ASK ANYONE who knows him: Chef Meherwan Irani is impossibly nice. But when it comes to spices, it doesn’t take much to provoke a rant. “You’d never store your coffee for two years in a glass jar next to the stove and expect a good cup of coffee,” he said incredulously. “We know the provenance of coffees and chocolates, our meats and produce. But we know nothing about spices.”
The guy’s got a point. In this age of foodie enlightenment, we score points for buying Berkshire pork and heirloom tomatoes. But we’ve stalled somewhere in the 1950s when it comes to spices. With the possible exception of vanilla—do you prefer Madagascan or Mexican?—we know nothing about where our cardamom, cumin and ginger come from. We buy them wherever and keep them forever. Then we wonder why that curry or stew lacks spark.
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High-end chefs will attest to the power of fresh spices. For years, the New York spice shop La Boîte has supplied discerning consumers and boldface names, including
of Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, with blends such as Apollonia, a magical mix of cocoa, orange blossom and pepper that works as well on a doughnut as a pork shoulder. Now a new generation of spice importers and blenders is working to bring that same high quality to everyone, often at prices that match those you find in the grocery store.
ON THE RACK / Tips for Smart Storage
Store spices in a cool, dark place.
Tape a date on the spices when you buy them so you know how long they’ve been hanging around.
Buy whole spices when possible. Make the switch from ground to whole especially for cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, peppercorns and star anise.
Use your senses. If spices have no aroma or feel dry or sandy to the touch, they’re stale.
Be ruthless. Though there’s no absolute rule about when to throw away spices, generally you should use ground spices and dried herbs within six months of purchase and whole spices within one to two years.
Mr. Irani has bought spices directly from an importer since he opened his first restaurant, Chai Pani, in Asheville, N.C., in 2009. In 2017 he launched Spicewalla, a company that grinds and toasts 150 spices and 30 blends to order and sells them in small quantities so they don’t go stale in the pantry. Burlap & Barrel, meanwhile, goes straight to the source, bringing in single-origin spices: cumin handpicked in the mountains of Afghanistan, fennel from Egypt and ginger from Tanzania (which, for the record, is spicier than the ginger the company sources from Indonesia). Curio Spice Co. brings in some spices straight from the farm—for instance, founder
offers a local blend, Supeq, with seaweed, spice and sea salt all from New England—but buys other spices from trusted importers to make blends like Fleur, a mix of hibiscus, pink peppercorns, fennel and rose petals.
To grasp just how innovative this is, you first have to understand how the spice business traditionally works. The chain is long and convoluted; a spice will change hands five or six times before it arrives in your kitchen, going from the farm to a consolidator to an exporter to an importer to a re-packager and finally a retailer. It can take anywhere from 18 months to 3 years for spices to travel from field to table.
The secrecy surrounding the supply chain contributes to the romance of the business. (In medieval times, spice hustlers would reputedly scare off competition by whispering that nutmeg came from a dragon’s egg laid on top of a mountain.) That murkiness regarding origins helps keep prices low for traders, allowing them to switch suppliers if there’s a weather event or labor issue. But customers have little sense of what they’re getting. They don’t know where their peppercorns came from. They don’t know how long they sat in storage or when they were ground—the moment when a spice begins to lose its aroma and essential oils.
Spicewalla’s priority is freshness. By buying directly, Mr. Irani says he has spices in hand two or three months after harvest. His first customers were restaurant chefs, who, like home cooks, didn’t have a lot of options when it came to spices, according to Mr. Irani. “They come in that 1 gallon jug you see at
” he said. “And you have to get that size whether it’s black pepper, which you use a lot, or cloves, which you hardly ever use.”
The vivid freshness was an eye-opener for chefs. Spicewalla now sells to nearly 500 restaurants. “His spices are great because they are so fresh,” said chef
of the Market Place in Asheville, one of Mr. Irani’s first customers. “They are more aromatic, brighter in color and richer in flavor.”
Spicewalla A wide range of spices, whole and ground, and blends in sizes from single-serve packets to 50-pound bulk orders. spicewallabrand.com
Burlap & Barrel: Exotic and everyday single-origin whole spices sourced globally from sustainable farms. burlapandbarrel.com
Curio Spice Co.: Single-origin spices, whole and ground, and blends designed to reflect a sense of place. curiospice.com
Spice Trekkers: Whole spices and loose-leaf teas. spicetrekkers.com
The Reluctant Trading Experiment: Spices straight from India; salt from Iceland and flavored salts. reluctanttrading.com
Diaspora Co.: The specialty here: highest-quality turmeric and, now, single-origin heirloom cardamom too. diasporaco.com
Burlap & Barrel was, in a way, an accidental business.
a New York chef, left restaurants to study international development and ended up working to build infrastructure and schools in Afghanistan. As he traveled the country, he tasted astonishing spices and herbs. “It was the cumin that really grabbed me,” he said. “In the province called Badakhshan, at the western end of the Himalayas, is a variety of cumin that grows wild. I had never tasted it before.” Mr. Frisch started to collect spices on his travels and bring them back to Kabul, where he would cook big dinners for friends. Soon, he saw a business opportunity.
“Even professional chefs don’t understand how spices grow. And like coffee or chocolate, that’s important,” Mr. Frisch said. “The variety, the terroir, how it’s processed and dried—it all has an impact on flavor. There’s an opacity in the supply chain that is set up to stop people from knowing.”
Mr. Frisch and his partner, Ori Zohar, are trying to reconnect customers to the provenance of the spices in their cupboard and expose them to new ones. The company’s cinnamon, for example, hails from Zanzibar and smells a lot like red-hot candies (in a good way). They also bring in yellow cardamom—instead of the usual green—from Guatemala that is fully ripened on the vine and has a slightly softer, sweeter flavor.
If there’s any drawback to the explosion of new spice companies, it’s that consumers will be a bit overwhelmed. It’s one thing to get to know which kind of coffee you prefer. And tea. And chocolate. It’s quite another to try to know the history and provenance of every spice in your cupboard. Ms. Cheney of Curio Spice Co. encourages her customers to start by getting to know more about the spices they use often and to try blends, which make sophisticated cooking easy.
Others, though, are certain that tasting is believing. “It’s amazing how many people still have that 10-year-old jar of spices,” said Mr. Zohar of Burlap & Barrel, “and how much better their food would taste if they had the courage to just
their spice drawer.”
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