Spice Girl: She Who Must Be Stopped

This is a partial view of my spice cabinet. This is one sixth of it–there are three shelves total, twice as wide as what is shown in this picture.

So, I am still packing–that is a big surprise, I know. And I am on the phone with a friend, discussing putting together a series of lessons for her to learn how to cook lactose and gluten-free, while I am packing up my spice cabinet.

I have an entire large, three shelf, thirty-two inch wide cabinet devoted to spices and herbs.

Apparently, not only do I compulsively buy weird legumes, I purchase every spice known to humankind.

Lots of them at Penzey’s, as you can see.

So, while I am talking with my friend, I am taking up the various jars, bottles, bags and boxes of herbs and putting the ones I am not likely to use in the next week into a file box. And I am finding all sorts of things that, while, I didn’t exactly forget I had them, I didn’t realize how many of them there were.

I have fourteen kinds of dried chile products: whole and ground chipotles, whole and ground anchos, chiltepen, tien tsin, Pakistani chile flakes, Californian chile flakes, dried jalapenos, chiles colorado, ground cayenne, sweet paprika, half-sharp paprika and hot paprika, and Aleppo chile flakes. Oh, and chile con carne powder. That makes fifteen.

Then there are the dried flowers: lavender and rose buds, both food grade.

Four kinds of peppercorns.

Two kinds of cinnamon, and four different forms or varieties of cardamom.

Many kinds of Indian spices which many normal Americans have not heard of, such as amchoor, ajwain, kala jeera, asafoetida and kali elaichi.

Black and white sesame seeds.

And, of course, my beloved Sichuan peppercorns.

So, what I want to know is, when does a lot turn into too much, and when does too much turn into way too much and when does way too much turn into, “Hello, my name is Barbara, and I have a problem with spices. I love them. I collect them, and I use them every day. I am a user?”

And for those who have a similar problem with spices, or wantt to develop a similar problem with them, or for culinary nerds like myself who like to read stuff written by similarly obsessed people, here is a great resource for everything you ever wanted to know about herbs and spices.

The emphasis on the site is on Asian herbs and spices, and is written by a man after my own heart. It is truly an educational experience to read his work.

Okay, enough stalling for me.

Back to the boxes!


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  1. Oh dear. I think my brain just imploded from reading the label of the Calfornia-styled Red Peppers.

    Comment by Allen Wong — March 20, 2005 #

  2. Yes, those are the sort of “everyday” chile flakes that get used here. The Pakistani style (which I buy in much larger quantities) are what I use to make chile oil and in curries–it is much, much hotter.

    I suppose one could say I am chile obsessed.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 20, 2005 #

  3. Barbara!

    Thanks to your link to the spice pages, I was able to finally and forever determine that my very favorite Japanese spice, Sansho, is in fact, you guessed it: Sichuan pepper.

    Comment by Nicole — March 21, 2005 #

  4. Aaaw, look! Most of your jars all match!

    I wildcraft and grow a lot of my herbs, and buy in bulk – which comes in vacuum sealed bags, so I use a lot of recycled jars snatched gleefully from friends before they get trashed, and wide mouthed half pint Mason jars when I have to buy more.

    I collect odd ones, too – someday, after you’re settled, we ought to compare. You might like some of the ones I use.

    Comment by Noddy — March 21, 2005 #

  5. Is this deja vu or what. I have moved 4 imes in 5 years and each time I go through this same experience. My husband just shakes his head. My Mom makes me throw out the old or almost empty ones. But I replenish soon! I would like to say I love spices or beans or rice but the truth is- I LOVE food. Good luck on the packing and move.

    Comment by Laurel — March 21, 2005 #

  6. Noddy, we buy spices in bulk as well and use jam jars for the Indian spices. The asafoetida (aka hing) is double jarred because of its pungent ummm… aroma?

    Barbara, you are making me renew my vow to never ever move! Our spice cabinet sounds like yours – except yours is better organized.

    What are the four forms varieties of cardamom? I can only think of three – white, green and black cardamom (isn’t the black the same as kali elaichi?). Oh wait, do you buy some of the seeds already ground?

