The first thing I notice is the smell. It speed-wafts the instant I open the door — a complex mix that hovers at the edge of identifiability. Cumin, sure, there’s gotta be cumin in there. Fennel? Cardamom? (Green or black?) Cinnamon — or is that cassia bark? Black pepper. Asafoetida, I bet. Chile peppers. Dried apricots? Tea. No: teas. Olives and/or olive oil.
I’ve smelled this kind of thing before, which is to say I’ve walked into an Indian grocery before. Many times, in fact. But this is Kalustyan’s, the famed 72-year-old spice shop on Lexington Avenue’s so-called Curry Hill, and here the scent is different, crisper somehow, as if each and every one of the spices, grains, beans, herbs, and oils on the laden shelves is buzzing with its own unique energy, freshly arrived from India’s Malabar Coast or from Borneo or Brazil or Lebanon or Brooklyn. Which, well, they are: I’m told nothing here stays on the shelf longer than three months. As a result, Kalustyan’s smells of the world and its nearly infinite, and infinitely delicious, possibilities. I almost can’t imagine what it would be like, how wonderful it must be, to work all day enveloped in this atmosphere.
“I don’t notice it anymore,” says Kalustyan’s manager of operations, Dona Abramson, who’s just let me into the shop. It’s a Thursday morning in April, about 9:15, and Abramson is going around turning on the lights. There are a lot more of them now: At the end of 2015, Kalustyan’s completed an expansion that brought its space to 6,500 square feet, spread across three storefronts and a couple of floors — and that’s still barely enough room to contain roughly ten thousand products from eighty countries.
For example! Kalustyan’s carries a hundred different kinds of salt, from pink Himalayan rock salt to NYC rooftop salt, and probably more types of chiles. I counted at least a dozen varieties of cornichon, not including actual full-size pickled cucumbers. In one freezer compartment you’ll find pink guava purée; in another, calamansi concentrate; in another, Mexican samosas. There are molasseses — pomegranate, grape, date, carob, blackstrap. The cheeses alone are a Peace Corps tour of duty: Bulgarian, Armenian, Syrian, Lebanese.
The names take on talismanic properties: Guyanese achar. Lucknow fennel. Tongue-of-fire beans. Flat rice. White kokum. Black mulberry. Mrs. H.S. Ball’s Chilli Chutney. Kalustyan’s has more types of bitters than your favorite craft cocktail bar, and if that’s still not enough, there’s an entire department stocked with medicinal herbs like cinchona bark and meadowsweet and gentian root so you can make your own.
It is this staggering breadth that has made Kalustyan’s the city’s preeminent spice market, patronized by chefs like Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony and Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert (he gets his Dehradun basmati rice, Sicilian pistachios, and Persian zereshk here) and beloved of home cooks like Flavia Ades, who on this Thursday is shopping for Passover: cumin for hummus, boiled rice for rice pudding.
“Whatever you buy anywhere else,” she tells me, “it’s not going to be the same.”
Kalustyan’s has, apparently, always been a standout. It was founded in 1944 by K. Kalustyan, an Armenian who’d emigrated from Turkey and settled in what was then an Armenian neighborhood. Early on, however, he began selling Indian products alongside Armenian ones, making the store, as the cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey told India Times in 2012, “the only game in town” for decades.
Kalustyan the man could be difficult to deal with. “If he didn’t like anything, he would say right on your face he didn’t like it,” says Sayedul Alam, 67, who now owns the store with his partner (and cousin) Aziz Osmani. “If he doesn’t want to sell you anything, he won’t — things like that. He was very straightforward guy. So nobody could bargain with him or joke around with him.”
Perhaps it was lucky, then, that in 1988 Alam and Osmani bought the store not from Kalustyan himself but from a relative (and employee) of Kalustyan’s who’d acquired the business a couple of years earlier. (A third partner was in on the deal; he was bought out in 1996.) By that time, the Armenian neighborhood had become hugely more Indian (and Pakistani and Bangladeshi), a demographic shift that Alam — a mechanical engineer from Chittagong — had already ridden to success: In the mid-1970s he’d founded Spice and Sweet Mahal, a grocery, as well as Curry in a Hurry, the quick-service restaurant thronged by cabbies, penny-pinchers, and late-night partyers.
It was the ensuing cultural shift, however, that allowed Kalustyan’s to become what it is today. In short, New Yorkers of all stripes started eating food of all stripes — and coming to Kalustyan’s for ingredients, whether the store carried them or not.
“The food industry grew so fast — so vast and fast — we can’t even keep up with it,” says Alam, his brow furrowed in concentration.
But keep up with it they did, sourcing an ever-expanding range of products from ever more countries and tipping off valued clients when, say, the dried apricots from Uzbekistan came in or there was a new shipment of jams from Lebanon.
A large part of that is due to the 56-year-old Osmani, whose round, beaming features contrast with his partner’s stern (if friendly) focus and who oversees day-to-day operations at the store. Some years back, he tells me in his tiny closet of an office, a customer came in asking for harissa powder.
“I look at him like this,” Osmani says, throwing a skeptical glance my way from behind his rimless glasses. “Harissa is authentically a paste. Yes, probably in Morocco there is harissa powder because they make it there. So then I have to research and research. I couldn’t find this, nothing available here.” The solution? Get a harissa powder recipe and make the blend in the store, from fresh ingredients ground, like all their spices, in-house.
Again and again, Kalustyan’s does this. A customer comes in seeking an unusual ingredient — a taste of home, perhaps, or of whatever the opposite of home is — and the employees do what they can to help.
