Tools of the Trade
As Angelina mentioned in her ode to Yotam Ottolenghi, there are several cookbook authors whose new works always have a reserved place on our shelves. Naomi Duguid is one of those authors. Her books are always gorgeous, her prose is eloquent without being too dense or wordy, and her topics are always fascinating. Duguid’s works are one part travel guide, one part traditional cookbook. We have explored the Indian subcontinent with her in Mangoes & Curry Leaves, probed the lesser known provinces of China in Beyond the Great Wall, and delved into Southeast Asia in Hot Sour Salty Sweet.
Her newest work, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, continues where Hot Sour Salty Sweet leaves off, pulling back the curtain on an isolated country with a rich culinary tradition. Burmese cuisine has been described as a blend of Indian, Chinese, and Thai, but it has a distinctive style all to itself. Shallots, shrimp (fresh and dried), and small salads are all common. There is a heavy focus on fresh ingredients, but many of the recipes are perfumed with warm, sweet spices like cassia, cloves, nutmeg, and star anise. Burma is also a cuisine that favors a heavy dose of heat, and gets this from India red chile flakes, Japones, Indian cayenne, Tellicherry black pepper, and Szechuan peppercorns.
I had the opportunity to see Naomi Duguid speak last year at the Book Larder in Fremont. We all learned about the foods of Burma, from mohinga (a fish stew with rice noodles that is often eaten at breakfast) to laphet thoke (a fermented tea-leaf salad that’s considered Burma’s national dish), as the staff prepared several recipes from the book. However delicious the food was though, the most impactful moments came when Duguid discussed the changes she had seen in Burma through the years. She was repeatedly moved to tears as she spoke about Burma’s transition away from the rigid military dictatorship that has been in power since 1962 and the recent thawing of relations between Burma and the U.S. Naomi’s care shines through in Burma’s beautiful photographs and warm paragraphs.
What do you do when one of Seattle’s premier cheese makers needs a hundred pounds of ground black pepper? Or how about when everybody’s favorite artisan salami shop needs twenty pounds of fennel cracked to just the right size?
Last week I talked about some options for grinding spices at home, but grinding the amount of spice some of our commercial clients use with a small blade grinder or a hand cranked burr grinder would take ages! Down at the World Spice Professional Division we’re just as committed to providing fresh, ground-to-order spices as our counterparts at the World Spice retail store, so we’ve come up with the perfect solution: a re-purposed espresso grinder. By using a high quality, Ditting brand, Swiss, espresso grinder, we have the ability to precisely control the coarseness of our grinds. Using a large mechanical burr grinder like this also allows us to grind large amounts of spice quickly while maintaining a nice even grind.
As you can see in the picture above, just a few months of use begins to wear down the burrs in our machine, requiring near constant resharpening and replacement. By constantly examining the results of grinding a small test run of cumin, we’re able to know just when to ship the burrs back to the factory for professional resharpening to ensure that our clients are getting the highest quality grind around!
How often do we acquire pre-ground black pepper or nearly any other spice for that matter? Never!!
Our store is bustling with spice merchants grinding spices right when folks order them. Why do we keep pure spices and our house-made blends whole until you tell us to grind them? It keeps our spices exceptionally fresh; some especially dedicated spice connoisseurs prefer to grind their spices in their kitchen, right before adding them to their recipe – now that’s fresh! Grinding a spice releases much of it’s great flavor and aroma, but more aroma in the air means less flavor in your food. Grinding spices to order also lets you request a custom grind for certain spices. Need your black pepper extra coarse for a nice steak au poivre? Sure! Need your white pepper really fine so it just disappears into a cream soup? No problem! Want us to crack some fennel for your homemade sausage? You got it!
There are many different ways to grind your spices at home. A mortar and pestle works well for most things if you don’t mind your final product being a little coarse. A special blade grinder works for a finer grind. Some folks even have their coffee grinders pulling double duty. Don’t want your spices to taste like coffee? Easy, simply grind rice or stale bread to clear out the leftover flavors. If, like me, you’ve encountered a couple of groggy mornings making curry coffee you may want to keep a separate grinder for coffee and spices. Our recommendation for a great all purpose grinder is a burr grinder. The burr grinder on the shelves at World Spice Merchants is a great model that’s hand-made right here in the United States. So go ahead and start grinding your own spices at home, there’s a reason those fancy restaurants offer you freshly ground black pepper on your soup or salad – it tastes better freshly ground! If you kitchen is void of a grinder, take advantage of our low purchase minimums and rest assured that all of your spices will be ground to order. Come back for part 2, where I’ll give you a behind the scenes look at how we grind as much as 200 pounds of spice in a day at our professional division.
