A talented chef has the ability to entice us with the presentation of certain foods, but the flavors they use as an accompaniment are a gentle caress of each one of our senses. Good food, meticulously prepared with fresh ingredients and subtle flavor combinations should be a full sensory experience, (yes, even hearing – whether a description that opens your imagination or the sound of others enjoying the experience). I love food because it is a canvas for unbridled creativity. If chicken, fish, and vegetables are a chef’s canvas then spices such as black pepper, cardamom, and saffron are the different paints. Unique flavor combinations are characteristics that separate a cook from a chef.
Besides eating, I love reading anything that relates to the history of food, current chefs, new restaurant openings, or restaurant trends. When I came across Sarah Lohman’s book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I wished Amazon had their drone shipping option available so I could have the book in the hands instantaneously. The book focuses on America’s culinary history, recipes that were popular in the early 1900s, and eight flavors that change the way we eat in America today. Besides being the author, Sarah Lohman is a historical gastronomist and she presents an argument that American food is united by eight flavors which include: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili pepper, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and Sriracha. She presents the history and discovery of each flavor and why that particular flavor is so important in current American cooking. It was an interesting read and I would love to hear a chef’s opinion on her argument. One of the most intriguing parts of the book was the mention of a spice market in NYC, Kalustyan’s, which boasts having an inventory of over 10,000 food products from over 80 countries.
After reading about Kalustyan’s online, I was determined to visit it first hand and spend as much time as possible exploring the foods and spices in this market. If you have never been to Kalustyan’s, my suggestion is to bring someone with you because you will need four hands to carry out the numerous items you are destined to pull from the shelves; there are spices in this market you never knew existed and ones you may have heard of but never knew where it could be purchased. You should also take a vacation day from work because your first trip to Kalustyan’s is not a situation where you can “just run in” for something quickly. The experience of Kalustyan’s is a complete sensory overload. The sights, smells, and sheer magnitude of inventory in the middle of Lexington Avenue in Manhattan are like nothing I have ever experienced before.
If I had to describe Kalustyan’s in one word it would have to be: SHELVES. Shelves dominate the store and those shelves are packed with products. Do not be intimated by the shelves, embrace them because there are a lot of them and they hold the future flavors of your new culinary adventures.
Rice, Flour, Sugar, and Beans: The largest section of the store contains these four staples. There is rice of all sizes, colors, and textures. If you cannot find the type of rice you need on these shelves, it does not exist. The same is true for flour; we live in a gluten free world now and flour is a cringe worthy word. If you are looking for a wheat flour substitute, you will be presented with flour made from soy, rice, almonds, or rye. The same variety exists among the sugars which are differentiated between raw and refined and further designated according to moisture levels and flavor. The dried bean section is split – pardon the pun – between eastern and western beans. Similar to the rice section, if you cannot find what you need, the chances it exists on the planet are incredibly slim. I am fairly certain Jack’s magic beans to grow his beanstalk came from Kalustyan’s bean section.
Mustard, Hot Sauces, Honey, and Syrups: The mustard seed is the smallest seed in the world, it is amazing to think about that in light of the largest selection of domestic and imported mustard you can imagine. If the mustard selection does not provide enough accompaniment spice for your next culinary adventure, there are shelves of hot sauces. Everyone has that family member who proudly brings out a bottle of ‘the best’ or ‘the hottest’ hot sauce in the world at a large family function and claims it is impossible to find without access to a special distributor where you need a password and gold bullion to make the purchase. Just go to Kalustyan’s and look for the red colored shelves; they have hot sauces that range from ‘that has a nice kick’ to ‘my entire body is on fire, did I just swallow lava from a volcano’. If you are trying to put out the fire in your throat created by the ghost pepper hot sauce, you can walk over to the honey section. There are jars upon jars of domestic and imported raw honey; so much honey, it made me think about the number of bees needed for all this. Across from the honey is a catch-all section containing jams/jellies/syrups/molasses. Best way to describe it, if it was fruit at one time and it has been boiled or fermented and put into a jar, look in this section.
Spices, Herbs, Tea, Coffee, Nuts: Leo Tolstoy used 1,225 pages for 587,287 words when he wrote his epic, War and Peace; I would need double that just to describe the variety of spices, herbs, teas, and coffee. The best way I can describe the spice section: there is an entire corner of the store with multiple shelves dedicated to black pepper. Cinnamon, paprika and curry sections have their own zip codes. There are unique spices available whose names you would swear were used in the Harry Potter movies or listed on the endangered species list. I think you get the picture! The loose leaf tea and coffee section host more varieties than I could count in one sitting. The selection of nuts is no different; there is every varietal of nut presented as salted, unsalted, or covered in silver.
Candy: This section makes Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory seem like the candy shelf at the checkout of your local pharmacy. The candy is not wrapped, processed, or old candy like you would find at grandma’s house – it’s the good stuff!
If you are a pregnant woman, there are sections containing pickled items (eggs, vegetables, etc.) and a large selection of ice cream. There are also sections containing frozen foods, soups, fried snacks, sauces, dips, prepared foods and anything else you may be craving. I have never seen a unicorn but if they are real, I am certain Kalustyan’s would have a spice, herb, or bean associated with its existence.
Whether you are a once a week cook at home, an aspiring chef, or a 3 star Michelin god, you will find something in Kalustyan’s to assist you in enhancing your craft. The store is well worth a visit and a great reminder the next time you eat something to ask about the flavors because it is the flavor that entices you to return for more.
Kalustian’s – 123 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016