Perhaps the most visible and obsessively helpful employee is Najmoul “Nigel” Hasan Chaudhury, a mirthful 64-year-old civil engineer who used to build palaces in Saudi Arabia but now spends his days digging up the most obscure ingredients in the world, like tonka beans and wattleseeds. (You’ll find him sitting at the back of the store, across from the pastries, just above the stairs that descend to the spice section.) When I hear his job described as “r&d,” I imagine him developing a worldwide network of contacts, mountain-roving scavengers with sat phones and grandmotherly herbalists reachable only by homing pigeon. Is he on the phone all the time?
“No, no, no,” he says. “I Google it.”
It’s more complicated than just that, of course. Often, one spice goes by many names, and it falls to Nigel to figure out what, precisely, a customer is asking for. “They call it black caraway, black onion seed, kalonji, so many names — black seed, magic seed. But actually it’s Nigella sativa, and back home it’s called kalonji.”
Only rarely has he been unable to fulfill a customer request. “I’m still looking for the blue fenugreek from Georgia and black aniseed from Italy,” he says.
Nigel’s counterpart is Abramson, the operations manager, who is also the former owner of Bright Food Shop, a Mexican-Asian diner that was a Chelsea fixture from 1990 to 2007, and Kitchen/Market, a Mexican takeout and grocery that also closed in 2007. With her short hair and colorful scarves, Abramson, 59, is the in-house liaison to the foodie world, studying publications like the New York Times, Lucky Peach, and Bon Appétit to understand trends and tilt business accordingly. (Sumac is big, if you didn’t already know; Kalustyan’s carries both whole and ground berries.)
In her nearly three years at Kalustyan’s, Abramson has also brought a highly engaging approach to customer service: “I’m just so interested in food and what people do [that] sometimes people come with a recipe or a list from a cooking class or something and I’m like, ‘Oh, let me show you where that is.’ ”
And quite often, those directions lead to long, detailed, passionate conversations. The day I visit, I station myself for a while near her desk (just downstairs from Nigel’s spot) and listen to customers ask:
“Do you guys have powdered gelatin?” (Fish, beef, pork, vegetarian?)
“What’s the difference between these two brands of fava beans?” (One’s from China, the other from Egypt.)
“Do you have candied violets?” (Here they are!)
“Do you guys have synthetic sausage casings?” (Alas, no.)
“How well do you know the harissas?”
“I know a little about some of them,” Abramson says, leading me (it was my question) to the rack of about a dozen sorts and beginning a learned disquisition on the signature chile paste of Morocco. First she identifies its essential spices (caraway and coriander, in addition to garlic, chiles, and olive oil), then she drops a bombshell: Harissa is not Moroccan. (Really? I think. What of Osmani’s harissa powder story? Where did Abramson come by this harissa heresy?)
“It’s what I have heard from Moroccan customers, that it has nothing to do with Morocco. And now I guess they’re making it, but it’s not indigenous to Moroccan cuisine — it’s Tunisian,” she says. “It kind of spun my head around, because we have plenty of them made in Morocco.” And also one made on Long Island by a Moroccan woman, and another made in the city by an Israeli couple: “Really tasty, not too hot, not too sharp, it’s delicious. I’ve been into a kick with mixing that with some yogurt and tahini and just drizzling the three with roasted cauliflower and vegetables, potatoes. Oh my God, it’s so good.”
From there we wind up talking about Essie Spice–brand tamarind and mango-chile sauces, and then gochujang, the Korean chile paste, and then tahini (among others, Kalustyan’s carries the Soom brand, favored by Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov), and then marzipan and mole and marmalade and…
Look, in one sense, Kalustyan’s is an ordinary shop, albeit one that sells extraordinary products. They listen to customers and order the things those customers want. They wrangle with big distributors over small orders, and with small suppliers over even smaller orders. Employees arrange displays of Tamrah-brand chocolate-covered dates from the United Arab Emirates, they pluck dead stems from bundles of cilantro, they assemble a box of supplies that a customer will hand-deliver to Afghan refugees in Greece (“Oh my goodness!” says one employee when he learns the destination). Osmani gets excited about the fluffy pita they’re baking in-house, and Abramson sighs when the pita oven explodes, spewing glass onto the kitchen floor. Then they call to get it fixed. This is, you know, business. Nothing special. No secrets here.
And still something special does happen: People talk to each other — customer to employee, customer to customer — and in ways I’ve rarely seen elsewhere. There’s a thrill in finding yourself standing next to someone who cares as much as you about kulfi, or meat glue, or shankhpushpi. Once, I wound up talking for twenty minutes with two guys who needed info about hot sauces. (Yeah, I’m that guy.) Another time, a woman from Baltimore proudly showed me the dried curry leaves she’d picked up, so I led her with equal pride to the cold case where I knew they kept the fresh ones.
At the same time, Kalustyan’s reminds us how little we know. Each aisle contains at least one product we’ve never heard of, don’t know what to do with, and can scarcely believe exists. It’s the best kind of humbling. Once, a few months ago, I found a South Indian treat called “curd chile”: peppers soaked in yogurt, salted, and sun-dried, meant to be deep-fried and eaten as a snack. I saw them and knew instantly I was in the presence of something extraordinary. I bought a bag right away.
But I haven’t cooked them yet, because the batch I cook may be my last. They’re no longer on the shelves.
“The children don’t eat it” in India anymore, Nigel explains, “so volume get low. We used to sell ten cases for a week — now we don’t sell even one case per week.” Distributors have stopped carrying it; it’s not worth their while.
“We’re still looking for it,” Nigel says.
Until you find it, Nigel, I’ll just hold the bag to my nose and inhale.