Colourful, fragrant sacks stacked high in narrow alleyways. Boisterous vendors. And of course, delicious snacks for when it all gets too much...
Spice markets are a window onto the history and culture of a place; here’s a taste of the world’s very best.
Rahba Kedima, Marrakesh, Morocco
Rahba Kedima, also known as Spice Square, is the obvious place to head to for brash, bright and brilliant flavourings when in Marrakesh. The mixed spices for flavouring fish and meat are a must for adventurous cooks, while you can also snap up anise, mace and fresh cinnamon for a snip of the cost back home. If you want good saffron, don’t buy the ground stuff – ask to see the fresh strands. It can get pricey, so make sure you shop around before parting with your cash.
Try before you buy: take a break from the busy crowds at Café des Epices. The mint tea here is particularly good.
Long Bien Market, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi’s labyrinthine Old Quarter is home to a wide variety of spice stalls. But for something a lot more visceral, set your alarm for 4am and head to Long Bien Market on the banks of the Red River. This pre-dawn, wholesale spot is the place to buy the freshest mint, lemongrass, cinnamon, coriander and ginger. This is a working market, meaning tourists are few and far between, so be respectful when taking pictures.
Try before you buy: vendors selling steaming bowls of pho (noodle soup) are easy to find. All use fresh spices and herbs, perfect for a pep up after an early start.
Grand Bazaar, Tehran, Iran
Tehran’s Grand Bazaar can feel like a daunting warren, especially as the day wears on and business becomes frantic. While its carpet shops and mosques are alluring, it’s the spice lanes that are the most evocative. You can buy spices, nuts and dried fruit by the weight or pre-bagged. The best deal is on saffron, which owing to its abundance is much cheaper here than in western countries.
Try before you buy: take a break from the chaos at Moslem Restaurant, a bazaar institution serving tah chin – rice cakes with saffron and chicken.
Benito Juarez market, Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca’s oldest market is sprawled over an entire block in the centre of the city. While tourists flock here, this remains a busy, working market, selling a huge array of produce. Dive in and you’ll find a mind-boggling variety of dried chilli peppers in all shapes and sizes, including ancho and chilhuacle. You can also buy ready-made mole paste, a fiery chilli concoction used to create the best Mexican dishes. Just be sure to check import restrictions in your home country before you buy a suitcase load of the latter.
Try before you buy: graze on a few spicy grasshoppers, known as chapulines, while you decide which chillies to buy.
Khari Baoli, Delhi, India
Home to the largest wholesale spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli sits near the Red Fort in Old Delhi. Dating back to the 16th century, the stalls here sell spices, nuts and dried fruits from across northern India and Afghanistan. You’ll find everything from dried mulberries to khoya, a milk solid used in cakes and desserts, as well as classics like turmeric and allspice. The alleyways here are narrow and the pace frenetic, so be sure not to dawdle.
Try before you buy: you’ll easily come across jaggery cake, a sweet, nutty treat designed to give you an energy boost.
Darajani market, Zanzibar
Zanzibar’s importance in the spice trade cannot be overestimated. To many it’s known simply as ‘Spice Island’ and today it continues to produce huge quantities of ginger, saffron, anise and pepper. At Darajani market, in the heart of historic Stone Town, you’ll find sellers offering these local spices by the sack load, making it the perfect place to stock up. If you want to cut a deal, avoid tourist shops and get ready to barter.
Try before you buy: munch on dates sold on the edges of the market before braving the crowds.
Dubai spice souk, UAE
Dubai’s futuristic cityscape can feel alien to its Middle Eastern roots. Not so in its traditional spice souk, where produce from around the region is sold from overflowing baskets and plastic sacks. The air here is pungent with the aromas of cloves, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, pepper, saffron and nutmeg. If you’re buying remember you’re expected to haggle rather than accept the first price you’re offered. The souk is open daily, so there’s no excuse not to visit.
Try before you buy: grab some lemon lamb tikka, flavoured with dried black limes from the souk.
Egyptian Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul’s Egyptian Bazaar is unquestionably the best place to buy spices in Turkey, and arguably the whole Middle East. Built in 1660 alongside the New Mosque, the bazaar was given its name thanks to most of its wares being imported from Egypt. Today it remains Istanbul’s main spice hub, with 86 shops selling everything from garam masala to green peppercorns. You can also pick up special herb blends and teas. Be sure to bring plenty of ziplock bags, as once you start shopping you’ll struggle to stop.
Try before you buy: buy a bag of Turkish Delight to munch on while you trawl the stalls.
Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem, Israel
Known as ‘The Shuk’, Mahane Yehuda dates back over 100 years. Home to 250 vendors, in recent years it’s become a hip hangout for young locals and tourists. However, it remains steeped in tradition and spice fiends will find plenty to jazz up their home cooking here. Pereg Spices has over 100 different spices and special blends for sale; the sumac, an Israeli delicacy, is a must buy. The Shuk also runs official tours, making exploring its myriad stalls much easier.
Try before you buy: pick up an official ‘bite card’ and try six different dishes, from spicy falafel to fresh hummus.
Mombasa spice market, Kenya
Kenya’s link to Asia, Mombasa has long been a cultural melting pot thanks to its location on the Indian Ocean. Its spice market, just west of the Old Town, is a hectic experience, but an essential stop-off for intrepid travellers. Expect to find unique curry powders, bright yellow turmeric, masala and cardamom, all nodding towards the area’s cultural ties with the subcontinent, as well as local Mombasa pepper.