Going spicy, going organic: The essence of herbs in Ramadan from the heart of El-Muez Street

Dina Ezzat , Monday 3 May 2021

In Ramadan, the appetite for spices is high, but the clients frequenting the traditional stores are not just there to dress up their meals


It is a late sunny Sunday morning on Al-Muez Street. Mahmoud El-Nouby is moving fast around the small entrance of the Khedr El-Attar Academy for Spices to attend to a group of customers who are standing by to get their spices mixed.

He asks the clients very specific questions like whether they wish to add extra clover to their seven-spice blend, whether they wish to have a small bag of white pepper for their meat broth, whether they wish to have the nutmeg reduced in their all-spice blend, and if they need their anise blend for digestive or relaxing purposes.

“Getting the blend right and giving the right details is essential to our business; this is not a supermarket or a grocery store where people get their spices in sealed packages; this is a place that specializes in the art of spices,” said Mahmoud El-Nouby, a senior store attendant at the Khedr El-Attar Academy for Spices.


All photo courtesy by Sherif sonbol

Basically, one of the older spice stores in old Cairo, this place started in the mid-1940s with a limited selection of spices that all houses would need back then: cumin, pepper, anise, ginger, and cinnamon.

“There was always a bigger diversity and there was always a wide range of herbs, not just spices, that are used for healing purposes in a sense, but those spices were the essentials of the Egyptian kitchen as one would say,” El-Nouby said.

With the passing of years, the Khedr El-Attar store, along with the spices business in general, clicked in a wider portfolio, especially with the drinks side of the world of spices and herbs. Particularly on demand then were the Dombeya Arabica, spices of flowering plants that provide the base for Moughat, a very popular thick warm drink that many middle- and lower-class Egyptian families used to serve for baby showers.

There’s also the Orchis, a genus of the orchid family that serves as a base for Sahlab, a very popular warm drink for cold winter days and nights. These plants come from across the two continents of Egypt: Asia and Africa, essentially.

Like many others on the spice market in Old Cairo, El-Nouby likes to recall the famous tale of Egypt being one of the first countries to have known the import of spices from India and other countries since the times of the pharaohs. He accepts, however, that what spice stores offer relate more to what is in demand rather than to what the shops could get.

“For example, one of the things that got very popular during the past 20 years is the so called Seven-Spice blend. This is just a mix of a range of spices, including nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon, and other things,” he argued.

“The mix really varies from one store to the other. Not just in terms of the list of spices included, but also in terms of the portions of each of the spices and the way the spices are prepared from the roots or leaves of the plants,” he added.


All photo courtesy by Sherif sonbol

In some cases, El-Nouby argued, the seven-spice blend could be less than seven or more than seven. “If one buys from a supermarket, it will probably be seven, but the less expensive spices will be the dominating ingredient of the mix. If one buys from a spices store, then it is customized really,” he added.

El-Nouby explained, “we ask our clients if, for example, they suffer from insomnia, so we add more nutmeg and we may also put a strong slash of anise; if a client said that her husband is getting older, we cut down on the nutmeg and anise and favour a range of paprika.”

“Spices and herbs are all about personal taste and health condition, and in a store of spices there is a lot of room for mixing things with different portions,” he added.

According to El-Nouby, the increasing number of cooking programmes that are aired on several TV channels have inspired so many people to explore a lot more with spices. Actually, he added, that trying to pick up diverse recipes from international cuisines, especially from online cooking websites, has also contributed to the interest of clients to explore.

“For example, we have for years and years made mixes to help marinating chicken and meat; but with the TV chefs, these blends became a lot more popular,” El-Nouby said.  He watches some of these programmes at times to be prepared for the new orders of his clients.

El-Nouby said that during the past 10 years, there has been a lot more demand for spices required to make Chinese, Indian, and Italian recipes.

These have included oregano and dried basil; the Chinese five-spice blend and garam masala. Saffron, he added, has also been in demand, as dishes from the Persian and Kashmiri cuisines were becoming more popular.

