What Makes Good Spices Great

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One of our producers, Gillian Ferguson, recently wrote a post about The Spice Station opening in Santa Monica.  We received an interesting comment from a listener who basically said why go to an upscale store and pay more money when we can find pretty much everything in the kaleidoscope of ethnic groceries in town (see the comment section of Gillian’s piece to see the comment).  So I started thinking on my best spice purchase experiences.

It’s true that our local Indian, Persian, Mexican… groceries are great go-to places if you need Dried Limes for a Persian Stew or  Amchur to sour an Indian Chat.  But if you crave freshness and extremely high quality for, let’s say, cinnamon or paprika or cumin or Dalmatian whole sage leaves then there is a place for the stand alone spice shop.

Spices from a market in Cuzco, Peru (photo by Harriet Ells)
Spices from a market in Cuzco, Peru (photo by Harriet Ells) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

With many spices and dried herbs freshness is everything.  A lot of packaged spices in ethnic shops aren’t #1 quality and well sourced to begin with. Who knows how long they’ve been in the packages? Particularly with ground spices, the potency and aroma diminishes rapidly, so for people who really care, it’s better to buy from a store where turnover is fast, where you can ask questions, and trust the shopkeeper.  It’s like buying cheese.  Yes, you can buy brie at any supermarket, but wouldn’t you rather buy it at a cheese store?

And not all varieties of spices are available at “ethnic” shops.  Take cinnamon for example.

Here is part of the list from my favorite online source The Spice House:

Cinnamon, Whole, Cracked, Or Ground Vietnamese ‘Saigon’ Cassia
Organic Vietnamese ‘Saigon’ Cassia Cinnamon
Cinnamon, True, Ceylon Whole Soft Stick Or Ground
Cinnamon, China Tung Hing Cassia Whole Or Ground
Cinnamon, Korintje Indonesian Cassia
Cinnamon, Whole Stick Indonesian Korintje Cassia

Every time I get a large order delivered to the restaurant the UPS guy tells me the aroma has permeated the entire truck.  That’s not going to happen with spices that were ground 1+ year ago, or were low quality.  When I come home with a bag from The Spice Station part of me wants to leave the bag in the car as a mobile potpourri.

And don’t discount the interaction between you and the spice seller.  The last time I was at the Spice Station I saw the French Vadouvan Curry blend there.  I had read about it but never tasted it.  Now I’m addicted.  And a final thought.  When you’re in India or Morocco, you get your spice from the market spice seller who makes your spice blend to your taste.  I once stood in the spice market in Essaouira and watched as at least 10 women came up to a single seller and each had their own personal blend spooned into a triangle of newspaper.

As for me, I’m thrilled we have enough people cooking in this town to support a few spice shops.  I’m also thrilled to be having this conversation.  I’d love to hear what you think – leave a comment below.