As I was thinking about kitchens that might be interesting to Kitchn readers, my dear friends Tara and Devesh came to mind. Not because they have a particularly unique kitchen. In fact, to the contrary: they have a fairly standard galley kitchen in a rental building. Well-equipped and up-to-date, but certainly not unique.
What is unique, however, is their pantry, which is literally teeming with all manner of dried spices, pastes, dried beans, pickled items, sauces, and specialty flours.
Their pantry is, in their own words, fairly typical of that of any Indian expat, but to anyone else, it’s an exotic cache of treasures.
Devesh is avid cook, Tara the willing sous-chef. Devesh is the type of cook that does not follow a recipe and does not measure out ingredients. He is constantly tweaking and improvising, and takes great pleasure in whipping up rolls and breads for dinner, with creative mixes of seeds and spices, a different approach every time. He is a time-pressed management consultant, but nevertheless manages to pick up spices on his business trips: most recently a hard-to-find pure sesame oil and a special, incredibly spicy pickled eggplant that his wife’s mother makes and sent back with him in quantity on a recent trip to Bangalore and Delhi.
Talking to Devesh about his spice collection is like talking to a jeweler about his prized gems. Each spice has its own specific use and occasion. The whole form is more often used in some cases, ground in others. He doesn’t have just one variety of a spice, but rather several: green cardamom and black cardamom. Whole and ground. There are pods, seeds, leaves, and powders. There are pure forms, mixes and blends.
He takes great pride in the authenticity of his spices, pointing out that he has the “real” subtly flavored thin cinnamon (sometimes called “Vietnamese Cinnamon,” not the cassia that we refer to as cinnamon in the U.S. He has all manner of spices from the expected: turmeric, cardamom, fennel seed and mustard seeds, to the quite unusual: ground pomegranate seed (for lassis) and ground raw mango powder (for curries).
Devesh keeps his spices in several locations. The most often used are kept on several shelves in a cabinet near the oven. The highest use spices are kept in a typical Indian metal spice container on the counter, ready for use. Many items are bought in bulk and transferred to a hodge podge of glass and plastic bottles that are smaller and easier to handle. Among them is his family’s proprietary curry mix. (He is quick to remind me that “curry” is a British concoction and is not a meaningful term to Indians. Curries are simply “pre-mixes” of spices and can vary wildly in content. Curry leaves have nothing to do with curries).
The rest of the spices are kept in their original plastic bags and wrappers in four large storage containers, each about the size of two shoeboxes. Keeping them packed as flat as possible minimizes the air in them and the space they take up. His favorite place to shop for spices is Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. He also notes that the “best” basmati rice, Tilda pure long-grain basmati, is found there. In Manhattan, he shops at Kalustyans.
Beans, lentils and flours are kept in large airtight canisters in the pantry. The perishables live in the refrigerator and freezer. The inventory of these is far too expansive for exploration in this article.
Devesh uses a miniature cast-iron skillet to heat the spices until they crackle before using them in order to unleash their full flavor. A mortar and pestle, and coffee grinder repurposed as a spice grinder are kept nearby to grind them into a powder if necessary.
Devesh’s kitchen is a true example of the fact that inspiration, soul and extraordinary food have nothing to do with kitchen space, design, or accoutrements.
• Recipe: Breakfast Poha
• Recipe: Authentic Chai
Originally published April 2, 2008
(All images: Sabra Krock of Cookbook Catchall)