and orange chillies. Paprika, sold loose or in pretty tins, is the thing to take home.
Must-try: A market has been here since at least 1200, yet La Boqueria didn’t get its roof until 1914.
Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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