Thursday Three | Spice & everything nice

Today’s Thursday which means it’s time for the next installment of Thursday Three. Since spice has been a big part of this week’s focus, what with my first foray into making my own masalas, I thought I’d share my favourite three sources for spices with you today.

Your local Indian store is a powerhouse of a spice source. The usage of spices in Indian cooking is wide and varied. We’re talking about a country that boasts hundreds of different sorts of blends. This is logically the first place you should look. Your local Indian grocery store is where you can get reasonable amounts of spices without paying an arm and a leg for them. Since we love our spices and use them liberally, you can also be sure that they will be fresh on the shelf. There is however, a caveat. They will be fresh only if there is a flourishing Indian community where you live. It matters. I remember the local stores around my grad school. There were a lot of Indians around. They were all students. Everyone’s moms sent spice care packages. The spices in the shop? Can you say dust packets covered in dust bunnies? Trust me, you do not want two-year old cumin powder in your dal. I learned this the hard, miserable way.

The San Francisco Bay area is home to one of the largest Indian communities in the United States and pretty much anything Indian can be found here. It has been available outside the city of San Francisco for a long time. When I moved here ten years ago, this was useful but wasn’t helpful on a daily basis. We lived then, as we do now, in the city but most others lived in Silicon valley. As a result, there were only a couple of dusty shops up here which looked like they’d materialized straight out of a 60s movie, complete with grumpy men behind the counter with scary large mustaches.
Things have changed for the better. The scale for good Indian food is starting to tilt cityward as opposed to outside it with each passing month. Slowly stores here are catching up too. My favourite Indian store in the city is Jai Ho Grocery in the Western addition. It is clean, well-lit and the owners of the shop are the sweetest people, quick to help you figure out what you need. Everything is labelled in English, which the owners also speak and they’re often able to find or order the obscure things I’m asking them to in my mother tongue. I’m so glad they’re here. And since pretty much every other Indian in the city agrees, (check out their Yelp reviews), I know that stuff doesn’t last long in their shop. You have to check it out.

If you don’t like commitment, Penzey’s Spices is the place for you. Being a dedicated spices shop, they carry absolutely any spice you can think of. The best news for you dabblers out there is that they sell anywhere from 4 to 8 oz of most things. Which means you get to try something without having to worry about large packets going to waste or about paying exorbitant prices for them. Penzey’s is responsible for introducing me to cooking with sumac, delicious and tart, used in Middle Eastern cuisine. And mahlab, a chewy, bitter-ish Turkish spice. And their chilli collection? Oh my! I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I’ve tried five spice powder and ground wasabi, epazote and mignonette pepper. Seriously, Amey says the only other stores I look happier in are book stores.

The stores have a knowledgeable staff that can help you figure out the differences between things or substitutions. Each spice is profusely labelled with country of origin, taste and usage of everything in the shop. We have locations here in Santa Rosa and Menlo Park, but they ship too. This is the best place to find a couple of new spices or to buy things you know you only want small quantities of. I still buy my everyday largely used spices like cumin or coriander at Indian stores. Check out their website for the location closest to you.

The variety at Rainbow Grocery will make your head spin.
I vividly remember the first time I walked into this store. Bulk bins everywhere (and lots of them), this store will sell you everything you need in any quantity. This store is more expensive than most, but the quality is top-notch. You can, of course, buy exactly how much of a thing you want to buy, which can make help you keep your costs down.

They have an array of spices and herbs here. Great blends like herbes de Provence  to elevate your potatoes to a new level of sublime. There are herbs like valerian to help you sleep or various teas to rejuvenate you. It’s a great place to explore.

Often, people are scared of spice or have their pet ones and just don’t want to deal with the rest. I hope I can gently convince them otherwise. Invest in whole spices and an inexpensive spice grinder (or coffee grinder specially reserved for spices) and the world of spice is open to you. Whole spices last a long, long time if they are properly stored. Grind as necessary and you can add so much flavour to your meals.

It’s the fifteenth day of November which means I’m officially halfway through NaBloPoMo with this post. I’m super stoked that I’ve gotten to this point. No, really. An architect’s professional life can be quite unpredictable. Deadlines on projects are planned with the best intentions to meet them but construction is a fluid activity that relies on too many factors to go as planned. I’ve been holding my breath and hoping I can come home at a decent hour to be able to cook, document and write to stay on target. I guess everyone is in a festive mood. So far, all good.

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