There’s a sense of anticipation walking up to The Spice House. You can see the shelves of spices through the big plate glass windows from across the street. Located in a classic brick building in the Old Town Neighborhood of Chicago the entire store radiates with an old world aura.
The smell of fresh ground spices permeates everything as you walk in. In one corner you inhale the spiciness of chilies and peppers, in another you can feel the air warm up from the rich buttery smell of vanilla. It reminds me of those descriptions of spice markets in adventure books where they say you can feel the spices hanging in the air.
On a recent visit to Chicago, I got to stop by twice. The first was on a good walking tour of Old Town, where our guide Jess gave an interesting presentation in The Spice House’s garden about how to tell different types of cinnamon apart and when to use them. It was the type of food tour I enjoy: informative and entertaining with lots of tasty samples.
There wasn’t time to shop on the tour, so I made some before I left town. The hardest part about being in a shop where you can see them grinding the spices is not buying everything. To encourage you along the way just about everything has a tasting jar. Just pour a little on the back of your hand and lick. Just beware if you’re used to old grocery store spices that fresh ground spices don’t taste like cardboard and can have quite a kick.
A few things that stood out for me was the smoked paprika with its deep smoky taste and rich red color and the Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Paste, which I had never seen before. The vanilla paste has this wonderful, rich, warm, buttery taste. I’m not sure how I’m going to use it yet, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume you’ll see it in a bread pudding recipe in the next couple of months, which will be a lot better than my first attempt at using it as a simple syrup in a cocktail with real bourbon. Not a good idea.
There also were bags of freeze-dried sweet corn strategically placed by the register. The kernels just pop in your mouth with a super concentrated corn sweetness and a nice crunch. I can see using them as a great finishing touch in soups and salads.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a chance to chat with the folks at The Spice House during my visit, because of my schedule, which is probably a good thing for them, because its the kind of place you can talk about cooking all day long. Patty, who is one of the owners, was nice enough to catch up with me through the interweb to answer a few questions.
Umami – Are there any trends you see in the spices people are using? I’m curious if you can tell if people’s tastes are changing by the spices you’re selling and if there’s a direction people are going.
Spice House – Trends are often set by the chefs and food writers of the world. So it is hard to gage what crazy things they might come up with next! We certainly never saw the spices in craft cocktails trend coming, so that was a huge plus from our perspective. Different parts of the globe come underneath the magnifying glass every year, and the spices used in these popular cuisines of the year also gain ground in the spice popularity contest.
Typically with different global cuisines, spices play a key role the in the flavor profiles of these dishes. With Asian cuisine, we really have only hit the tip of the iceberg, lots more coming. We recently started carrying an amazing pepper called Sansho, used in Japanese cuisine. We have never experienced anything like it; it is like you put your tongue in an electric socket!
Here in Chicago, I think Filipino may be trending. We have also been selling a great deal more Middle Eastern ingredients, in part due to the very popular book by chef Yotam Ottolenghi, Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Just take a look at the spices in the recipes here. Things like harissa and sumac are flying off the shelves. We do spend a lot of time on the front line with our customers whether in our shops or via hundreds of daily emails, so we are lucky to be able to react fairly quickly when we see a trend emerging.
Umami – What’s the best way to tell if a spice is still fresh or not?
Spice House – Smell and taste. If a spice does not have an aroma, it is probably dead. Old spices will never make you sick, they just stop delivering flavor, so it is okay to test. Spices in their ground form really only have about a one-year shelf life. When we grind them, we bust open the cell walls, which releases the essential oils. As soon as that happens, the spice will gradually lose its essential oil, which is where the flavor is.
Umami – Do you have any recommendations for people about what they can do to help keep their spices fresh?
Spice House – Air is the enemy. So a good airtight container is essential. If you live in a humid climate and your spices tend to cake, refrigeration is recommended.
Umami – My last question is do you have a recipe or two that you use for people to understand what a spice brings to a dish? One of the things we’re trying to do at Umami is give people examples of things they can do at home to help them understand how different techniques and different ingredients change dishes and it would be nice to have a recipe or a test we could include with the piece that people could do at home.
Spice House – That would be very difficult to distil down into a single recipe, sort of like finding the alchemist’s stone! If you make any recipe both with and without spices, it seems the difference is pretty obvious, so I am not sure how you would pick one recipe to demonstrate that. Perhaps a curry recipe would be a good example. Here is one for Pumpkin Soup that would be timely for right now. Or this one for an unusual Curry and Cardamom cookie might exemplify what changes in a cookie when you add spices that you don’t normally associate with cookies.
Here is another fun one, as black garlic really has umami going for it, as does porcini mushrooms and Parmesan cheese. (Mushroom and Black Garlic Risotto)
In addition to their stores in Illinois and Wisconsin, you can shop at The Spice House online.
The Spice House is located online at www.thespicehouse.com
Chicago Food Planet Food Tours is located online at www.ChicagoFoodPlanet.com and provides a number of different food-related walking tours in Chicago.
Editor’s Note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.