Kalustyan's, The Spice Sanctuary

The Awl’s holiday series on flavors and spices.

Image: Jazz Guy via Flickr

New York is a city made up of personal sanctuaries. For a place so vast and varied, it can take years for a transplant to find hers, but when she does, it feels like finding shelter under a heated blanket after ducking inside from the rain. You can always go to your personal sanctuary when the city outside is too much, and it’s often a place that has greater significance than home. Home can be too much, too.

My sanctuaries have changed over the years. I used to find sanctuary in the city’s art museums until I couldn’t stand to see one more Picasso. (So many godforsaken Picassos.) I stopped considering bars sanctuaries when every one of them was inevitably tainted by one bad night there, several bad people, or both. Record stores and bathhouses are common sanctuaries, and H&Ms and train stations never are. A favorite restaurant is a perfect kind of sanctuary, but you’ve got to be careful. When Bereket closed, I briefly considered moving.

A few years ago, I was introduced to Kalustyan’s, a Willy Wonka-esque spice store in a section of Manhattan just below Murray Hill. When you enter, you might be deceived to believe they only sell sweets and dried fruits and nuts and chocolate by the pound and a wall of boxed teas and nothing else, though it wouldn’t be so bad if that were the case. Continue toward the back of the front room and make a left and you’ll begin an exploration into a maze of fragrances and comforts so immense in number that if you are without a personal sanctuary now, might I suggest making Kalustyan’s yours?

Aziz Osmani, one of the co-owners of the store, led me through the history of the business this week in a tiny back office on the second floor, steps away from their critically adored deli counter. (There, you can get hot lunches of falafel platters and lebney and pianzo and warm pita.) The store, which was opened in 1944 by K. Kalustyan, an Armenian immigrant, originally only had 1,000 square feet of garden-level storefront. When Osmani and his cousin took the shop over in the late 80s, they expanded it gradually until, by 2014, it had grown to three storefronts and 6,500 square feet. The shop now claims to sell over 10,000 products.

As we talked, Osmani took a resealable plastic bag from a shelf in his office and showed it to me, grinning. “This is half a kilo of saffron imported from Afghanistan.” He opened it and I stuck my head in, taking in the ruddy color and intense smell.

“How much would a bag like this cost?” I asked.

“Hmm,” he said. “I think around thirty-eight hundred dollars.” Quiet surprise registered on my face. “That’s the price I get,” he added. “Wholesale.”

It’s possible to spend hours wandering the aisles of Kalustyan’s—if you were intent on reading the product name of every single thing they sell, you might actually have to. Butternut squash flakes, French gourmet rice blend, piri piri seasoning, panch padun, sodium benzoate, cheese salt, curry powder from Singapore, Malaysia, Jamaica, and everywhere else; Hawaiian red gold sea salt, cranberry honey, dried lotus leaves, an endless shelf of olive oils, as well as snacks, breads, frozen foods, sweets, and so much more. Osmani also showed me a box of candied rose petals, a thing I didn’t even believe was real. There is a library-like quality to Kalustyan’s: you can browse and browse and browse, and whatever mood strikes you at the time will dictate what ends up in your basket. After talking with Osmani, I purchased: a box of PG Tips tea bags, a bag of wild blend rice, a bean lentil mix, several individually wrapped almond nougats, two vanilla pods from Madagascar, and a plastic container of rose, lemon, and mint-flavored Turkish Delights. No savory spices this time—I was, as often happens, paralyzed by choice.

While I shopped, I saw an elderly couple accidentally drop a glass bottle of extra virgin olive oil onto the ground. The couple and the three customers in the aisle weren’t startled—we all just watched as a pool of neon green spilled slowly out onto the floor beneath a now easily weaponized bottle. The couple stayed where they were briefly and within seconds a store associate came to brush the glass into a paper bag. “Are you okay?” he asked them. “Oh, yes, yes,” they near-whispered as they shuffled away. Kalustyan’s is a sanctuary where even chaos is quiet.

The aisles at Kalustyan’s are terribly narrow, but because it is hushed like a library and the ceilings are low, there is little competition to move past other customers impatiently like New Yorkers must do in other grocery stores. Silent acknowledgment and even patient waiting are the guidelines—and sometimes, as in my visit that day, you just wander down another aisle until the customer blocking the one you need is finished and has moved on. There’s always more to see. And you’re in no hurry anyway.

I asked Osmani what the most popular spice at Kalustyan’s is. “Cumin. Turmeric. Coriander. Every country uses them,” he said, but added that spice blends are probably their biggest sellers. “Vadouvan is a French-influenced curry powder that originated from when the French used to be in India. That sells very well here. We make vadouvan and ras el hanout one thousand pounds at a time.” The least popular spices? Tajin and bijol were always rare purchases, he said, but mostly what they kept in stock always came down to when a customer got a taste for a new flavor abroad and couldn’t find what they were looking for in the States.

“They come back and they’ve tried something there that they like. Sometimes they bring a bit of the spice back that lasts them a few months,” he said. “But when they want to make something, they look for it and they can’t find it. Those blends don’t exist here.” So, he said, Kalustyan’s tries to faithfully recreate them. “We take the information from the customer and either we try to travel there or we research it. We create our own formulas.”

Osmani’s favorite seasonings and spices to cook with are some of the store’s speciality items. “Saffron, pistachio oil, truffle oil. Fennel pollen, dill pollen,” he listed. “Sure, they’re specialty items. Pistachio oil can be 50, 60, 70 dollars depending on the size.” So why use them? “Things like this can make a dish go from ordinary to extraordinary. And you only need to use one drop.”

Before buying my basket-full of randomly selected goods and scarfing Turkish Delights on the commute home (a personal tradition), I stopped to ask Osmani one more question. “Have you ever had anyone get married here?”

Across the desk, he sat silently stunned for ten full seconds. “Get…married?” he asked, indicating that he thought he’d surely misheard me.

“Yeah, don’t you think this would be such a good place for a wedding? Narrow aisles, sure…but…”

“Hey,” he said, a whiff of saffron still lingering in the air, “you never know.”