On the 8th day of Christmas: Meet Mercan, the spice trader from Arabia


Meet Mercan, itinerant trader from the Arabian Peninsula - here he is sneaking up to me to let me know of a new spice in the market - he is my major spice and zest for life supplier (image thanks to the Asian Shadow Theatre Exhibition's Flikr photostream)

So, we move from yesterday’s introduction to Zenne, the former dancing girl now in love with her fragrant herbal garden, to an introduction to Mercan Bey (pronounced mehr-jahn bey), a spice trader from the Arabian peninsula. Now, I only became aware of the presence of the Karagoz shadow puppets in my mind in 2004, when M. and I got into a relationship, and I started to experience confusion in our cross-cultural relationship. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mercan Bey has been with me for a lot longer than that. As a tradesman well-versed in spice, he peddles everything from tumeric to cassia cinnamon and cayenne pepper. I have loved spice since I was small – and embraced every chance I had to lean more – there was always a tiny voice in my head, encouraging me to do so.

I can remember climbing up on the salmon-colored wooden chair painted by my mother in order to step onto the harvest golden-colored linoleum counter so that I could gingerly step over to open the spice cabinet, twirling the triple-decker lazy susan around to see what treasures lay there. I had my share of sour moments, such as when I tried the alluringly-titled “cream of tartar” or got too much nutmeg up my nose or had the bitter taste of too-old marjoram under my tongue for the rest of the day…but I had many wonderful discoveries as well – cinammon, ginger, clove, thyme, basil, oregano and many more…

All my life, I think Mercan Bey has been tracking me. It first started with the first snack I cooked for my parents, aptly named “Italian toast,” which was essentially buttered bread sprinkled with “Italian seasonings” which was a blend of green herbs – marjoram, thyme, oregano and basil. It continued on with the trick my friend’s Swedish mother taught me when I had trouble sleeping, namely, to grind up a bit of cardamom and add it to warm milk. Later in my life, it was the lady who hired me to work in her herb and spice shop, and taught me to make spice necklaces by soaking allspice, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon until it was soft enough to pierce. The romanticism of this was seductive to an imaginative, old-fashioned yet difference-seeking “tween.”

And yet later, it was my Bohemian neighbor, who taught me about how a tiny bit of cayenne adds a whole lot to the standard white sauce my Grandma taught me to cook out of flour and butter. My mother, an adventurous on and off vegetarian was especially adventurous, and put a lot of coriander into her infamous tofu-nomeat-balls, get it? This spice exploration went on for years and years, through the introduction of ajwan by a boyfriend referred to by my father as “the old Indian,” asafoetida as the mystery ingredient used in much southern food, as revealed by a friend of a friend from New Orleans and finally to pul biber (the sweet to hot, non-bitter red pepper) and island-grown kekik (thyme) introduced to me by my own beloved M. once in Turkey for the first time. It is my belief that all of this spice exploration is at the silent hand of Mercan Bey, who loves nothing more than to show up with a new spice for me to sample.

An image of the stereotypically myopic American care of this link at the School Library Journal

Mercan Bey is the rarely-present puppet (due to his ramblings along the spice route in Anatolia) who encourages me to seek broader horizons, explore the unknown, to embrace the experience of difference and learn as much about the world as possible. While he is rarely physically present, he is ever-present in my mind as I seek to do my best to break out of the myopic ectoplasm of my American upbringing to look beyond. I love Mercan Bey and am grateful to him for his part in opening my eyes to the rest of the world.

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This entry was posted in On writing about my life with the Karagöz puppets, Turkish Food!, Visits from the Karagöz puppets and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to On the 8th day of Christmas: Meet Mercan, the spice trader from Arabia

  1. Alan says:

    a cornucopia and a cure for insomnia all in one post

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