Going to the spice store with the Chef is one of the sensory highlights of my week.
“What do you need?” I ask him, hungrily anticipating the smells. Vanilla beans? Last week, they had in a fresh shipment — perhaps from Tahiti — and the beans were as fat and black as old-fashioned licorice. Madras curry powder? He buys the muddy yellow spice mix whole and grinds just the amount he needs for the restaurant. The curried carrot soup he created with it, spontaneously, was so richly flavored and unexpected that we made it three more times, and then wrote it up as a recipe for the book. Fennel seed? We could try those turkey burgers that Alfred Portale wrote about.
I never know what will greet us when we walk into the tiny shop on Western Avenue, curled under the Pike Place Market. When they are roasting spices on the spot, I walk in a daze through the store, my nose searching for the source of that smell. Tastes leap into my mind, and I want to try them all. Dukka — what could I do with that? Sometimes, I buy spices I have never heard of, in one-ounce portions, just to make myself experiment.
Their assam tea kicks ass, too.
My favorite moment at World Spice, however, arrived as a surpirse. Don’t they always? The Chef called to me, from three feet away, and said, “Sweetie, try this.” He dabbed his finger in the burnt sienna powder he had just purchased, and then put it on his lips. “Kiss me,” he said. When I did, my lips danced, a wild sharpness and vivid sweetness mixing on my tongue to mingle and emerge, entirely unexpected. It tasted hauntingly familiar, but new. The sensation reminded me of when I was a kid, and I forced myself to walk around the house with my eyes closed, to imagine what it might be like to be blind. When I opened my eyes, everything gleamed, brightly, born again for a few seconds, new to my senses.
“What is that?” I asked him.
He turned the little glass jar and pointed to the label. “Saigon cinnamon.”
Cinnamon harvested in Vietnam is actually called cassia. (“True” cinnamon is actually much milder than what we have grown accustomed to, in this country.) In small villages in Vietnam, people grind the older bark that is lower to the ground, rich in pungent oils and just more so than the branches above it. This ground cassia is shipped to Seattle, and sold to me at World Spice.
It sits now in our kitchen, a pinch ready to mingle amidst apples to make a truly extraordinary pie. If we need cinnamon, for Moroccan dishes, we use only this “Saigon cinnamon” from World Spice, now. The cinnamon I lived with for three decades before this feels flat and dulled on my tongue.
We try to buy it in tiny amounts, however — Saigon cinnamon is so strong that only 1/8 of a teaspoon spices an entire dish — so that we can have that experience, again and again, of returning to the spice store, together, to share new tastes.