One of the most beautiful parts of becoming vegan for me has always been the exposure to so many different cultural flavors, particularly when I think of the number of new spices I’ve added to my cabinet as a result. When I began to explore Indian food for example, cumin, coriander seeds, fenugreek leaves and seeds, anise, cloves, dried hot peppers, curry leaves, mustard seeds, cardamom, turmeric, saffron, and cassia bark all made their way into my cabinets. For Thai, suddenly fresh lemongrass, small Thai chiles, prickly ash, star anise, and Thai basil were regulars in my spice mixes. Chinese cooking brought a homemade five spice mix, plum sauce, and homemade vegan versions of oyster and hoisin into my kitchen.
The first time I purchased these spices, however, I was naive, and bought them in the small bottles that one finds in the spice aisle of the supermarket. A few of them, I learned later, could be acquired in a similar manner cheaper at ethnic markets, but regardless the cost began to add up as more and more ethnic food began to make its way onto my table. Gone were the days that I had to go to my favorite Indian place and make several substitutions in order to have a vegan version of my favorite cream sauces! Yet still the expense remained, particularly when you consider that spices have a shelf life of about dix months before they begin to lose potency. What’s a girl to do?
The answer came when I was exploring Bed Bath and Beyond, and noticed for the first time a little contraption that claimed to grind both spices and coffee. I picked it up for about $20, and that investment alone has saved me hundreds of dollars over the last few years. What I learned later was that many of my favorite ground spices, like cumin and coriander, when not found whole in traditional dishes, were usually toasted and then hand ground in a mortar with a pestle. I don’t always have time to do that with my spice mixes, but I do have time to toast a large amount of my favorite spice and put it through the grinder, then bottle it up in all those little glass jars that I’ve racked up over the years from purchasing the spices for far more money than I should have.
This is an advantage for three reasons. One: the flavor of fresh ground spices, toasted or no, is FAR superior to the pre-ground versions at the store. The aroma alone is enough to convince anyone! Two: whole spices keep for closer to a year, which extends the shelf life on spices you may only use a few times over the course of said year. If you’re an ethnic food junkie and use those spices every week like I do then this might not be as much of an issue, but for many of us, this is a major advantage of the DIY mentality. Three: With time and practice, you can also opt to grind precisely what you need for a given recipe, which can increase the flavor reaction from point one. I often opt to grind and store my spices for a couple of weeks, but I have friends who grind exactly what they need for every recipe, and the results are wonderful.
So, where can you find these whole spices? That depends on where you live. Several of the big box grocers here have fenugreek seeds, cloves, coriander, cumin, bay leaves, and anise in the “Mexican” aisle in bags for a fraction of the price per oz that one would find the ground versions in the spice aisle. Coriander is often sold as “cilantro seeds” in this fashion, which is accurate: many people don’t know that fresh cilantro is actually the plant that produces delicate coriander! Chinese markets, Indian markets, Mexican markets, and some bulk sections also often house whole spices in bags or in bulk. You can also order them online, but I would check with some of your local businesses first. Even when saving money, it really pays to support the local economy, and sometimes local businesses are willing to cut deals if you buy a lot.
Next week I’ll do an article on spice mixes for all of you that are either sick of the prices for them at the store or would like to save money on your own. Let me know in the comments if you would like to see any particular mix such as garam masala, chili powder, etc. Happy cooking!