At Spice Ace, a San Francisco shop that sells over 350 spices, blends, herbs, salts, peppers and sugars, the best-selling spice is vadouvan.
Some spices are trendy today. “Right now, sea salts are really, really big,” says Ronit Madmone, co-owner of Whole Spice, a spice shop in downtown Napa’s Oxbow Public Market selling over 1,000 spices, blends (from Afghan ribs to zahtar), herbs and salts. Tastes in cinnamon have also changed. “A few years ago, they’d grab a cinnamon off the shelf. But now there’s knowledge about it – they realize it isn’t just one type, it comes from different parts of the world and tastes different.”
Though Mourad Lahlou, chef-owner of Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, who buys spices from Whole Spice, hails from Morocco – whose signature spice is ras el hanout, a blend of anywhere from 12 to 100 spices, including cinnamon, allspice, ginger, black pepper and coriander – he says less is more.
“Spices to me are simply flavor colors — there are basic spices that can be mixed in so many different ways to create a new shade,” says Lahlou, the cookbook author of Mourad: The New Moroccan. “Just like paint colors, ratios are critical. I think people tend to get carried away with the number of spices used, and muddy it with unnecessary additions.”
At Spice Ace, a San Francisco shop that sells over 350 spices, blends, herbs, salts, peppers and sugars, the best-selling spice is vadouvan. “It’s a delicious, savory, aromatic blend, sometimes called ‘French Masala Curry.’ You can use it on everything from chicken, squash to cauliflower,” says co-owner Olivia Dillan, who also sells blends like coffee-chile meat rub and bourbon-smoked cane sugar. Tasting before buying is allowed at her shop, and packaging is in half- or quarter-ounce glass jars.
The chef of Troya, a nearby Turkish restaurant on Pacific Heights’ Fillmore Street, a shop- and restaurant-lined retail strip, buys urfa biber flakes, a smoky, raisin-smelling, not-overly-hot Turkish chile pepper, at Spice Ace. Chris Borcich uses it in his roasted cauliflower and lamb meatballs, balanced with an equal amount of baharat, a Middle Eastern blend of mint, cinnamon, oregano and nutmeg, among others, which he serves with yogurt and paprika sauce.
A legend that sells over 4,000 international products, Kalustyan’s in New York City is a favorite of Lahlou, Martha Stewart (who filmed a TV segment here), and Emeril Lagasse. Besides over 500 spices and blends, the bazaar-like emporium in Murray Hill – nicknamed “Curry Hill” for its many Indian eateries and groceries – sells Middle Eastern and Indian prepared foods, over 100 herbs, 180 teas, 50 coffees, over 50 beans, 30 chile peppers, dried and canned fruits, nuts, bulk chocolates, sauces, grains, oils, syrups and its own chutney line. A counter upstairs serves lunch.
Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef at Taj Campton Place, a gourmet Indian restaurant in San Francisco, buys from Le Sanctuaire, a San Francisco shop that once sold to restaurant clients from Napa’s The French Laundry to Spain’s El Bulli only, but whose online store now sells to the public. The best way to implement powdered spices: cook the spices first, in a fat medium to release their flavor before adding the food, the Kerala-born chef says.
For his Spice Pot dish, he sautes onions, ginger and garlic in ghee (clarified butter), and adds fennel seeds, cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Then, he adds powdered Deghi chile, turmeric, fennel, coriander and chile, and cooks for a few minutes, finally adding potatoes — which he blanched in water with turmeric – and cooking for under five minutes. Last, he adjusts the taste with lemon juice, sugar and salt.
Fond of cardamom for sweet-and-sour preparations, from game and poultry to desserts and sauce, or with stone fruits in compotes — “I call it the feminine spice, extremely soft, sweet and pleasant” – Gopinathan says cardamom, mango and coconut are “the best combination ever.” You’ll find it in his mango cremeux, wrapped in a coconut tuile, served with tamarind gel and cardamom-scented candied rice puffs.
In Montreal, Olives & Epices sells boxed sets of six spice blends, packaged with the owners’ recipe book/travelogue, Spice Hunters: Asian Family Cooking, which showcases their suppliers from Sri Lanka – producer of the world’s best cinnamon, they say – Kerala and China’s Yunnan province. Other spice kits: BBQs of the world, curries/masalas from the world’s islands, seafood and game spices. Besides their shop is in the Jean-Talon Market, a huge farmers’ market, their online store lets you spice-hunt by cuisine – from West Indies to Southeast Asia or Mexico – or by spice, from Aleppo seven-spice to Zapotecan mole negro blends.
Written by: Sharon McDonell of USA Today.