Not even a century ago it was impossible to find, in one place, in the United States, the array of spices currently available at the average American supermarket. “We take them for granted today, now that they are everywhere and, for the most part, dirt cheap, but spices might just be the most important commodities ever — more important than oil or gold,” John O’Connell writes in “The Book of Spice.” Global trade and incredibly efficient distribution logistics, plus, of course, demand, have made this possible.
But supermarkets aren’t always the best places to fulfill your spice needs. Depending on where you live, your grocer’s spice selection can be limited. Worse, many mass market spices might be years old by the time you buy them, severely lacking the robust flavor and fragrance they are supposed to provide. (If when you open a spice jar, you can’t smell anything, that spice has probably lost its flavor. Experts recommend changing out ground spices every six months to a year, though in practice most of us probably have spices older than that in our cabinets now. Whole spices can last a few years before fading.)
Thankfully, independent spice purveyors across the country specialize in sourcing quality spices, often from small and independent growers or farms. They are also experts at storage and packaging. Several sell spices in small amounts for those who want to try out something new to them. Whenever possible, visit a local spice shop to sample a few in person.
“The most important thing is you have to know what you’re looking for,” says Peter Bahlawanian of Spice Station in Los Angeles. “Smell a spice, see if you can have a small taste. The fresher the spice, the more overwhelming the scent and taste, and that’s what you want. A little should go a long way.”
Buying from reliable sources ensures that your spices will be fresh and potent for as long as possible, and that you will get what you pay for. Disreputable suppliers have been known to substitute a cheap facsimile for a rare or expensive spice.
If you’re having trouble finding a particular spice, you want to try something new or you’d like to support a spice shop in your region or with values similar to your own, we’ve listed our favorite purveyors from coast to coast. Not every shop stocks every spice, and some have a wider selection than others, but all ship nationwide. Have a go-to spice shop that you don’t see listed below? Share it the comments!
ADDO (ships from Seattle): For chef Eric Rivera, selling spices is a result of pivoting during the pandemic to help keep his Seattle restaurant afloat. In addition to the array of Addo’s housemade pastas, sauces and vinegars, the company also offers a line of Puerto Rican pantry items. “All of our items are made and produced in small batches and use high quality ingredients,” the website states, and its spice offerings include sazón, saffron sazón and adobo in 4-ounce and 1-pound packages. (There also are mojo, annatto oil, medium-grain rice and pigeon peas to round out the island cuisine’s pantry offerings.) Though other restaurants that pivoted similarly did so only temporarily, this offshoot of Addo is here to stay with plans for expansion already in the works.
BURLAP & BARREL (ships from Reading, Pa.): Co-founded by Ethan Frisch and Ori Zohar in late 2016, Burlap & Barrel is working to disrupt the spice-trade supply chain. They cut out many of the intermediaries and work directly with farmers around the globe to source unique spices, which also means their products are fresher and more potent when they get to you. Their offerings include purple stripe garlic powder from Cao Bang, Vietnam, that Frisch describes as having a “really complex, kind of sophisticated flavor profile,” and smoked pimenton paprika from Extremadura, Spain, that gets its flavor from being smoked and dried over oak coals. But Burlap & Barrel is more than just about spices. “As a public benefit corporation, we partner directly with smallholder farmers to source spices that have never been available in the U.S. before and help improve the livelihoods of our partner farmers,” the company states on its website.
DIASPORA CO. (ships from Indiana): A surprising number of people don’t think food is political, but Diaspora founder Sana Javeri Kadri begs to differ. Beginning in the 1600s, the violent European colonization of the Indian subcontinent was prompted by a desire to control the spice trade. In 2017, after a year of research and travel throughout Southeast Asia, Kadri founded Diaspora with a mission to source single-origin spices from farmers in India and Sri Lanka. Today, Diaspora offers 21 spices from approximately 150 small farmers. And, a partnership with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research helps support regenerative agriculture. Diaspora claims to be the only purveyor to promise that every spice sold was harvested within the year, and fans regularly comment on the spices’ visual, olfactory and gustatory vibrancy. Spices are shipped regularly from Mumbai to the United States, where they’re packaged in tidy glass jars or bulk bags and shipped out of a distribution center in Indiana. Standout offerings include Nagauri cumin, Pragati turmeric and Kashmiri saffron.
KALUSTYAN’S (ships from New York City): This iconic New York City store opened in 1944 as a specialty food retailer carrying Indian spices and groceries, but now it offers ingredients from around the world. Kalustyan’s is a staple among food lovers in the city who delight in roaming its aisles, but its products are available online, too. What makes it stand out is the breadth and depth of its offerings. You can buy just 1 ounce of Mexican oregano or a giant 5-pound bag of cumin seeds, and there are 19 different choices for paprika. If there is a particular spice that you’ve been unable to find in your grocery store, there’s a good chance that Kalustyan’s can ship it right to your doorstep.
LOISA (ships from New York and Maryland): Owned by a group of Latinx friends and family, Loisa sells a small selection of spices specific to the Latin American pantry. Its adobo and sazón, along with other multipurpose spice mixes, are signature items. They come in standard, approximately half-cup jars and 6.9-ounce bags. Blended from organic oregano, turmeric, cumin, garlic powder, achiote and coriander, the spice blends contain sea salt — but they aren’t the salt bombs that brands like Goya sell. Also on offer is jarred sofrito. A mainstay in the Spanish and Latin American pantry, Loisa’s version incorporates fresh culantro and aji dulce peppers.
