What's Fabulous: Kalustyan's
One of the primary reasons I created TheCityCook.com was to showcase the extraordinary food merchants in New York City. When I got the chance to write my book, that sense of discovery expanded to other cities as I sought recommendations from friends across the country for the names of their favorite small food merchants.
But New York is where I live and where I cook, and while there are now over 400 NYC food merchants in our database at TheCityCook.com -- all of them good-to-excellent -- I have my favorites. And one of them is Kalustyan's.
Just when I think everyone who lives and cooks here knows about this remarkable store, last week I again had the pleasure of introducing Kalustyan's to another New Yorker. So for the rest of you -- whether you don't know this market or just haven't been there in a while, let me tell you about New York's own special spice market.
The Store on Lexington Avenue
Kalustyan's is located on Lexington Avenue at East 29th Street, an eclectic neighborhood affectionately called "Curry Hill," a riff on Murray Hill, the residential neighborhood that's a few blocks north on Manhattan's east side. The name comes from the many South Asian shops, cafés and restaurants that line this stretch of Lexington Avenue, frequented as much by adventuresome home cooks as taxi drivers with South Asian and Indian subcontinent heritages.
The store was established in 1944 by K. Kalustyan as an outlet for Indian groceries and it immediately became a haven for immigrants craving the flavors of their homelands. In the early years it wasn't unusual for recent Indian immigrants living across the U.S. to drive to Kalustyan's, making an annual pilgrimage of sorts, to buy an annual supply of spices and other ingredients. Times have changed and imported ingredients and specialty spices are now easily available, but still, there's nothing quite like Kalustyan's.
In 1987 two cousins, Sayedul Alam and Aziz Usmani, originally from Pakistan, bought the store and have since expanded it to fill three levels behind its narrow frontage, adding the many shelves, bins and refrigerator cases filled with foods and ingredients from around the world, plus a useful website.
As you enter the store you are immediately greeted by a soft fragrance that could only be created from a little fenugeek, a little cumin, some pepper, and scents from hundreds of other spices. This alluring aroma, plus sitar music gently playing on the store's sound system, forms an exotic and seductive welcome to a notably un-slick place that is packed from floor-to-ceiling with bins, bottles, cans, boxes, and racks of cellophane bags, each filled with whole and ground spices.
What To Buy At Kalustyan's
Kalustyan's is known for, and distinguished by, its extraordinary spice selection. It's arranged alphabetically, along with subcategories. For example, there is cinnamon. But first it's cassia cinnamon from Indonesia, then cinnamon from Vietnam, and what the label says is the most forward-flavored, from China, plus others from Ceylon and India, in stick, bark or powdered form.
Among the paprikas are sweet, smoked, hot, Hungarian, and for me on my last visit to Kalustyan's, the hard-to-find agridulce which is a smoked bitter-sweet paprika from Spain that is best for paellas, kebabs, stews and barbecues. I will use this paprika to rub a long-roasted (8 hours!) barbecued beef brisket from a recipe that first appeared in The New York Times last April; this recipe is wonderful for a dinner party -- assuming your guests eat beef -- because a brisket is large and inexpensive; you just need the 8 hours to keep the 210° F roast cooking, flipping it every two hours. See our link below to the recipe.
But Kalustyan's sells far more than spices. Here is where you can find obscure flours, sugars and flavorings. Want some pear extract to give your pear frangipane tart a kick? They have it. Or powdered buttermilk, tapiocas, orange blossom water, mint bitters, black chickpea flower, apple smoked sea salt, mushroom powder, preserved lemons, and falafel moulds in either chrome or brass.
Are you an aficionado of hot sauces? This is where you might find the best selection outside of New Orleans or Texas. And dried chile peppers? With the helpful heat-score Scoville units noted on each label, there are bags of pequin, birds eye, tepin, dandicut round chiles, tiensin Chinese, Indian red, agi costeno, and many more.
The rice selection has small and large bags of the beautiful black Forbidden Rice, and scores of others from Italy, Spain, China and throughout South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Here is where you can find the specialty rice to make a perfect paella, risotto, biryani, bhat, dirty rice, pilaf, sushi, or kedgeree. Likewise for couscous. There's instant, whole-wheat organic, Israeli, Lebanese, tomato and spinach couscous and the toasted fregola from Sardinia.
If you have a craving for a particular condiment that could remind you of a faraway home or a travel memory, such as English Branston Original Pickle, they have it. Likewise for honeys, oils, vinegars, salt, dozens of mustards, jams and jellies, seaweeds, and more than one hundred kinds of lentils and dals.
In a recently opened space that's like a step-down annex to the main floor, room has been made to expand the store's selection of housewares, canned and refrigerated foods, as well as the spice department. The rear of the main store has frozen and refrigerated ready-to-heat meals and specialty dishes, including breads, rice dishes, curries and custards.
Upstairs has a small café with prepared foods, plus refrigerated cases filled with cheeses and olives. The upper level is also where Kalustyan's features its splendid tea selection, a small coffee department, and a selection of ceramic cookware, including ceramic tagines ranging from very small to huge.
I really appreciate that Kalustyan's packages their spices in sizes that range from very small to huge. That's because spices can go stale, their flavors fading if we buy more than we need. Or maybe it's a spice that we only use in a single recipe (I'm like that with cardamom -- I only seem to use it in a favorite recipe for Baked Carrots With Butter and Ground Cardamom; see our link), so it's a waste to buy more than a little at once.
At the same time, a visit to Kalustyan's may be inconvenient and you want to stock up on essentials, like my favorite Tellycherry black peppercorns. They make it easy for you to choose with packages ranging from 50 grams to five-pound bags.
I also like that the spices are pre-packaged. It not only saves time from having to get things weighed and priced but it also seems more sanitary with the fragile spices carefully packed and sealed into transparent bags of thick plastic so you can see exactly what you're buying.
Some home cooks fault the store for having prices higher than other smaller shops in the neighborhood, and for some items, especially the easier-to-fine products like turmeric or ground cumin, that may be true. But Kalustyan's selection and variety are unmatched and because they are a busy store with lots of product turnover, you can count on the freshness of their spices.
The front of the store has bins of dried fruits, nuts and chocolates, plus Middle Eastern desserts like baklava, and slabs of halvah from which small pieces are cut to order. And behind the register is a small cookbook selection, mostly about Asian, South Asian, and Mediterranean cuisines, an added inspiration for anyone who wants to explore new recipes given the range of ingredients at hand.
The store is open seven days a week, from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Monday through Saturday, and 11:00 am to 6:00 pm on Sundays and most holidays. They accept Visa and Mastercard but no American Express cards. The address is 123 Lexington Avenue and the telephone is 212-685-3451.
You can visit Kalustyans.com to scan their product lists and easily place an order. But if you live in New York, or plan to visit, there's nothing quite like going to the store itself for one more way to taste the flavors of New York City.