    We must never have gotten very good Szechuan peppercorns. They have always had a dusty acrid quality about them. How does one tell if one has gotten good Szechuan peppercorns?? We have the same problem with five spice powder. (no surprise there, as it contains Szechuan pepper) In fact, last summer, I composted our Szechuan pepper and five spice powder.

    But aside from the lack of Szechuan pepper here, you’d probably feel quite at home. We recently found a great store at the market that sells killer morita chiles.


    Comment by ejm — March 21, 2005 #

  7. As I mentioned to you elsewhere, I finally experienced Sichuan peppercorns recently. Of course, I cheated a little and um… was in China 😉 Unfortunately, the restaurant was sort of (Chinese) touristy – at the base of the Great Wall at Badaling – and it was just kung pao chicken. But still…those peppercorns… Sweet and flowery and peppery, all at the same time. Their flavor explodes in the mouth without being overpowering. *sigh*

    Comment by etherbish — March 21, 2005 #

  8. Hey, Noddy–

    The jars all match only on that side of the bottom shelf of that cabinet. In the other parts, there are all sorts of other jars all jumbled together.

    I do buy in bulk, too–I just keep the smaller jars and reuse them over and over. I do buy a lot of stuff from Penzey’s, but I also buy from Frontier, and I do grow quite a few of my own herbs. They are scattered among the flowers and vegetables, though I do grow some in whiskey barrels devoted only to herbs.

    The herb that I wildcraft the most would be ramps, and I don’t know if that counts as a vegetable or an herb. I would say that it is both.

    Nicole–Sansho and Sichuan peppercorns are both the flowerbuds of the prickly ash bush–some folks say the Chinese variety is different than the Japanese, but you know what? They taste the same to me!

    There is also a Tasmanian Mountain Pepper that is related to Sansho/Sichuan peppercorns. When it looked like the FDA wasn’t going to lift the ban, I was figuring out how to get a TMP plant and grow the stuff myself. The fresh buds are supposedly phenominal, and the plant is grown as an ornamental in the US. But the ban was lifted and I never experimented.

    Maybe I should experiment anyway….

    Elizabeth–white cardamom is nothing but green cardamom whose pods have been bleached! Sad, but true. I don’t have any of that kind–I have cardamom seeds (absent the pods), green in pod, black in pod, and pre-ground for Zak to use in baking.

    As for how to find good Sichuan peppercorns–look for a quick post on that topic soon!

    Ladi–I am so glad you got to taste my beloved peppercorns! They are supposedly amazingly fresh in China, a totally different experience in flavor. I think they are pretty great here in the US–I can only imagine I would swoon to have them in China!

    Laurel–I understand. I have tons of stuff in my pantry. Just frigging tons. Thankfully, we are only moving about an hour away from where we are now, so it isn’t such a trial to go back and forth and take a few trips to get stuff like food to the new place.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 21, 2005 #

  9. Aha. So our cardamom cache resembles yours. I just got mixed up because you mentioned both kali elaichi AND black cardamom as if they were different things.

    Yes, the white cardamom thing is sad, isn’t it? I found out about the white vs green from my husband when I first met him. He was horrified to see white cardamom pods on my spice shelf (but that’s what my mom had always bought!) and said to always get the green because they haven’t been treated with anything to bleach them.

    I used to grind my own (green) cardamom seeds but now that we have a good source of preground cardamom in Indiatown, that’s what I use for baking as well. It’s much easier than having to clean out the spice grinder of jeera and mustard remnants.

    When I was growing up, my mom had a beautiful little wooden barrel shaped grinder that she used only for cardamom. We were all devastated when the little grinder suddenly stopped working. Now she buys preground cardamom for baking as well.

    I’m REALLY looking forward to the post on Szechuan peppercorns! Will you do one on star anise as well? That’s another one that we have not been very pleased with, even though we KNOW we love it if it’s good.


