You Don't Have to Travel to Istanbul to Get a Taste of the Spice Bazaar. White River Junction's Good Enough.
Ras El Hanout, Baharat, Shish Taouk, Za'atar, Marash Pepper... There's a whole world in those names. And if you're a cook, it's a world of possibility and promise.
These are just some of the spices that make up the central space in Little Istanbul, the new Turkish goods store in White River Junction that opened last week. In a way, the store revolves around them -- which shouldn't be a surprise, given that owners Vural and Jackie Oktay also run the Tuckerbox, the Turkish restaurant and cafe across the street.
"People are loving the spices," says Jackie. "There are things you just can't get around here."
Take Ras El Hanout. It's actually Moroccan, and there's no set recipe--every merchant and company has its own. In the past, some blends allegedly included Spanish Fly (an aphrodisiac) and, sometimes, hashish. By that standard, Little Istanbul's is tame--but still exotic. Here's what's in it:
There are also more straightforward, but no less hard-to-find, spices and seasonings: Himalayan pink salt; Grains of Paradise, the west African spice that's sometimes used as a pepper substitute, but with overtones of cardamom; saffron; fleur de sel; black onyx cocoa powder; whole allspice berries; and dozens more. You'll just have to wander in to see for yourself.
And when you do, if Vural or Jackie are there, definitely chat them up. The mint, for instance, is strong--perfect for, say, lentil soup. The baharat, which includes nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon and coriander and is warm and inviting, goes well with chicken, stuffed vegetables, grilled meats... Za'atar is traditionally put on top of flatbreads, or mixed with olive oil to dip bread in, but Vural has a friend who tosses it on french fries, along with garlic, then accompanies them with a turmeric aioli. The Lebanese 7 Spice that you'll find there is what the Tuckerbox uses in its superb stuffed grape leaves. Toasted Dukka, also traditionally used with olive oil for bread dipping, gives white fish like cod and halibut a really nice flavor. The Marash Pepper...
Oh, never mind. You just need to ask.
Though the spices come from all over -- Turkey, Israel, Ivory Coast, Guatemala -- the Oktays are using an American importer for the moment, because getting spices through US Customs is time-consuming. But eventually, Vural will be relying on a childhood friend who now works in the midst of Istanbul's old city, near the Spice Bazaar, to source the best that he can find. "We’ve been looking a long time for the right sources," he says. "I want the best I can get from Turkey. That's why I'm patient."