"We just won't put this one back," Padma Lakshmi tells me as I'm finger-deep in a jar of amchoor, an Indian spice made from powdered, dried, unripened mangoes that I'm about to suck off my hand in the middle of Kalustyan's, the 70-plus-year-old grocer in Manhattan's Curry Hill that's dedicated to the dried and pressed and liquified and ground version of every herb and spice imaginable. She's already dipped and tasted, explaining that it's the perfect addition to a dish when you want to lend sourness, but without the moisture that you'd get with something like tamarind or citrus. An essential flavor in everything from chutneys to marinades, amchoor has its place in a plethora of Indian dishes, but Lakshmi has a favorite, untraditional-as-hell way of using it. Despite having only learned of the spice a few minutes earlier, I totally get it.
"You know where I put it?" she asks. "I put it in my crust for fried chicken, along with cayenne. So you bite into it and it's hot, sour, and salty," at which point she trails off with an mmm, and it is within that mmm that lies why Lakshmi wrote The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs. She knows how damn good spices can be when you know how to add them to a dish, which is why she think it's time Americans finally start getting to know them.
Born in Chennai, India, Lakshmi doesn't answer my questions about what spices are most nostalgic for her, as she says she's been eating the same flavors since she was born; and when you never lose touch with something of your childhood, can it really be nostalgic? She has her go-to spices, like coriander, sumac, and sambar powder, which she pulls down from shelves as she's referencing them, but as she's dragging me from the spices to the hot sauces to the salts, I quickly discover that her enthusiasm is indiscriminate. When writing her book, she says there were obviously some parts of the world that were less familiar to her, like East Asia and certain African countries, but with the help of Kalustyan's, Lakshmi didn't just put out a spice-heavy cookbook—she was able to put out a damn encyclopedia.
"I grew up clutching spices in my hand," she says. "As a toddler, I was getting water with cloves in it when I had a toothache. When I was three, I was ripping curry leaves, sitting on the floor at the hem of my grandmother's sari."
So it makes complete sense that Kalustyan's is her favorite store "in the entire world;" with nearly 10,000 products from 85 countries, the store is the globally minded home cook's dream. Having spent her childhood perusing the store's aisles, Lakshmi isn't excited like the trite "kid in a candy store"; instead, she's at home, addressing the workers there like family and reaching for specific spices without having to think twice about their location. "They used to have my first modeling comp card hanging," she says pointing to the wall, using her hands to show just how massive it was, and she laughs when she sees her first cookbook Easy Exotic in the $10-or-under section of the store's wall of cookbooks.
While we spend the majority of our time geeking out over Hawaiian pink salt and figuring out all the dried goods and spices that I just have to try, my basket quickly filling up with things like dried Omani limes and 777 brand sambar powder, Lakshmi slowly starts to delve into the why—why should people care about spices?
She gets how they're not well understood in America: They don't grow here, so of course we're less intuitive when cooking with them. So with her book, she hopes that readers will throw their copy of it in their bag to reference at their grocery store. She hopes that people will read about one spice and then want to flip the page to the next, excited to learn about others. Above all, she hopes people will be curious, and actually try just one unfamiliar flavor. To her, spices are the elements that define one culture's food from another, so instead of dumping garam masala into the recipe for the Indian dal you found on some food blog, why not understand how the hell that spice mix made it so good, motivating you to cook with it more? It's why she doesn't even care that white people act like they just discovered turmeric this year.
"When spices [become trendy], it shows there is a passion for that in the marketplace." While she may laugh at "golden milk lattes" and turmeric ice cream, she reminds me that hell: now she can find fresh turmeric at Whole Foods.
And as I walk out of Kalustyan's, clutching my new jar of dried mango powder, I still have no idea how I'm going to use it, but at least I now know its flavor, and I know that it's good. One day, I'm sure that as I'm digging through my pantry looking for a new flavor, I'll pull it out and use it—even if simply atop delivery fried chicken.
Padma Lakshmi's brand new book, The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World, is available online through Ecco.