Monday, January 30, 2012

Everything Nice at Oaktown Spice

”Turmeric is pretty hot right now, so I’ve been playing around with this....” and with that, John from the Oaktown Spice Shop opens a large mason jar of whole turmeric rhizomes and passes it under my nose. The scent is aromatic and similar to galangal, but not as strong, and is topped by a slightly floral note. He pulls out a wizened yellow chunk, “Take a look at this,” he says while heading across the shop to where a red antique spice mill sits in the front window. He tips a bowl with the milled contents to show an intense course-ground mixture of savory green and yellow herbs, and explains how he was test grinding sage with the antique mill when he came up with an idea to create a base for a new poultry rub. 
Grinding in some turmeric, he remarks that “’s kinda neat how the sage came out with a yellowish tinge - so the chicken can come out really golden.”  He adds that he would need to, at a minimum, incorporate some white pepper and coarse salt and figure out the right ratios to complete the mix before the rub can be tested-this is just a beautiful idea at the moment. 
When you walk into the Oaktown Spice Shop you can tell from the first sniff, glance and greeting that this is a labor of love. John and Erica, partners in every important sense of the word, share a vision that takes the uninitiated far beyond the basics of need, and into a journey of discovery and appreciation through a very personal encounter with the world of spices.  There is a distinct ‘spiciness’ to their deep knowledge and passion for the subject that makes it exciting to listen to them as they seamlessly trade back and forth, explaining their ideas and processes. 
The seeds of this shop were sown when John worked at a spice shop in Milwaukee, so he already had a pretty clear idea of the experience he wanted to create when he and Erica began to survey spice shops across California.  They wanted to build a space that felt authentic, not sterile.  To that end, they invested time and effort to locate real antique cabinetry, maps and containers for the displays, and made certain not to skimp on bulk offerings.  With the exception of a tiny number of items, almost everything is hand-ground on site.  They aimed to create an experience that is personal and laid back - just ask or demonstrate a genuine interest, and they will happily open jars to sniff and provide samples to taste.  
We spanned a variety of topics during the course of the interview, from the best mortar and pestle sets (they sell some great, reasonably-priced granite and ceramic options that are endorsed by America’s Test Kitchen), to grinders and sifters (they shared that they use a Turkish coffee mill to grind pepper at home and they hope to find some to sell in the shop). Then they kindly indulged my curiosity with a quick tour of their backroom, which was stocked with a plethora of various cool-looking grinders and sieves. 
A quick tip, when you visit the shop, you have to check out the cinnamon selection.  John and Erica collaborate closely with their sourcing vendors, and even though one can purchase from them high-grade barks for a range of cinnamons, they recommend that you let them do the heavy lifting when it comes to grinding and sifting.  They explained that cinnamon gets everywhere, it is extremely dusty and it is a skin irritant. Plus, they sift the cinnamon through a 60-mesh sieve so that it immediately dissolves on the tongue like powered sugar (and with a tiny bit of graininess that tastes almost like sugar in the case of the Korintje variety).  The cinnamon sieve is lovely, so finely woven that it looks like wire cloth.  They explain that, in contrast, pepper is easy and really nice to grind.  With pepper, a courser grind is desired so that the flavor isn’t lost, so one sifts out the dust when grinding pepper and one collects the dust while grinding cinnamon.
One of the more unusual spices they sampled for me is something called Grains of Paradise, used as a ‘pepper for the masses’ in the Middle Ages when real pepper was scarce and prohibitively expensive. The seeds are derived from the purple flower of A. melegueta, a plant in the ginger family.  They share a similar shape and color to black pepper, and they have a definite kick with an overtone from essential oils that are similar to the ones found in cardamom seeds.   I was told that it is a popular flavor additive for home and microbrewers. 
On a side note, I also learned that one can transform their Garam Masala blend into a Japanese Curry mix by adding sage, Mexican oregano, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek and Szechwan pepper; and that a lot of the same spices are also in the Madras Curry mix, but in different proportions - and that has much more turmeric. Pretty cool!
They offer a very special Mole Poblano blend, a red mole spice base, that from their detailed description appears to have taken tremendous love, effort and commitment to develop and test.   Erica comments that their blend is far superior to prepared mole pastes like the Dona Maria brand that tend to be one dimensional and far too sweet.  John adds with a certain quiet pride that Erica is Mexican-American and their mole blend has the seal of approval from both her grandmother and extended family.  Now that’s love.
So to conclude, come check out the Oaktown Spice Shop. Even if you are a complete commitment-phobe, it’s a safe bet to let yourself fall in love with love, and spices in Oaktown. 
p.s. In honor of loving the Oaktown Spice Shop, look for Social Feast to usher in February with a Valentine’s Day spicy recipe challenge.   Details to follow in the next couple of days!

Oaktown Spice Shop Deets
530 Grand Ave
(between El Embarcadero & Euclid Ave)
Oakland, CA 94610
(510) 201-5400

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