Whether you're itching to cook out of a new cookbook or are looking to recreate a great meal you just ate in a restaurant, chances are your spice cabinet could use an upgrade. Luckily, in this city of immigrants, there's no shortage of shops to choose from, both general spice purveyors and shops specializing in Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, or, well, pretty much any set of ingredients you can think of, from amchur to za'atar.
We've done the scouting for you, from spice mega-stores to a tiny, family owned West African shop in Harlem, and everything in between. Happy shopping.
The One-Stop Shop: Kalustyan's
Go for: Pretty much everything you could want.
Murray Hill's venerable Kalustyan's is your go-to for Middle Eastern, South Asian, East and Southeast Asian ingredients of all kinds: the narrow aisles of this bi-level emporium are packed to the brim with almost countless varieties of dried lentils and legumes, rices, grains, pickles, nuts. and of course spices. Looking for cinnamon? They have several kinds to choose from, along with pretty much every spice you could hope for. You'll find fresh Thai basil and lime leaves, chilies of all varieties (here are ghost chilies; there are some buttermilk-coated curd chilies), modernist ingredients like beet and vinegar powder, more than 10 kinds of curry powder in varying levels of heat, and uncommon specialties like dukkah, an Egyptian blend of spices, seeds and nuts.
Long story short? If you want it, Kalustyan's probably has it, though likely at a price premium.
Brooklyn's Middle Eastern Destination: Sahadi's
Go for: A plethora of international spices, from whole and ground cumin and coriander to dried sumac to asafetida and more, all sold in a third-generation, family-owned shop.
A Brooklyn staple since 1948, it's hard to overstate the wonderland that is Sahadi's. Though it opened strictly as a Middle Eastern grocery, over the decades Sahadi's has evolved into a destination for all manner of gourmet foods, from those Middle Eastern treats—think labneh, halvah and Turkish apricots sold by the pound—to imported cheeses, specialty chocolates and much, much more. But we're here to talk spices, right? Sahadi's has you covered: pre-packaged in small airtight plastic containers, the store offers about 80 varieties, both whole and ground, from all over the world.
Indian Spices Downtown: Dual Specialty Store
Go for: Fresh Indian produce, such as turmeric and galangal; fresh curry leaves; chili-spiced crystallized ginger; dried chiles; a variety of salts; and tons of dried spices.
This Indian grocery just off the East Village's Curry Row has a lot more than two specialties: one of them is spices, for sure, but others include fresh southeast Asian ingredients such as turmeric, galangal, Indian squashes, and green chiles. Family-owned since 1987, the cozy store has seen a lot of changes—including shifting neighborhood demographics and a tragic 2005 fire that razed the shop—but it's here to stay, even catering to trendy locals by offering over 400 varieties of beer, though spices remain the core of the selection.
Sri Lankan Specialties: Lanka Grocery
Go for: Both roasted (for meats) and unroasted (for vegetables) curry powder blends; powdered, splintered, and whole cinnamon sticks; Ceylon teas; chili pastes; flaked dried fish.
Staten Island is home to a sizable Sri Lankan community, and two outposts of Lanka Grocery supply the borough with all the necessary ingredients for Sri Lankan home cooking: from the requisite varieties of cinnamon to jaggery, or unrefined palm sugar, to a Staten Island special: pungent, spicy roasted Sri Lankan-style curry powder that's totally different from varieties found elsewhere.
West African Spices: Adja Khady Food Distributor
Go for: Essential West African ingredients such as palm oil; ready-made pepper sauces; sumbala, a nut paste akin to miso; teas and dried fruits.
This tiny West African grocery in Harlem's "Little Senegal" is a family affair: run by a group of sisters of Senegalese origin, it's a must-stop for anyone looking to cook up authentic West African dishes at home. That might mean ready-made couscous topped with stewed fish or meat, or—perhaps on a rainy day—homemade couscous made by hand from the millet Adja Khady sells. To add depth to such meals, do check the store's selection of essential spices and flavorings, from whole and ground peanuts to bright-red palm oil to the grocery's own line of bouillon.
Indian Megastore: Patel Brothers
Go for: Mustard seeds in every variety; sliced and powdered amchoor, or green mango; jaggery; and tons of spice blends and recipe bases, including those for making malai kofta, palak paneer and daal.
