Mumbai's tryst with the master of spices

Jul 08, 2013, 14:52 IST | Kanika Sharma

Take stock of almost 150 spices from all over the world as a British Buddhist accumulates the choicest of herbs, zests and aromas to tickle that nose. Kanika Sharma goes on a bouquet of scents -- discovering Sumac, Corn Flower, Za'atar -- exotica galore

Controversial as it may sound, spices are the reason why America was accidentally discovered in the first place. We discovered Julian Amery, a British food professional, who in turn discovered his calling in spices while looking for spiritual succour. The world has truly come around, we think.

A close look at the many Indian and international spices stocked here

Walking into Foodhall at a swish Lower Parel mall to meet the “spice specialist” behind Asa (read Asha, meaning hope) we unearth a fascinating world of spices, the old faithfuls that manage to rev up any meal, fix most sneezes and heal many an ailing of the soul. Amery, after working as a General Manager at the prestigious London clubs -- Groucho and Hurlingham; went on to work in the kitchens of Fergus Henderson and Alastair Little, two pioneering chefs that have garnered much praise for their restaurants.

Julain Amery grinding us our garam masala in a unique grinder that produces the right heat to give it the oily texture

Spice sense
The spice specialist shows us a sensory delight as varied spices greet the eye, especially the North European blue Corn Flowers that are unique, exotic and a must-have for the dessert decadents. He first shows off the cloves to us, “one of the most qualitative Indian spices” he has. Trust you me, we say, as the aroma is hardly the one you’ve been smelling all this while. It is effusive, stronger and much nuanced than the strong bland punch of scent that we have been taking in all our lives.

The spice shop has an array of spices to touch, feel and smell while the ‘spice specialists’ dole out your order from glass jars. Pics/Sayed Sameer Abedi

If you are worried about how to decipher the quality, Amery’s maxim of “follow the nose” is aptly put. Much like mature scotch or delectable dishes, the fragrance of good food (in the case of spices, dried), reveals a sensory acuity that a foodie is always mesmerised by. Next, Amery introduced our hereditary favourite -- the Garam Masala, which he claims is a bestseller in his base, Copenhagen as well as in Delhi and Mumbai. Taking up the interactive challenge, we even got him to pound us one in a freewheeling fashion, making it one-of-a-kind. While taking a whiff and a sample, we found out that Amery’s compound is a fresh, intense, nuanced but light mixture with a strong coriander and black pepper base.

Whiff of change
The Chai Masala is an innovative sight with all the star anise, leaves, cardamoms and much more that delights the eye. One can buy the whole spices or ground them as per discretion that will ensure a strong whiff to that steaming cuppa. Amery interjects, “Your generation can still recall your grandmothers going off to buy whole spices and grounding them but now sadly, it (spices) is all about packets that might have been sitting in the docks courtesy, the middle man.”

The 43-year-old self-confessed “spiritual adventurer” started concocting these zests, herbs and dried vegetables through recipes after, which he relied on the aroma and oiliness of the spice that led to putting it as chords of flavour much like music. Fumbling on the word, chord, we beckoned examples. “Salty, sweet, garlicky,” pat came the reply from our affable host.

From pink peppers to nutmegs, we felt heady and light to be introduced to sharper aromas that led us to acquiesce with the chord theory. Amery remarks that the store is designed keeping in mind that the open array of spices lets you experience the dried-up lovelies in all their richness while the actual orders are strictly sealed in either glass jars or zipped pouches as per order.

Next our introduction was to the Piri Piri sauce. We have to admit that we hit it off at the first glance with this African’s bird eye chilli. Mumbai’s spice aficionados had better watch out!

Piquant picks
Our favourites of this olfactive odyssey was the Za'atar, a middle-eastern spice, which is perfect for those who go weak in the knees every time they smell oregano, basil, thyme and savory. Mainly used to garnish the bread, Amery tells us that it is a great kick in for those who love their meat. We absolutely recommend picking on the Smoked Paprika, Sumac, Ugandan Rose Petals and Vanilla; Central European Juniper and North European Corn Flower and Saffron from Madrid.

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