“Of course, the popularity of any spice or herb is always related to the price. Saffron, for example, is really very expensive; we sell it in grams, not in quarter kilos or kilos. Cardamom is also very expensive, but not like Saffron,” he said.


All photo courtesy by Sherif sonbol

As a great deal of the spices are actually imported, El-Nouby said that the market has seen shoppers reducing their purchases as of late 2016 in the wake of the devaluation. Some items, he added, got scrapped off the shopping list of many people.

“Then we step in to offer alternatives that are not as expansive that could provide the same taste or have the same effect,” he said. “This is why people like to come to the store and discuss their shopping lists with us,” he added.

Not every single salesman at the Khedr El-Attar Academy of Spices, or any other spice store for that matter, is well versed enough to offer advice. “This is only natural because it takes a few years for a newcomer to learn the secrets of spices and to be allowed into the secret recipes of the blends of spices and herbs,” El-Nouby said.

It was around the summer of 1974 that El-Nouby arrived, as a teenager, to Cairo, coming from Aswan to pursue a job with the Khedr El-Attar – still, then, not an entitled academy for spices and herbs. His father was already selling spices at a very small scale during the 1950s and 1960s. “At the time, he, like many others, would carry a little bag of diverse inexpensive spices and walk around the city to sell his products at small quantities for each shopper,” he recalled.

Around the 1970s, there were fewer and fewer peddlers. The sales of spices and herbs was becoming a higher profile business, especially in the case of stores that started to introduce dried fruits, a particularity of Ramadan. Again, the selection was not as wide as it has become today.

“But Ramadan was always a very popular shopping season for spices, herbs, and dried fruits. It still is the highest season for our work. People would always come – perhaps now more for spices than for the range of dried fruits, but at least they would get the local variety of dates,” he said.

“A spice store is something that every house, no matter the socio-economic range, would find something to get from; it is an essential shopping destination,” ElNouby said. “No wonder that Naguib Mahfouz featured an owner of a spice store as a leading character in his trilogy,” he added.

Indeed, on the old-fashioned wooden walls of the store, there is the famous black and white picture of actor Yehiya Shahine playing Mahfouz’s famous El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel-Gawad.

It is almost Sunday noon, there are more shoppers coming in for their Ramadan purchases with the holy month coming round the corner. El-Nouby has to go help one of the new salesmen find some moringa. “It helps control the blood glucose level – and with the advent of Ramadan, it becomes a staple for many people who worry about the excessive intake of Kounafa and Qattayef; Ramadan Karim,” he said.

According to Mahmoud El-Attar, a third-generation heir of the owners of this expanding family business, “herbal solutions” are gaining a lot more ground “almost every single day.”

“Yes, it is true that we still get most of our demand for the food spices and the basic herbal medication options by those who are associated with herbal traditions, but it is also true that we are finding a growing interest in herbal solutions in new spaces, including younger and quite well-off people who are developing this interest,” El-Attar said.

He added that the newer and more modern stores that are now available in the zones of upscale residential communities has been successful in luring the interest of some new clientele.

The business model was updated to serve profit interests, but it also helped give the concept of herbal solutions a bigger space.

And according to Sherif Hassan, a business development consultant, devaluation has been a factor as well “on all levels, really,” he said.

Sherif argued that after the devaluation of the Egyptian pound in the autumn of 2016, some people who were in the habit of buying their packaged spices off the shelf at the big supermarkets opted to a more economic range at the traditional spice stores. “There has certainly been a hype”, he said, at all the stores of spices and herbs on Al-Muez street.

A growing sector of herbal solutions in the wake of devaluation, Hassan argued, has been body and hair care. With the increasing prices of otherwise imported body and hair care products; many opted to inspect “more basic and more natural solutions”.

“The results, as well as the prices impressed some and encouraged more to give natural products and mixes a chance; it has really been picking up well,” Hassan said.

“It is not all very new that people come to a spice/herbal store for organic beauty products; this has been there for a very long time,” he said. “Spice/herbal stores were and will always be essentially about culinary products, but they are also about organic medicine and organic beauty products,” he added.

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