The book section of the shop is ever-evolving. Some books we keep ordering and selling for years, and we count on their presence in the shop like trusted friends. For others, our love affair is brief, but we never carry a book that we aren’t excited about. With a shop full of cooks, all with varying palates and preferences, we end up with a pretty impressive spread of titles that span the globe in origin, and run the whole spectrum of cooking difficulty.
Every now and again, we come upon an author- or group of- whose every work we just have to have. You know the kind- every photo mouth-wateringly composed, every recipe introduction rich in back story and promise of sweet reward, and every combination of ingredients tantalizing and inspiring. Yotam Ottolenghi is just such an author. His cookbook “Plenty” is a work of art in the arena of vegetable cookery, so when his latest book about the flavors of his homeland, written in combination with Sami Tamimi, was published, we were first in line for a copy.
“Jerusalem” begins with a nod to the diverse population of the city, with its Greek, Russian, Tunisian, and Eastern European immigrants, and reveals the ways that they infuse their culinary histories in to the local, making for a varied and rich local cuisine. The book then eases in to the first chapter, “Salads”. The dish we find most exciting? Kohlrabi salad with mint and sumac… crisp kohlrabi in a creamy, tangy yoghurt dressing? Yes please! These first recipes are interspersed with the history of za’atar and information on some ingredients Westerners are likely to be unfamiliar with.
The recipes only get more impressive from there. Wade through the various spreads and dips in to the meat section, and be dazzled by the likes of Braised Quail with Apricots, Currants, and Tamarind, accented with crushed fennel seeds, Saffron Chicken & Herb Salad, and the dish so phenomenal looking, they used it for the cover- Braised Eggs with Lamb, Tahini, & Sumac. Every page is more delightful than the last, and every recipe the spice test kitchen has attempted has turned out phenomenally.
Whether you have yet to experiment with the flavors of this diverse region, or even if you’re a seasoned veteran of Middle Eastern cuisine, this book has something for you. If eating more vegetables was near the top of your New Years resolution list, you’d be wise to arm yourself with a copy, as so many of these recipes feature creative and simple ways to enjoy the most basic market staples (all expertly spiced, of course). We can’t say enough good things about this book, and are sure it’s soon to become one of your favorites, as it has ours. Order yours on worldspice.com, or visit us in the shop to flip through a copy with an e’er hungry spice merchant.
We never cease to be amazed by the sheer variety of tastes, aromas, and appearances among different spices. Grow the same plant a few countries away and the miracle of different air, water, and soil gives each crop its own unique character. It’s almost as though they have distinct personalities, which rather suits our varied staff, and even our eccentric old building.
For those of you who order from us online and haven’t had the pleasure of visiting us in person, our shop sits in one of Seattle’s older buildings, the venerable Fix Building. Built in 1910, its exposed brick walls and quirky corners invite all sorts of discovery, and it has provided the perfect backdrop for our message of exploration through food.
And, though we love our building and all of its idiosyncrasies, the time for updating is upon us. We’re working on reducing the number of oddly placed stairs and steps and improving the shop’s flow, so those customers who wish to linger and sniff no longer have to be in direct competition with those who need to be in, out, and cooking in under a minute. We’re looking into expanding the staircase to the downstairs, and most excitingly, adding a fully-operational commercial kitchen for spice demonstrations and cooking classes!
Last week, a few spice merchants stayed late in to the evening to tear up our aging carpet, in an exploratory mission to determine what lay underneath. We’ve found plywood subfloor, and LOTS of glue… but a solid surface to begin construction on a shiny new floor. Folks who visit us in the next few months will be ordering their spices in what amounts to a construction zone, though we’ll try to make it as painless as possible for you, and make sure you still have access to every thing you need to make your cuisine unforgettable! We can’t wait to show you our new look and make shopping for spices even more enjoyable than it already is.
