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Aisle Files: Spices
"The expression of the Gjelina Group values in the spice aisle is particularly special to me."
By Nina Subhas
In this series, Nina Subhas takes us through some of her favorite items down a single aisle of Gjusta Grocer.
My dad is from India, and did a lot of the cooking in our house growing up, most frequently vegetables, with layers and layers of spices, herbs and toasted lentils and seeds, over basmati rice with yogurt and mango pickle. Those memories have rich aromas attached that are super specific to my dad. His sister's kitchens all had different smells, the daily ritual of cooking, and the things each person grabs first, most often, or lays on with a heavier hand nudging those smells in different directions. My pantry now has its own smell that has drifted away from my childhood home as my garam masala formula has changed over the years. Every few months I go through the ritual of toasting whole spices, grinding them, and making all the podis and masalas that I like to cook with, that perfume my life.
It makes an incredible difference to cook with whole spices, and I am absolutely dogmatic about buying them whole and grinding them myself. Toasting spices whole gets all the oils warm and moving and brings out a lot of nuance that you would miss otherwise. Nearly all spices are grown very far from here and travel a long way to get to our shops. Most spices you find in a grocery store have sat in consolidation points around the world, mixed with crops from many, many farms, then they sit in shipping containers, then warehouses, etc and can take years to make it to your cabinets at home. Spices do not last forever, they stale. Ground spices have much more surface area, so they stale even more quickly.
The expression of the Gjelina Group values in the spice aisle is particularly special to me. The transparent supply chain and labor practices of our vendors is always important, and is especially challenging in this aisle. In contrast with coffee and chocolate, which have seen a huge movement towards single origin transparent sourcing, spices have lagged behind. There are some notable folks that are doing that work. Diaspora Co. is a personal favorite. Not only because they source directly from individual farms growing exceptional products, for whom quality and taste comes first, but because of the work they are doing to decolonise Indian spices, so those of us in the diaspora can connect with that part of our culture without doing further damage. Their line started with Pragati turmeric, and for good reason. It is truly the best turmeric I have ever tasted, and I go through the stuff like lightning. I also really love their mace, it finds its way into my masalas, of course, but is also a key player in my ragout, or any braised meat and tomato dishes that simmer on the stove all day.
Pondicherry Dry Goods is another company that I really love. They make their podis in LA with spices sourced from small farms in India, and they are beautiful. I don’t have any aunties close by, so when I want something different I bring home one of their podis to cook with, and it feels like spending time with an old friend.
We have a few exciting peppers. I love long pepper, with its tiny fruits the size of poppy seeds embedded in a flower spike. They look like long dried cones, and taste like black pepper with all the floral notes turned up to 20. You can grind them like black pepper, or snap the cones in half and add them to simmering soups, stocks or sauces to infuse. We also have salted pepperberries, fresh pepper that is preserved in salt instead of dried. They have a soft texture, and the fermentation that they go through changes the flavor in really exciting ways.
I also have to mention Daphnis and Chloe. They source heirloom varieties of herbs from all over Greece. For such a small country, Greece has an incredible amount of microclimates, so the variation of Mediterranean herbs from farm to farm is really fun to explore. Mediterranean bay leaves are really different from the California bay leaves, they have this menthol note to them that the California leaves just don’t have, so the selected bay leaves are a pantry must for me. For fresh bay, I will use California, but for dried, I reach for the Mediterranean.