Welcome to Little Gems, a series by photographer and author Melanie Dunea that reveals the food and restaurant wonders hiding in plain sight.
“This place is catnip for chefs,” chef April Bloomfield says. The smell of spices hits us like a tidal wave. I am tucked like a drafting biker behind April as we enter Kalustyan’s, the Lexington Avenue shop reputed to be “the spice mecca” of New York City. April and I are meeting for a long overdue lunch date and I assume we are first stopping for a few items she may need for one of her NYC restaurants. I am thrilled to be her shadow, because the only time I visited Kalustyan’s, I bought a packet of fennel seed powder and chestnut flour. That was five years ago, and they still lie unopened in my cupboard.
We are pushing our way past the snaking line of customers waiting to pay — some with purpose (chefs?), some just browsing (tourists?). Across the narrow aisle, I see an elderly man with a white turban clutching a bag that looks like violet-covered almonds; he scoops some dried persimmon into a plastic bag.
As we take a left into another part of the store, the chaos starts to make sense. This mini-emporium seems divided into sections: an area for flour, another for dried beans, and another for pasta and rice (there are more than 40 types). There’s a section for spices, teas, honey; an imported groceries section; and look! A refrigerated section. Variety and abundance. I stop to muse at the rows of colorful jars of maraschino cherries, including passionfruit-flavored and artificially dyed blue and yellow ones. The store is starkly lit by the strips of hard-yellow fluorescent lights, which reflect off the silver tin ceilings; this isn’t beauty lighting.
April throws some PG Tips tea from England and a bag of cicerchia beans into her red basket and offers me a small piece of fresh turmeric she grabbed for me to taste. It is tongue-numbingly tart and bitter, and immediately stains our fingers yellow — evidence of our crime of tasting before buying.
Opened in 1944 by K. Kalustyan, an Armenian immigrant, Kalustyan’s is tucked away in April’s neighborhood, Murray Hill, which New Yorkers have nicknamed “Curry Hill” because of its Indian influence. Originally the store catered to the Armenian community, but after the migration of Indians to New York in the 1960s, the shop concentrated on importing Indian spices. Today the shop has expanded into neighboring spaces and boasts that it carries more than 10,000 food products from over 80 countries.
“We don’t have everything, but we have most things,” says manager of operations Dona Abramson. She admits that they occasionally fall short when people bring her little packets of powders from their travels and ask her to identify them. “We are not just an Indian market,” she says, “we are an international spice and specialty-food shop.”
“Let’s eat,” April says, not a moment too soon. “We are going to eat upstairs — it’s quiet, unassuming, easy, and fast.” I had no idea about the deli-cafe upstairs. As we mount the stairs, we reminisce about our first meeting 12 years ago, when I photographed April for my book My Last Supper at her brand-new restaurant, the Spotted Pig. We’ve been friends ever since.
We walk up to the counter and April remarks that this reminds her of the curry houses in England, her mother country. We are greeted with friendly gusto by Amine and Elyes, the workers manning the steaming-hot buffet display case. As we peruse the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean menu, Amine insists that we try the “amazing” pianzo, known as lentil fritters to laymen like me. I suspect that they recognize April — she’s well known, after all — but as we continue chatting, her star is eclipsed. Amine and Elyes point like synchronized swimmers to a photograph on the wall of the “famous" Martha Stewart, who once lunched here.
Overwhelmed by food-choice paralysis, we order a plate of lebney, a heaping portion of spinach with pine nuts, eggplant with tomatoes, the lentil fritters, hummus, gigantic beans, quinoa, eggplant puree, couscous, and a few slices of pita bread. We nimbly transfer our feast to a ledge near the window and grab a couple of stools; the other eight tables are busy. With a raging appetite, I scoop up a vulgar amount of hummus with my plastic spoon and slather it on the corner of some warm pita. My mouth waters; it's delicious and as garlicky as it gets. From our window perch, we have a bird’s-eye view of the bustle of the street, the customers coming and going while the cafe’s tables turn over quickly.
We eat and eat and laugh and laugh, and after we are done gobbling, I feel sated and grateful: grateful for these little New York places that still exist, and for the friendships that endure and flourish. On my way out, I buy a bottle of pomegranate molasses which I now know how to use — after all, I got tips from a pro.
123 Lexington Ave., New York, NY