World Spice is the most aromatic place in Seattle, in a good way. The fragrance is so intoxicating that it can sometimes overshadow the visual of all of the seeds, roots, powders and pods in their little jars, most of them in subtle and varying earthy color tones. In the center of the store, though, there sits a bright contrast to the natural richness of the spice color palette — it’s a pyramid of shiny Masala Dabbas, the traditional kitchen implement of India. The gleam of the stainless steel is impossible to ignore, and is the perfect palette for the spice-centric cook.
A masala dabba (mah-SAH-lah DAH-bah) is a container kept close at hand in Indian kitchens. They consist of an outer cannister, inner ramekins, an inner lid, an outer lid, and a small spoon. The containers are filled with the most often used spices in that particular kitchen; usually some combination of Turmeric, Cumin, Indian Coriander, Green Cardamom Pods, Cloves, Black Peppercorns, Red Chile Flakes, Indian Cayenne, Amchoor, Brown Mustard Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, or Nigella Seeds. Having a selection of spices close at hand enables cooks to create curries on the fly to complement specific ingredients, leaving pre-mixed curry powders to less experienced culinarians.
Antique dabbas are found in both copper and wood, though in recent times, stainless steel has become the most popular material for its sleek appearance and ease of care. The dabba we offer has seven inner stainless-steel cups, each with about a 1/2 cup capacity, though we recommend only filling them half-way, and replenishing from your air-tight spice storage often. The gift of a masala dabba traditionally marks a coming of age, given from mother to daughter- though they make excellent gifts for any cook or aspiring cook on your list, most especially paired with a Make Your Own Curry gift set, or a 660 Curries book.
The dabba fun doesn’t end with Indian cuisine, however… We use our masala dabbas for every kind of cuisine imaginable. For the barbeque enthusiast who loves to make their own rubs, a dabba filled with Sweet Smoked Paprika, Indian Cayenne, Yellow Mustard Seed, European Coriander, Granulated Garlic and Onion Powder is sure to please. For fans of south-of-the-border fare, Mexican Oregano, Cumin Seed, Ancho Chile Flakes, Chipotle Flakes, New Mexico Chili Powder, Mole Ole, and True Cinnamon Sticks will be just the ticket. Your imagination is the limit!
The best part of being a spice merchant is the taste-testing process… We’re pretty serious about only putting our name on things we love, so every now and again we’ll make a really over-the-top staff meal, mostly test out new blends and spices, but also not-so-secretly because we’re all gluttons. Our one spice merchant with a seafood allergy is off today, so of course, it was the day for homemade SUSHI with Real Wasabi®!
Real Wasabi® is a new offering for us. Wasabi is notoriously difficult to cultivate. This special product is grown in the traditional Japanese “Sawa” method, using constantly circulating spring water. This manner makes the rhizomes take longer until they’re mature enough to harvest- up to two or three years- but produces the cleanest, purest taste. When fresh, wasabi can be grated with ceramic or shark-skin graters to produce a paste, or sold dried as we carry it, and rehydrated in equal parts with water.
The flavor is grassy and vegetal; milder in heat than “faux” wasabi (the mix of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring that you know so well), and without the tear-inducing burn, either. The dried form is closer to army green than the neon-hued stuff you’re used to, and creamier in texture as well. Letting the paste stand covered for at least ten minutes allows the flavors to develop, so be sure to give it some time.
We enjoyed it as a condiment on these spicy tuna and scallop rolls, veggie rolls, black cod hand rolls, seared ahi and ahi sushi, Japanese barbequed black cod, flash-salt-cured and seared diver scallops, and yes, even some on this mango we salt cured on a Himalayan Salt Plate! We mixed a little in with some Japanese mayonnaise, too, and used it as a dipping sauce for those sugar peas. We might have to roll home from the shop today…
That’s right! The World Spice Team is at it again testing new recipes for posting on our blog. Creative, as well as talented, here’s Angelina rolling out some pie crust using a handy Batch 206 vodka bottle as a pin. What kind of pie? Well, we are testing two: Chinese Five Spice Apple Carrot Raisin Pie and Sri Lankan Curry Sweet Potato Pie. Recipe posts coming soon after they pass the palate tests of our stringent taste testers.
Here’s Abel, who picks up our outgoing spice shipments to restaurant customers nationally, participating as a guest tester. Think he got a little heat with that bite?