Small World

Shopping for spices with Indian cookbook guru Suvir Saran.

"Look at this!" exclaims Suvir Saran, holding up a small glass jar filled with coriander seeds, toasted lentils, coconut, and other tiny, exotic kernels and morsels. "We can't get this even in New York City." We're standing in the middle of the aromatic wonderland that is World Merchants Spice, Herb, and Tea House, on Western Avenue just below Pike Place Market. We've got our noses in one of World Merchant's custom blends, sambar masala, a spice brew native to the Kerala region of southern India. Saran, a New York–based chef, teacher, and author whose new Union Square restaurant, Devi, will likely transform the way New Yorkers think of Indian restaurants and whose comprehensive and beautiful new cookbook, Indian Home Cooking, will likely transform the way everyone thinks of Indian food in the home, is, in a word, delighted. "Oh, I'm just smitten," he says, opening a canister of irreverent and ambrosial chipotle chai tea blend and inhaling deeply. "Smitten." Saran is in town on a book tour, and we have come to World Merchants—whose chief merchant, Tony Hill, has recently issued his own exhaustive and enticing food text, The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices—in order to locate ingredients like cardamom pods, asafetida, and tamarind concentrate. Saran wants to demystify Indian cooking; he believes that not only can you learn to create a gorgeous vindaloo, but you can adapt Indian recipes with your own favorite ingredients, you can experiment with exotic spices, and you can riff off his raita (cold yogurt salad)recipes and wind up with something completely new. OK, sure, I'm willing to believe it—but only if we can find the spices and seasonings, which, happily, we do. At World Merchants, 1-ounce portions of just about every herb and spice under the sun (and then some) are meticulously displayed in little jars so that you can eyeball and approximate the amount you'll need—and so that you can access the seductive aromas. Although our visiting New Yorker and the World Merchants' staff differ just, uh, slightly where storage is concerned, Saran is greatly impressed with the store's showroom and inventory. And where they disagree, they do so amiably. "It's not ideal, but you can cook with spices two years after you have purchased them if they are kept properly. Spices are very forgiving," says Saran, as the young clerk behind him measures a customer's order and clicks her tongue disapprovingly and shakes her head. At any rate, Saran says that with just five key spices and a spice grinder (World Merchants carries coffee grinders that work just as well), you can make "1,000 recipes." He recommends keeping cumin seeds, coriander seeds, whole red peppers, cardamom pods, and mustard seeds on hand, all of which are available in fresh, plentiful supply at World Merchants. (Depending on whom you listen to, you may or may not want to buy in bulk.) The only spice and herb ingredients called for in Saran's book but not found at World Merchants are tamarind concentrate, a liquid (the store doesn't carry any liquids), and curry leaves, which must be refrigerated. The clerk on duty recommends that we try Uwajimaya, but instead we head to the Souk. Though the Indian grocer, near the original Starbucks in the market proper, isn't nearly as aesthetically pleasing to the former graphic designer, Saran is happy to see the two remaining ingredients as well as some of his favorite Indian grocery items. He points outpapadums from a company called Lijjat and explains that the brand began as a means of income for a small community of disenfranchised women and is now a leading purveyor of the thin, round lentil-bean snacks that are equivalent to crackers or chips. Like the herbs and spices that Tony Hill collects in his travels, the papadums have traveled quite a ways to get here, but you only have to go downtown in order to bring them home.

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