Exploring spices, we bring the world to our tables
Americans consume billions of dollars worth of spices and seasonings annually. As a country, we import more than 1.1 billion pounds of spice — more than 80 kinds from at least 140 countries.
Seattle Times staff reporter
JERRY RIVAS leaves work at the end of the day, but it doesn’t always leave him.
He recalls times he’s stopped at the grocery store, and people’s noses started twitching.
“Someone will say, ‘Who smells so good? Who smells like vanilla?’ And I’ll raise my hand: ‘Me,’ ’’ he says sheepishly.
Or the night when a police officer stopped him as he drove out of the parking lot after hours. There’d been a break-in at a nearby business, and the officer wanted to know where Rivas had been.
“Market Spice,’’ Rivas said, gesturing toward the warehouse where the 103-year-old company packages its spices and teas for sale at Pike Place Market and around the world.
The officer stuck his head into the cab of Rivas’ truck, sniffed, and waved him on.
Then there’s the ghost-chili incident. Rivas grows serious at the mention of the chili, which is what lava might taste like if it came in powdered form.
“You get it on your eyelids, you’re done,’’ he says, speaking from experience.
He could go on, but as “the guy who makes it get done” at the Market Spice warehouse in Redmond, there’s work that needs getting done if Seattle’s appetite for spice is to be sated, however temporarily.
More than 19 years after moving into the warehouse, Seattle’s longest-running spice purveyor has outgrown the space.
Blue plastic bins, stacked two and three high, line the warehouse floor in rows. The 40 or so with yellow lids contain the company’s special spice blends. The rest — dozens of blue-lidded bins and scores of shoe-box-sized containers on shelves that rim and bisect the warehouse floor — is spice sold in pure form or mixed into blends for sale to spice companies, food producers and chefs.
Rivas, 51, is a compact man who stands like a boss with his shoulders pulled back. He runs a tight-knit crew at a company that employs three sets of brothers who call each other nicknames like “Johnny Allspice,” “Stinky” and “Baby Drew.” Wearing long aprons and baseball caps or bandannas, they move methodically down the aisles and among the shelves, pulling ingredients that will be ground, mixed, packaged and packed for shipping — all of it done by hand.
The shop radio plays country music — the first person to reach the dial picks the station — but the younger guys sport earbuds hooked up to mp3 players. They move to their own beat, peeling back plastic container lids as they fill and pack orders.
Rivas works his way down the aisles to offer a closer look at the company’s operations. As he removes lid after lid, olfactory bubbles form and linger in the air. At first, it’s pure scent, a delightful caress of the senses. But soon we’re transcending time and space, and moving into the realm of memory and desire:
The wet barbecue rub is the first glorious bite of smoky ribs plucked from a front-yard grill in Delridge; the pickling spice finds me fishing with tongs in the oak pickle barrel at my favorite childhood deli. I’m recalling Ethiopian feasts in Tukwila; my son’s awed expression when he first tasted a cinnamon roll; savory clams oreganado, devoured at 2 a.m. with the rest of the wait staff, after the last chair was put atop the banquet table.
I’m suddenly hungry and wondering how everyone here stays so thin.
SPICE IS AN ancient trade, and the company, founded in 1911, seems likewise inclined to dwell in an older age.
“There wasn’t even a fax machine here until 10 years ago,’’ says Angela DeWitt, 29, assistant manager at Market Spice’s only retail shop, in Pike Place Market. “We’re a 103-year-old company, and we act like it.”
DeWitt is sitting in the shop’s office, a sliver of space that doubles as the kitchen. With space at a premium, most of the shop is devoted to shelf displays of Market Spice tea, a signature blend infused with cinnamon and orange oils and spices.
Until the company launched its website five years ago, spices were a small, but important, local sideline. Cooks would wander in with recipes cut from the Sunday paper, or brandish jars to replenish their favorites: oregano, Saigon cinnamon, smoked paprika, tellicherry peppercorns, harissa, Greek seasoning, steak seasoning and herbes de Provence.
The Internet opened new markets for the company, allowing visitors to Pike Place Market to return home and order teas and spices online, says Nancy DeWitt, 56, shop manager for 13 years.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, the know-it-all television M.D., also drives business by promoting spice as medicine, helping make once relatively obscure spices such as turmeric commonplace, she says.
Both DeWitts — mother and daughter — say the number and variety of spices they sell have increased as people’s palates have grown more curious.
Ten years ago, they say, people didn’t cook much with the flavors of faraway countries. Now they regularly cook foods from India, the Middle East, Africa.
Angela says customers discover new flavors through local restaurants, newspapers and magazines, and online food sites and television shows. As a result, once exotic spices have become common commodities.
For instance, Costco sells its own brand of tellicherry peppercorns from the Malabar coast of India for $12 for a 14-ounce container. Chimichurri? You can buy it through Walmart.
Old-school spice racks at grocery stores have morphed into entire spice sections that include pure spices and signature blends.
Ethnic groceries sell large quantities of spice, especially chilies, cheaply in sealed plastic packets, while specialty shops such as Big John’s PFI on Sixth Avenue South sell to the public in bulk from five-gallon buckets.
The wide availability means that pure spices that once inspired epic ocean journeys, wars, inter-continental trade and poetry have now lost much of their mystery and allure, says Paul Kurpe, a marketing executive who has worked in the spice industry for 40 years.
Back in the day, “the sources and origins were somewhat kept secret,’’ says Kurpe, a vice president at Elite Spice of Maryland, a national distributor. “But we live in a global market, with satellite dishes on shacks in Indonesia and cellphones in Turkey, where 90 percent of Mediterranean oregano originates. Technology has brought everyone closer together; there’s no secret supplies any more.”
