There are countries where stores completely devoted to the sale of spices are as common as having a Starbucks on every corner here in the U.S.
Modern civilizations were built on the spice trade, developing in Asia and the Middle East and spreading to the Americas, bringing everything from allspice to za’atar to every corner of the globe. Most of us, however, choose to pick up our herbs and spices off the rack in the grocery store (or, horrors, in those giant plastic jars from Costco). They tend to be past their prime, adding little real flavor to our dishes.
Here in D.C., we now have a plethora of spice stores with knowledgeable staff who are ready to spice up your life with flavors that range from pungent to subtle, one ounce at a time. Herein lies the true beauty of shopping at a spice store — these exotic ingredients, in every color of the rainbow, can be purchased by the ounce, so you can pick up small amounts of intense flavor for just a few dollars, providing an open invitation to explore and discover. Unleash your inner Magellan.
Bazaar Spices (2130 8th St., N.W.): With a newly opened storefront in the Atlantic Plumbing Supply Building in Shaw, Bazaar Spices is now able to expand the offerings that enthusiastic shoppers had already embraced at its Union Market stall. The Shaw store offers a wide variety of rice, flour, popcorn, grains, lentils and beans, enough to make any serious home cook giddy with delight. The array of spices are well chosen to provide a lot of bang for your buck: amchur, a dried mango powder, adds a pleasingly sour note to stir-fried vegetables and as a dry rub on meats and poultry, while Georgian saffron, harvested from marigold leaves, has a sharp, herbaceous flavor and beautiful orange color. Amp up your next batch of chocolate chip cookies with a sprinkling of the Vanilla Bean Sea Salt or try out the Japanese Sansho Peppercorns, which have an unexpected citrus intensity.
Pansaari (1603 17th St., N.W.): Any foray into Indian home cooking for D.C. residents has generally necessitated a trip out to Indian grocery stores in the suburbs, but Pansaari, located near Dupont Circle, has now made that trip obsolete. The store offers a bit of everything, including a chai bar and cooking classes presented by the owner, and, of course, a spice shop. Because a wide range of spices are so integrated into Indian cooking, Pansaari can be a valuable asset for anyone who wants to make authentic biryani or masala with the proper ingredients. Indian cooking can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, simply because of the sheer number of ingredients often found in traditional recipes, so a visit to Pansaari offers the opportunity to build a proper spice pantry that will make your next attempt at dal seem absolutely effortless. Fenugreek, with its musky aroma, will take butter chicken to the next level, while mace, the outer covering of nutmeg which turns orange when dried, has a warm flavor that complements a vegetable pulao studded with cashews and raisins.
Souk (705 8th St., S.E.): Having just celebrated its first anniversary on Capitol Hill’s Barracks Row, Souk is the sister store to the Sweet Lobby, which has made a national name for itself with the interesting flavor combinations found in its cupcakes and macarons, including the award-winning Fire Breathing Chocolate cupcake, filled with a spicy chocolate ganache. Souk features an array of intriguing spices, like the Grains of Paradise, a West African spice related to ginger that has a spicy, citrusy taste and is often used in place of black pepper in North and West African cuisine. It’s well worth investing a scant few dollars in the beautiful array of salts on hand, which can add a special dash of flavor to finish off a dish, from the slightly floral pink hibiscus salt to the applewood smoked salt to the bright Cyprus lemon flaked salt.
Kristen Hartke is D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen and cocktail adventures on Twitter, @khartke.