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Travel Files: A Spice Merchant’s Top Destinations; For Homebound Cooks, Recipes That Will Take You “There”

Returning to Mumbai, I'd head straight to Mirchi Galli, the old spice stalls in Crawford market, where I'd stock up on these delicious sweetened spices, some covered with silver, for after-meal nibbles, not to mention the not-too-hot Kashmiri chilies I've come to love.

Returning to Mumbai, I’d head straight to Mirchi Galli, the old spice stalls in Crawford market, where I’d stock up on these delicious sweetened spices, some covered with silver, for after-meal nibbles, not to mention the not-too-hot Kashmiri chilies I’ve come to love.

When I travel, I am a market fiend.

In Oaxaca I wander down sidewalks where shaggy scrolls of true cinnamon, spilling out of burlap bags, perfume the air with a sweet, woody scent that mingles with the rich fragrance of cacao beans. Irresistible. I head to the airport lugging a one-kilo plastic bag of chocolate, freshly ground with sugar, almonds and spice, oozing and warm from the molino.

Time means nothing when I’m looking for spices.

In Mumbai’s Mirchi Galli one afternoon I drift into a spice merchant’s stall where candy-coated fennel and anise seeds, coconut and silver-covered spices are laid out like treasures in tiny wooden boxes. They are the world’s most sublime sweets and breath fresheners, a delicious nibble after a spicy meal. I mix my own colors and flavors to bring home. Suddenly it’s evening and the stalls are closing up.

And when I return home, I kick myself. “Why didn’t you buy more?”

If your passport’s nudging you this fall, consider planning a trip that includes a fantastic market or spice destination. In Food & Wine’s online edition, Israeli-born spice merchant Lior Lev Sercarz recently tapped Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market (see a great post here) not only as his top spot for spices, but also for “grains, legumes and dried fruit…”

Sercarz’s favorite spice shops are in France. Israel, in the Marais, gets the nod as a “nostalgic store,” while he calls Epices Roellinger an “expert venture.” The three shops, located in Paris and Brittany, are owned by the sea-faring chef Olivier Roellinger, with whom Sercarz apprenticed at Les Maisons de Bricourt.

You can read more about Lior Lev Sercarz and his spice blends here, and about Olivier Roellinger’s dreamy Paris store (and the ship made of cloves) here. For Saveur editor-in chief James Oseland’s favorite Asian markets, go here. They’re all on SpiceLines.

 Saveur, October, 2012. Photo: pdfmagazines.org

If a spice trip is not in your immediate future, don’t despair. Homebound cooks can travel the world from their kitchen. The October 2012 issue of Saveur features 101 Classic Recipes, including a few dishes that might have come straight from a market. See #3, Naomi Duguid’s recipe for Laab, Thai Minced Pork Salad, which she first tasted “at a rural market in southern Yunnan, the Chinese province which borders Southeast Asia. “

Duguid, whose Burmese cookbook is due out soon, writes: “This was laab at its plainest, and closest to its origins: raw minced pork blended with hot chilies, Sichuan pepper, and salt….I stood under an awning with a crowd of locals, eating, like them, with my fingers, delicious mouthful by mouthful.” In her recipe, the pork is cooked and seasoned with no fewer than 12 spices and herbs, among them Chinese five spice powder, crushed red pepper, mint and lemongrass.

Other transporting recipes include #38, author Suketu Mehta’s Chana Masala, “a simple chickpea stew…the food of the poor, the handcart pullers, and #87, novelist Diana Abu-Jaber’s Baklava, which “always evokes my father’s kitchen.” She writes, “When my father made his baklava—phyllo pastry luxuriating in syrup sweetening a layer of ground nuts—the smell filled the house. Back then, I believed he’d invented the stuff.”

 Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Photo: Jessica's Biscuit

Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Photo: Jessica’s Biscuit

And if you, like me, are avidly awaiting delivery of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, chef-owners of the Ottolenghi restaurants in London, there’s a fantastic recipe for Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. The dish is a wonderful way to sneak up on fall: I substituted sweet Cara Cara oranges for the clementines and Pernod for the arak, a powerful anise flavored liquor traditionally consumed in the Middle East, and it was utterly delicious.

In the accompanying article, “Revisit the Food of Jerusalem,” Katy McLaughlin writes that the Jerusalem-born chefs, one Arab and the other Jewish, “have returned to their roots with a cookbook that examines the multifarious nature of their hometown’s cuisine.”

The authors, says McClaughlin, don’t shy away from contentious subjects. Take, for instance, “wild za’atar, an herb that grows in the mountains around Jerusalem….For generations, Arabs have collected it and integrated it into myriad dishes. This local custom has become one of the many ‘thorny subjects poisoning the fraught relationship between Arabs and Jews,’” because Israel has forbidden anyone to gather wild za’atar, on the grounds that it is endangered.

Sometimes I wonder if reading about a place is almost as good as being there… What do you think?

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