What Makes Good Spices Great

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)

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.

  • Yahooo a spice shop! Just returned from Schuhbeck's in Munich. My mother always told me how important it was to buy fresh spices, she used to show me when we'd travel to Europe how all the spice jars were dated. Ground pepper, so commonly used in this country is a big one that is always old. Would open a jar of one in Austria and say "wow ach de liebe!"

  • Paul

    IT is the smells and also the looks. I remember walking through the back strrets of Zanthi, Greece, whichhis a small town in the north , in thesolonika, and I was struck by the image of a spice shop. I am not sure how fresh his spices where, or the sources, but it was a feast for the eyes, with all the collors and such. Trying his grilling blend was a revelation. Coming back through US customs with a suitcase full of bags of spices was a bit of a worry, but no problem, as it turned out .http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1626674836902&set=a.1626674756900.212355.1537476991How could I not go in???

  • Christine Jahina

    I look forward to checking out this spice shop, but I have to say I think your article is rather biased. Much of our community does not have either geographic or financial access to shops dedicated to spices which often increase prices since there is limited demand for such goods. As a result the turnover might be as questionable as the 'ethnic stores' you referenced. I would certainly agree if your comments were directed toward average supermarkets where people buy milk and sliced cheddar. They are the stores which lack the turnover to ensure freshness for something like garam masala or even good cinnamon. I have purchased incredibly fragrant and hard-to-find spices at ethnic shops, such as those in Artesia, that are very comparable if not better than spices found at specialty markets. They are usually far less costly, and therefore accessible, so people can actually explore and try new foods and recipes. I absolutely agree that freshness and good preservation are essential to a flavorful spice (and many other foods), but I think it is unfair to generalize about ethnic stores which are often only different in their setup and marketing tactics.

  • Christine Jahina

    Evan, I love your show and KCRW, but I would think you might consider exploring the hidden gems among ethnic food shops rather than making sweeping assumptions that they are all subpar to fancy shops. (This is the type of commentary that gives the wrongful impression that kcrw is elitist.)