PENZEYS (ships from Wauwatosa, Wis.): Based in Southeastern Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, Penzeys operates storefronts throughout the United States. If you’ve ever ordered from the company, you may already receive its remarkably effective and often quite delightful marketing emails, written by founder and owner Bill Penzey himself. The company’s spices, including ground and whole peppercorns and chiles; well-preserved dried herbs like dill and tarragon; unique spice blends with names like Sunny Paris and Arizona Dreaming; and multiple varieties of cinnamon, including Vietnamese, Indonesian and Ceylon, are always remarkably fresh. They also keep well, thanks to the glass jars the company uses, which come in two sizes, generally a quarter-cup and a half-cup by volume; spices vary in weight. The quarter cup size is especially useful for when you want to try a new-to-you spice but don’t want to risk letting most of it go to waste.
RUMI (ships from Chicago): Founded by three Army veterans and a fourth who worked in rural development — all who served or worked in Afghanistan — Rumi is set up as a public benefit corporation “committed to empowering Afghan women and bolstering the country’s economy.” The company started its operations focused on saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, and has since expanded into carrying black cumin, coriander and fennel. Rumi also offers a selection of blends featuring these spices, such as baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes the company’s black cumin along with black pepper, cassia, nutmeg, paprika, coriander, cardamom and clove.
SOS CHEFS (ships from New York City): Owned and operated by Atef Boulaabi and her husband, Adam Berkowitz, this New York City-based store is a favorite among chefs and professional cooks. If you’re having trouble tracking down a spice, the folks at SOS will either have it or know exactly where you can find it. Though the shop emphasizes quality over value, its offerings are impressive; and you’ll get what you pay for. On its spice list is Iranian blue salt — extracted from salt ponds that formed over 100 million years ago — Moroccan ras al hanout, black garlic, yuzu zest and Sarawak peppercorns from Malaysia. The shop sells an expansive array of flavorful and colorful powders that are made from the namesake ingredient, including tomato, butter, honey and Peruvian maca. Also find a wide variety of extracts, herbs, vinegars, honey and seasonal blends.
SPICE STATION (ships from Los Angeles): Founded in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood in 2009, owner Peter Bahlawanian now runs an entirely online operation. The shop counts some of L.A.’s most popular restaurants among its regular clients, in addition to many of the city’s chefs and avid home cooks. Around 500 spices, herbs, chiles, peppercorns, seeds, flowers, powders and blends are available, whole or ground. The company prides itself on the depth of its collection. “If you’re making an Egyptian dish, and it calls for cumin, you might prefer to use cumin from Egypt, and we have that,” Bahlawanian says. Seven different types of paprika are on offer, each with its own distinct flavor: Indian, Peruvian, Spanish, Californian, smoked, hot and sweet. If customers order a ground spice, Bahlawanian says it’s ground from whole seeds to order. Packaged in resealable plastic bags, the spices arrive promptly, and ready to refill your favorite spice jars. They’re also available in multiple sizes, from as little as half an ounce to a pound, so if you’re just looking to try a small amount of something new to you, you’ll find it here.
SPICE TRIBE (ships from Newbury Park, Calif.): Founded by chef Trent Blodgett and based in California, Spice Tribe sources single origin spices — including some whole dried chiles — from around the world. “We pay a fair wage for freshly harvested heirloom spices that express their unique terroir through potent aroma, unmatched flavor, and vibrant color,” the company’s website states. In addition to single spices, Spice Tribe crafts beautiful, delicious, uncommon blends. A particular favorite is the Masa Mole, which is a blend of toasted Mexican chiles, cinnamon, allspice and oregano. There is also a recent collaboration with food historian Michael Twitty called the Cooking Gene collection, after his book of the same name, where “each spice mixture represents a different stage in the historical journey of African American foodways and honors the lives of Black men and women who signify the flavors of each point in time.”
SPICEWALLA (ships from Asheville, N.C.): Meherwan Irani is a chef and restaurateur based in Asheville, N.C., and with five James Beard Award nominations for best chef in the Southeast, he certainly knows a thing or two about flavor. His company’s emphasis is on fresh, ethically sourced spices that are packed and processed by hand. Spicewalla offers a wide array of individual spices and flavorful blends — including pakora masala, honey and herb rub, and an al pastor rub — that are sold in cute 3-ounce metal tins or bags for refilling them. (Spicewalla also fulfills bulk orders for restaurant, commercial and home use.) The various themed collections they offer are primed for gifting, including kitchen essentials, Middle Eastern and taco collections. For those looking to try out something new, their tasting collections include small amounts of various spices for sampling.
THE SPICE SUITE (ships from Washington, D.C.): Based in D.C.'s Takoma neighborhood, the Spice Suite has been sourcing quality spices and blending its own mixes since 2015. Founder Angel Gregorio’s curated selection is available in full at her shop, but you can order spice boxes — of four or more spices, herbs, flavorings or vinegars — online. Spice boxes include a collection of salt-free seasonings like roasted garlic powder and whole rosebuds, and one with rubs like honey-raspberry and cherry blossom. Others feature berbere, baharat, chimichurri and smoked sweet paprika. New spice boxes are released for online customers twice a month. But Gregorio’s mission extends beyond spices: Her shop also serves as a pop-up location for other small businesses, and she regularly hosts workshops for female entrepreneurs in the fashion, wellness and food spaces.
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