Spice shopping in Dubai is a delight for all the senses.
If you follow your nose, the spicy-sweet scent of cloves, the earthy fragrance of cinnamon and the fiery, smoky aromas of chilli, paprika and pepper will lead you to the olfactory oasis that is the Dubai Spice Souk.
In this small covered market home to more than 150 small retailers, spices are shipped in daily from India, Pakistan and Iran, and neatly displayed in burlap sacks in front of each teeny shopfront, alongside dried fruit, nuts, basmati rice, incense burners, henna kits and tea.
Spices to discover
This souk’s main drawcard is its array of heady spices. From giant cinnamon sticks to whole Sichuan peppercorns, cardamom, cumin, coriander and curry powders, you’ll find all your seasoning staples here. But you’ll also find more unusual offerings like ancient orange peel, dried cucumbers and preserved lemons – popular ingredients in tagines, salads and relishes.
Look out for Arabian favourites such as sumac, a deep purple spice with a lemony tartness; zaatar, a mixture of sumac, sesame seeds and herbs used throughout the region; and ras el hanout, a pungent North African medley of dozens of top-drawer spices used in marinades and meat dishes.
If it’s highly prized saffron you’re seeking, you’re in the right place. The trick to selecting superior grade saffron is to examine the length of the ‘style’ (strand) and colour: the redder the better, and there should be no colour variation. Grades of Iranian saffron include sargol, the strongest grade that has red tips only, and pushal / pushali, a lower strength with some yellow. It should also pass the sniff test: saffron should give off a sweet, floral scent.
All the extras
The Spice Souk also sells oud (agarwood) perfumes, which is a wonderful souvenir of your time in Dubai. Renowned as one of the expensive natural resources in the world, oud is derived from the resinous heartwood – often known as agarwood. If you prefer a more subtle scent, look for bakhoor – the name given to agarwood chips that have been soaked with jasmine, sandalwood or other ingredients to sweeten its aroma. The chips are then burnt using a special burner to release plumes of fragrant smoke.
Wander along the narrow alleyways and you’ll also find crunchy nuts and dried fruits to take home, and other quintessentially Arabian souvenirs such as pashminas and embroidered artefacts.
The right way to bargain
You’ll find the price of saffron high until you start to barter, so brush up on your haggling skills. This age-old practice of bargaining in the region involves shoppers negotiating with merchants to get the best possible price.
Start by offering about 50 per cent of the original price and gradually work your way up. Walking away has a phenomenal impact too. Prices for sargol might start at about AED15 a gram but you should be able to get shopkeepers down to a third of that. If you’re unsure, simply wait and see what a local pays and then offer the same.
Getting to the souk
Many roads lead to the Spice Souk. There’s an RTA carpark right in front of it while the closest Dubai Metro station is Al Ras, a five-minute walk away.
The nearby Al Seef leisure development also presents plenty of parking options, after which you can cross the Creek by abra.
Those coming from the opposite end of town can take the RTA ferry from in front of Dubai Marina Mall, appreciating the city from a whole new perspective along the way.