AMERICANS CONSUME billions of dollars worth of spices and seasonings annually. As a country, we import more than 1.1 billion pounds of spice — more than 80 kinds from at least 140 countries, according to a recent report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Only five of those spices account for half of all spice imported into the country: black pepper, white pepper, mustard seed, ginger root and capsicum, which is basically chilies and paprika.
The figures don’t include salt, which is not considered a spice because it comes from seawater, not plants or vegetables.
The list reflects big changes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, in a 2007 report documenting changes in the American palate over 10 years, notes that “the share of traditional spices, such as peppers, cinnamon and vanilla declined as the U.S. palate increasingly sought diverse tastes and increased its demand for such products as nutmeg, saffron, fennel and turmeric.”
USDA researchers in the mid-1990s attributed the growing appetite for spices to the rising popularity of Asian, Mediterranean and Hispanic foods, and the use of spice in place of salt and fat.
Kurpe, the marketing executive, says Americans are seeking increasingly hotter flavors such as smoked, dried jalapeños and chipotle peppers, and smoked paprika. He should know: His company is the largest domestic producer of red pepper and one of the largest providers of spices to industrial-food manufacturers. He also sits on the boards of two trade organizations that represent the largest players in the spice industry.
“The numbers are up overall, and the heat is up quite significantly,’’ he says.
Kurpe says cooking shows have contributed to the changing demand, but notes that research-and-development departments at companies such as his, along with Research Chefs Association, are often the source of new taste trends.
Toronto-based food scientist Elizabeth Chan described the process in a December article for Research Chefs: foodies discover new flavors at restaurants run by creative chefs, then share their experiences on blogs and social media.
Local mainstream publications’ reviews draw more attention to the flavors, which eventually end up on the menus of “forward-leaning chains,” boutique restaurants and retail outlets. By the time the flavors hit grocery stores and fast-food restaurants they’re being produced on a large scale, Chan writes.
Still, adaptation can be slow. Kurpe, the spice executive, says chimichurri took 10 years to catch on after Elite’s researchers identified it as the next big thing.
EVERY YEAR, the big kahuna of the spice world — McCormick & Co. — predicts the top flavors and food trends for the coming year. This year’s prediction: modern takes on Indian cuisine and an explosion of Mexican flavors around the globe.
The top trend, though, is what the company called our “chilies obsession: food lovers everywhere are seeking out their next big chili thrill.”
Market Spice, among others, is going to great pains — literally — to bring it to us.
At the Market Spice warehouse, it’s fallen to Brandon Capek, 23, to fill the weekly orders for ghost chili, one of the hottest chilies on the planet.
Chili heat is measured in Scoville heat units, a scale that, when it was developed, represented how many drops of sugar water it would take to neutralize the chili’s heat.
Ancho chilies clock in at about 3,000 heat units. Jalapeños are about 25,000. Ghost chili measures 1 million heat units. That’s the culinary equivalent of a thermonuclear bomb going off on your tongue. A friend told me I couldn’t write this story without experiencing it. I beg to differ.
I regularly order five-star Thai, and my picture hangs on the Wing Dome’s Wall of Flame for eating a chicken wing doused in chili sauce and encrusted with chili flakes. But that kind of heat feels like ice cream compared to the blistering tincture of hot chili oil I sampled at a Pepper Palace shop in Florida several years ago.
Capek has never eaten ghost chili, either, but that doesn’t mean he’s escaped its wrath.
Once, some residual particles fell from his eyelashes into his eye.
“It’s the worst pain you can imagine,’’ he says, shaking his head. “You feel like it’s never going to end. You gotta try to man through it.”
Capek used to package the ghost chili during normal business hours, but after his co-workers fled the warehouse in coughing fits, he opted for a once-weekly, after-hours ritual.
“You gotta respect that stuff,’’ he says, as his co-workers quickly make their exit.
It feels like we’ve stepped onto the set of “Breaking Bad” when, at 4:30 p.m., Capek breaks out a full-face respirator and a pair of mustard-yellow rubber gloves that run from the tips of his fingers to the top of his biceps. A digital scale, along with several dozen cellophane pouches and a sealing machine, sit at the ready on the steel counter in the warehouse.
A white-lidded container sits off to the side. Capek’s smiling and laughing as he pulls on the gloves, but this is clearly no laughing matter.
Once suited up, he sets the white lid to the side and removes the plastic bag containing rust-colored chili powder. The overhead fan that removes dust from the warehouse is running full-tilt.
Using a steel scoop, he shovels a single ounce into a small plastic pouch, prelabled to sell for $6.93.
A sales agent wanders back into the warehouse to hand me some information on a Puyallup farm that buys up to 60 pounds of pickling spice at a time from the company.
I thank the agent through my goggles and respirator, and urge him to leave. Though Capek has filled only one or two orders, the agent coughs gently as he makes his way out the back door, and I find myself wondering whether anyone really needs chili this hot.
Capek has done this so often that in less than seven minutes, he’s filled more than 35 packages. He closes the lid on the container, seals the packages, removes the gloves and mask.
Then he rips open a tiny packet of burn cream and rubs it into the top of his hands.
“Sometimes, I still get burned,’’ he says.
He moves on to the habañero chili orders. When he’s done, he’ll head to his apartment across the street, ditch his clothes in the hamper and jump in the shower before any stray chili particles have an opportunity to cause further injury. Then he’ll hit the road to deliver the day’s orders, including the ghost chili, to the Market Spice shop in Seattle.
There, it will be sold with a warning.
Steve Rivas, the company’s chief buyer who has worked there for 29 years, says Seattle loves its pepper, chili and paprika.
Says Steve: “Spices will be with us forever. Spice enhances our life. It adds flavor to our food. It’s good for us. Life would be pretty boring without spice.”
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2508. On Twitter @susankelleher. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.