There aren't all too many national food chains that consistently uphold quality at all of their locations, but Patel Brothers, the largest Indian grocery chain in the U.S., is one of them. Its two New York City stores, in Flushing and Jackson Heights (as well as its many New Jersey locations), offer a staggering array of South Asian ingredients, from the standard range of grains, lentils, and flours to more surprising options such as pre-made refrigerated idli and dosa batters, frozen curry dinners that cost only 99 cents, and crunchy snack foods in flavors like Cornflake Mixture and Naughty Tomato. And like any self-respecting Indian grocery, Patel Brothers is a haven when it comes to dried spices, both whole and ground, available in wholesale-sized bags for low, low prices.
Mediterranean Staples: Parrot Coffee Market
Go for: Paprika in many forms; Mediterranean herbs (dried mint, lovage); Turkish chilies; mastic gum; and Vegeta, the beloved Central European MSG-based seasoning powder.
As befits a borough that is one of the most ethnically diverse locations on the planet, Queens's three Parrot Coffee locations offer a stunning selection of European ingredients, from Greek tarama (fish roe) to Serbian sea salt to Bulgarian dried sausage. Each store has a sizable spice section with quality za'atar, dried Mediterranean herbs (Bulgarian dried mint, Greek oregano, and dried lovage), and rare items like bright and spicy Turkish maras pepper.
Deluxe Spice Blends: La Boîte à Epices
Go for: Exotic, impeccably sourced spice blends prepared in-house by a chef and master spice blender, often in Asian and African-inspired varieties.
This jewel box of a store, located in Hell's Kitchen, is like an art gallery-cum-spice shop: inside the airy, glassed-in corner location, paintings adorn the white walls, picking up the rainbow of colors found on a center table, which is where chef and spice blender extraordinaire Lior Lev Sercarz displays his masterful spice mixes in 30 proprietary blends. Sercarz's creations, he says, tell a story: "There has to be some idea behind it. What do you want the blend to say?" Many of those stories are exotic, with blends like Penang (sweet chiles, onion and turmeric); Orchidea (orchid root, lime and Sichuan pepper); and Tangier (rose petal, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon). The spice mixes, with their often-little known ingredients, are meant to provoke imagination, Sercarz says; so when you visit, you might need to cast away all you thought you know about spices.
Everything Thai: Bangkok Center Grocery
Go for: An unbelievably comprehensive—and fairly priced—selection of essential Thai spices and flavorings: fresh Thai basil; pandan leaf; galangal; turmeric; curry leaves; lemongrass and birds-eye chiles, plus multiple varieties of fish sauce, shrimp paste, coconut milks and creams, tamarind pastes and much more.
If you're cooking Thai food, you can either wander around Chinatown's pan-Asian mega-markets, combing through a sea of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ingredients to find the coconut cream, galangal and tamarind you'll need, or you can save yourself some time and energy and head straight to Mosco Street's tiny Bangkok Center Grocery and find all of these things—and many more—in a flash. Here, the friendly Bangkok-born proprietor Yoottapong (he usually goes by Tom with his customers) will guide you straight to the brand of fish sauce, the type of dried shrimp, the variety of canned rambutans you want. A trip here is indispensable when preparing—or even thinking about preparing—any Thai dish under the sun.
All Things Middle Eastern: Balady Halal Foods
Go for: An excellent bulk spice selection: be sure to look for house mixes for flavoring falafel, shawarma, kofte kebabs and maclouba, a layered rice dish featuring chicken, eggplant, tomatoes and cauliflower.
One of the many pleasures of strolling through the diverse, low-key neighborhood of Bay Ridge is checking out its plethora of Middle Eastern restaurants and shops. While there, a trip to Balady is a must: this comfortably-sized store is packed with all of the ingredients you'd expect (a wealth of dairy products, such as labneh and fresh cheeses; halvah in every possible iteration; an olive bar) and many you wouldn't (tangerine- and pineapple-flavored Schweppes; mulberry molasses; dried safflower petals, to be used like saffron). Balady's bulk spice selection is truly something special, standing out especially for its careful house blends.
Rare Thai Finds: Inthira Thai Market
Go for: All the Thai cooking essentials, like fresh Thai basil, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, curry leaves, and chiles.
This family-owned Thai grocery in Woodside is a favorite of Pok Pok chef andy Ricker, and if it's good enough for Ricker—who creates some of the most scrupulously authentic, totally delicious Thai food in the western hemisphere—then it's good enough for us. At Inthira, you'll find fresh Thai basil, lemongrass, Thai eggplants and cha-om, a legume with edible leaves that are commonly deep fried and served with nam phrik dipping sauce, or eaten raw in salads.
About the author: Lauren Rothman once interned at Serious Eats and recently graduated from journalism school. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and check out her (many) food photos on Instagram.