    Comment by ejm — March 22, 2005 #

  10. I can hardly imagine life without star anise…I never even knew what it was for years, but it’s part of the flavor in a lot of braised food in my house. It’s also in many regional/countryside hotpots. It almost always coexists with the same groupings of spices, but I haven’t figured most of them out besides whole peppercorn and cinnamon sticks and the usual ginger/etc grouping. There are recipes, I’m sure, but even we Chinese buy the pre-mixed whole spice packets too 😉

    Comment by etherbish — March 22, 2005 #

  11. You just got your wish, Elizabeth–a post all about Sichuan Peppercorns. Which I wrote twice, by the way–I closed the wrong window just as I was almost finished with it this afternoon. So, I sat down after dinner and much packing tonight and wrote it again.

    I will write about star anise at a later date–probably after I move. I don’t know how much time I will have for much more writing before the move on the 28th, but I will keep trying to post something interesting, entertaining, useful and fun up until the end.

    Our current house goes on the market in the morning.

    Ladi–there is nothing wrong with spice blends! I use them, too. I think that black cardamom features in many of those mixes–bua cao, I think is the Chinese name for it. I am too tired to look it up, though!

    Okay, bed for me, now….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 23, 2005 #

  12. This is a hobby horse of mine, so bear with me:

    Sansho and Sichuan pepper are NOT the same. They are from different species of shrub in the same genus, Zanthoxylum.

    Sansho = Zanthoxylum piperitum (some Japanese sources use the alternate name, Zanthoxylum sansho or Zanthoxylum piperitum var. sansho)

    Sichuan pepper = Zanthoxylum bungeanum (aka Zanthoxylum simulans).

    Both have a mouth component that tastes “tingly”, but they are different trees: as different as lemons are from mandarin oranges.

    There are several north american Zanthoxylums, one of which (“the toothache tree”) was once used in folk medice as a local anaesthetic. But you shouldn’t assume that all Zanthoxylums can substitute for one another. Most of the north american ones are poisonous and one I read of has caused deaths in browsing livestock.

    That said:

    With the recent easing of trade restrictions with China, and huge container shipments coming to this country, it’s now possible to find lots of great, mainland chinese ingredients in chinese supermarkets everywhere there is a Chinatown. I’m in Cleveland, armpit of the midwest, and yet the 2 major Chinese supermarkets here have a huge selection of ingredients you’ve never heard of even if you are a complete cookbook junkie.

    One of the major trading partners exporting from the province of Sichuan seems to be “Lion Pavilion” aka “Chengdu Shi-Zi-Lou”. I’ve bought a bunch of sichuan regional ingredients which they sell under their own brand name, including (ta daa) a bag of the freshest Sichuan pepper you have ever smelt anywhere. Bright pistachio red and the aroma leaps out at you through the sealed plastic. It is marked for expiration in 2006 (!!!) …I’m used to buying things from Chinese markets that expired 2 or 3 years ago, and considering them magically fresh if they expired any more recently. For a bag like this to expire in the future is astonishing to me. And it smells like it, too. Chewing one peppercorn will dissolve your mouth.

    Look for things marked “flower pepper” or “prickly ash” or “brown pepper” “wild pepper” (even, sometimes, “red pepper” very confusingly). The mandarin name for the spice is “hua jiao”. My bag was labelled “prickly ash” and also carried the obligatory sticker on the front claiming that the product had been heated at 140 degrees F for 20 minutes (to satisfy the stringent US quarantine requirements on Sichuan pepper. The citrus industry is concerned that since the plant is related to citrus – both are Rutaceae – it might be possible for it to transmit asian diseases of citrus trees into the United States where it would run out of control. Heat treatment is intended to kill off the pathogens).

    As recently as last year the only Sichuan peppercorns carried by these same 2 markets was either: A) so stale you couldn’t taste any “ma” (tingly) or even any aroma B) so “heat treated” that they had turned light brown C) ground whole seeds and all, giving a sandy, gritty powder: the pods are the good part of the spice D) point of origin from Taiwan or parts of mainland China other than Sichuan, and probably contained a range of local Zanthoxylums instead of /as well as bungeanum E) several of the above at once.

    Penzey’s is great but the prices can’t compare to a good ethnic market! I picked up about a 4-cup bag of incredibly strong, fragrant star anise, Wei-Chuan brand (the Kraft Foods of Taiwan) for a dollar something. And most of them still had all 8 segments attached.

    Best! krnntp

    Comment by Anonymous — May 4, 2005 #

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