Check out Spice Girl, our new column devoted to -- you guessed it. Have a favorite place to buy spices? Send us there; leave a message in the comments.
The culinary landscape would be much flatter and a heck of a lot bleaker if it wasn't for one thing: spices. In fact, our ancestors used salt (although arguably a seasoning, not a spice) before they began cooking with fire, and the use of sesame seeds as a spice was documented as early as 3000 BCE in an Assyrian myth. And, let's not forget the spice trade, which pretty much developed the world as we know it. Whether you stick to basics like pepper and cinnamon or are more adventurous, it's hard to imagine life without spices. Even the Paleo (a.k.a. caveman) Diet doesn't discriminate against them.
Unfortunately, big box grocery stores are not known for carrying fresh or unusual spices. If you're looking for a way to spice up your life, you can't go wrong at Baiz Market, a Middle Eastern grocery with its own restaurant, Al Hana.
Fry's and Safeway stores devote maybe three feet of shelf space to spices, which is always crammed with racks of name brand jars filled with bland powders that may not be very fresh. It's not that they're bad, exactly; it's just that they are far from being ideal. Baiz Market, on the other hand, has one side of a long aisle devoted to spices of all kinds, mainly including Middle Eastern and South Asian specialties. There are no McCormick's bottles here, that's for sure. Most of the packages say something to the effect of "imported by" or "packed by," which is a good sign that they've been selectively sourced from a quality location.
It would be quite a task to list every spice that's available at Baiz Market, but if you're looking for anything Middle Eastern, they're sure to have it. Some of the items are whole and ground cumin, whole and ground cardamom, turmeric, sumac, allspice, and cinnamon. I snagged a bunch of Iraqi mango powder, called amchur in Indian cooking. It has a powerful tart flavor and will be great in curries. The best part of the spice selection is perhaps the house blends. Pick up the meat pie or the kebab blend to reproduce the food available in Al Hana, the market's restaurant.
For a taste of the spices in Baiz Market without slaving away in your kitchen, grab a bite in Al Hana, the Lebanese restaurant located inside the store. It's quick to grab a snack to eat while shopping. Mini pies, which are like three-inch pizzas, are 99 cents. The Small Meat Pie definitely benefits from the market's proprietary spice blend, and although small in size, it packs a lot of flavor. The small pies are available in meat, cheese, and spinach. Al Hana offers larger pies as well, which come in additional flavors soujouk (hot sausage), thyme, labneh (yogurt cheese), and veggie.
Or, stay for lunch and kill your hunger with a wrap or a big plate of food. Options include kebabs, shawarma, kafta, kibbeh, and falafel. The Beef Shawarma is tender and juicy and is served with rice, pickles, tahini, and two huge pieces of pita. The medium-sized plate ($7.99) is a filling portion, and the large ($11.99) would likely be enough to share. The Falafel Sandwich ($3.99) really hits the spot. The falafel itself is a little crispy with a soft but not mushy texture, and the hot pink pickled turnips are a great extra touch.
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