Nine Spice Mix

This spice mix is featured in many of the dishes in this book, lending them a uniquely Palestinian flavor.
 —Reem Kassis, The Palestinian Table

First they tango on my tongue,
nimble couples careening,
then together
form an Arab-style line dance
stepping, stomping, swaying.

West Indies allspice dazzles,
berries tangling with cinnamon sticks,
while cloves, Indonesian natives,
lead with a spirited solidarity solo.

Coriander seeds offer greetings in Hindi
as others toast comrades in languages
beyond borders and blockades.

Lifting up sisterhood, sun-wizened nutmeg
starts a sibling dance with mace.
Cumin demurs, then surprises
with subtle exultation.

Queen of spices cardamom,
host of the party, gives a nod to flavors
in hiding: lemony, sweet, warm, 
fragrant, nutty, pungent, hot.

Encouraged, feisty black peppercorns
shimmy center stage, organizing
the unique union of nine
for a vivacious global salute.

Related Poems

The Traveling Onion

“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an 
object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion 
entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,

Rasp, Spoon, and Pestle

There were lemons growing old in a clay bowl,
A dozen injured pots that wobbled on the stove,
White countertops with stains like continents

Mamá hid with doilies and patches of an old stole.
A small cabinet stowed vials and jars, her trove
Of ground spices, dry herbs, heirloom condiments

To enchant croquettes, hors d’oeuvres, fillets of sole
Biscay style. With rasp, spoon, and pestle, she strove
To please Papá who scorned those recherché scents

Of haute cuisine, so she fricasseed oxtail in a soul-
Ful red sauce, boiled ham hocks, cooked tripe with cloves
Of garlic—simple, brawny, no buttery ornaments

To rouse his anger; but on Sundays she’d cajole
Papá with sautés, gratins, and soufflés that drove
Him to beg for seconds, thirds, his taste buds in ferment.

How to Make a Crab Cake

Start with your own body,
the small bones of the hands
moving toward the inlets of the fingers.

Wanting it too much invites haste.
You must love what is raw
and hungered for.

Think of the crab cake as the ending,
as you till away at the meat, digging for
errant shells and jagged edges.

Always, it’s a matter of guesswork
but you hold it together
by the simplest of ingredients,

for this is how the body learns to be generous,
to forgive the flaws inherited
and enjoy what lies ahead.

Yet you never quite know
when it happens,
the moment when the lumps

transcend egg and breadcrumbs,
the quiver of oil in a hot pan,
to become unworldly:

the manifold of pleasure
with the sweet ache of crab
still bright on your tongue.