Food is the window to a nation's soul. Our first experiences with food often shape our perceptions about a foreign land and its culture. It is the elusive feeling of comfort that is evoked when biting into our first hot, flaky croissant of buttery goodness in Paris or the burst of flavors we experience when the first forkful of a tender Moroccan lamb tagine hits our tongue. We remember the sweet dal that we had at a wedding celebration in Mumbai, the mole we had in Oaxaca at La Guelaguetza festival, or the hearty goulash we had on a wintery day in Budapest. Exposure to exotic dishes experienced abroad can lead to withdrawal when a craving hits back home. It is a dilemma any bon vivant junkie must face: how to chase the dragon stateside?
Spices have always held a certain reserve currency status. There was a time when nutmeg was more valuable than gold. In fact, the Dutch traded Manhattan to the British in exchange for a small Indonesian Island that allowed them to have a monopoly on nutmeg. International epicureans looking for those hard to find ingredients from travels abroad are in good company and join the ranks of Marco Polo, Vasco De Gama, and Christopher Columbus who searched for new routes to the spice rich regions of the Far East. For New Yorkers in the know, the journey to culinary nirvana need not be as fraught with peril as those faced by the early explorers.
Kalustyans in Murray Hill is where Marco Polo meets Manhattan. It is where the refined, internationally fine-tuned palate comes to worship at a shrine of fragrant spices, rare salts, fiery hot sauces, and infused oils. Culinarians with an appetite for adventure will appreciate a field trip to La Boîte where world traveler, chef and spiceologist Lior Lev Sercarz peddles his signature blends. Chef Sercarz' craft creations bear the names of exotic destinations tempting the home chef to experiment with new spice fusions in the same way one does while abroad by adding a dash of Bombay, a pinch of Penang, and a squeeze of Siam.
The Greek Diaspora flock to Titan in Astoria for a quick Feta fix while those seeking a cure for South of the Border fever can check into, or rather check out at, Williamsburg's Moore Street Market, the Betty Ford clinic to all things Latin. Should you be on a Viking quest to stockpile the Norwegian chocolate that ruined all other chocolate for you, the Nordic Deli in Brooklyn or the Scandinavia House in Manhattan will keep you outfitted in the creamy milk chocolate deliciousness of Freia Melkesjokolade for as long as your pockets are lined with Krone.
Although the price points at these specialty stores are not always as easy to digest as they are in their native lands, the spices acquired at these culinary apothecaries will be less expensive than commandeering a slow boat to China. With any luck, your acquisition of these specialty seasonings will have your dinner guests convinced you are serving them ambrosia.
Whether you travel to a brick and mortar location or make a virtual visit online, your trip to one of these niche stores will help throw the gastronomic monkey off your back. Until your next sojourn where you will undoubtedly fall in love with new dishes and flavor profiles.