This specialty food store on Lexington Ave. in Manhattan is no great secret to anyone who has a remote interest in cooking. It is famous! In fact I would venture to say that even people who never set foot in the kitchen are just as mesmerized by this vast food emporium paradise.
Kalustyan’s was established in 1944 and over the years has gone from a merchant who primarily specialized in foods from Southeast Asia to stocking quality products from all over the world. If you are looking for tellicherry black peppercorns from India and your friends prefers the Lampong variety from Indonesia, you will both walk out of the store with your heart’s desire.
You have to be well prepared for what you are about to experience before walking through the doors at 120 Lexington Ave or you are in grave danger of loosing your orientation and becoming overwhelmed. Then, brace yourself.
There are over 500 varieties of spices alone, mixes from the most exotic parts of the globe, to varieties Kalustyan’s mix themselves using freshly ground raw materials from 100 different countries, so you are getting the freshest product possible.
During a quick scan of some of the shelves I spotted things like black cumin, Anardana seeds (sour pomegranate seeds), about ten different cinnamon choices, coriander from Morocco and India, radhuna seeds, which is apparently an indispensable part of the Bengalis kitchen, West Indian chironji seeds, and golden saffron from Persia at $200 an ounce!
The customers that frequent Kalustyan’s are from all over the world and usually go there to find something they cook with back home, so I suppose you could say that as obscure as some of these foods appear, each one is familiar and loved by somebody. As for the stuff you have no clue about, this shop makes sure to educate you with little descriptors of what the contents of the various foods taste like, and how they are usually used in cooking.
This is where you can get a little too excited and find yourself walking out with a brunt red ceramic tagine under one arm and a hoard of Moroccan spices and dried fruits in the other, when you innocently went there to buy a bag of basmati rice (where incidentally you have about 25 different kinds to choose from!).
As I write about all of the wonderful offerings from this 2,500 square foot store I know for a fact I am not doing the place justice. I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of pieces of cookware on display. If you are looking for a special teapot, unbleached cheesecloth, a kadai (type of wok used in Pakistan and India), a copper milk pot or a Idli maker (a pot for making traditional indian breakfast bread), it can be found here. This place is serious about customer satisfaction and you get the feeling that the owners care a great deal about helping you build a familiar kitchen in this home-away-from-home city.
My reason for making this trek across town with my friend Bird, whom I was visiting in the city the other day, was to stock up on my long used up south indian curry powder, a giant jar of capers (the last one took half a year or more to use up!) and a new variety of salt for my ever-growing salt craving.
Every decision I made was agonizing as I wanted it all. I spent way too long staring at curry powders, but in the end choose two, one of which was called Japanese Curry Powder (bought it for my Japan-obsessed son). The salt was another dilemma. They all looked so tantalizing to me and at that moment I wished I had the wherewithal to get a sample of all 84 varieties. I ended up with two that I am very happy with and have already tried one in a tofu soup which added a delicious dimension to each steaming spoonful.
This year has started with a major amount of tea drinking and it was the perfect opportunity to test some new ones. Judging from what I have told you about the rest of the store you can guess that the tea section was just as much of a nightmare in the decision-making department as everywhere else, maybe even the worst!
With literally hundreds to choose from I had to come up with a way of eliminating at least a couple of hundred of them. I decided to concentrate on loose tea only, no pretty bags or boxes would distract my efforts.
I bought something called Holy De-Tox. It smelled like cleansing repentance to me so felt I should give it a try and see how it worked. The other thing I was intrigued with were containers of what looked like intricately bound ropes of stems, leaves and flowers. Some of them were ball-shaped while others took on a human-like form. Apparently you dropped one of them in your teapot and wait for it to draw like any other tea. They looked like some ancient old-world crafted ornaments that had no place in this century, let alone a metropolis like Manhattan.
And yet, here they were, sitting in about 10 different bins waiting for me to take home. Myself and my friend were so taken with them we began putting a 1/2 dozen or so of the ones we liked in different bags. I quickly rethought that plan when I discovered they were $128 per pound. I did not really gasp at the price as I imagined how much work had gone into the making of a simple cup of tea. It made me want to take a trip to Fujian Province which sits on the coast of the East China sea and watch the jade leaves being masterfully twisted.
After the tea we made our way to the counter, not before drooling over the different cordials, syrups, sweets, chocolates and Turkish Delight on offer. Did I mention the cookbook section and tiny restaurant upstairs: perhaps another time. I would like to say if you ever get to visit this shop to make sure to ask for help or advice. Everybody there was more than willing to answer my silly questions and that is quite commendable seeing as they cater to thousands of customers per week.
All of that shopping made us hungry for something exotic, so off we went, bags in hand, in search of curry!