A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Spices in India

Buying spices in India is on the top of a lot of travelers’ to-do lists. And why shouldn’t it be? India is famous for its spice markets, spice traders, and spice routes. From black pepper to saffron India has it all. A walk through any major marketplace in India will reveal  no shortage of spice traders who claim their ancestors have been in the business for hundreds of years; that their spices are the best, purest, and most desirable. Today you even hear words like “organic” being tossed around. It’s a pretty competitive scene. With everyone working hard to earn that extra tourist dollar, with a little work you’re bound to find the deal you’re looking for.

We had the chance to sit down with a spice expert in Johdpur. She revealed some of the tricks of the trade which helped us and may help you:

1. Buy close to the source

Buying_Spices_in_India_3Cardamon plantation | Munnar, India

Our local expert confirmed an obvious truth: the closer to the source the fresher and less compromised the product.

While the cardamom you find in Rajasthan might look like the best cardamom you’ve ever seen, the cardamom fields of Munnar are actually the best cardamom you’ll ever see. So if both locations are on your travel itinerary, no matter how good a deal seems, wait till you are as close to the source as possible before you buy.

2. Storage matters, even before you buy

Buying_Spices_in_India_2Shallow display pans and air-tight jars, a good sign this vendor takes freshness seriously

Like any food product, spices (whole or ground) need to be handled and stored with care to preserve freshness and quality. Each spice has its own distinct needs when it comes to proper storage. While a beautiful burlap sac filled to rim with a pyramid  of gorgeous black pepper might make for your highest liked Instagram picture of the week, it might not make for the best black pepper you can buy. If the shop sells wholesale volume, these sacks are no problem, but if they’re doing basic tourist trade, you want fresher. Look for air tight jars and containers as a sign that a vendor takes care to keep his spices fresh.

3. Hand-ground spices are harder to find these days, but worth the extra effort

Buying_Spices_in_India_1Chai blend: one hand-ground; one by machine. Can you tell which is which?

Alas, the ways of the old world are slowly (read: not so slowly) changing. And while in San Francisco you might be able to start your own traditional hand grinding hipster spice commune and charge out the wazoo for your superior product, in India it’s becoming harder and harder to find hand-ground spices.

Why is hand-ground better? Because spices have natural oils, fibers, flavor and textural qualities that are gently released and captured while broken down by hand. Hand grinding allows the broken spice to maintain its integrity while releasing its inner potential. On the contrast, industrial spice grinding machines simply pulverize spices to dust. Grinding spices like this obliterates delicate qualities and results in a one-note spice.

4. Beware of prepackaged spices

Buying_Spices_in_India_4Packaging fresh spices. Make sure to investigate prepackaged spices before buying

Walk into any spice store and you will see wall-to-wall prepackaged spices. Ask to smell or sample any spice and you will be presented with a beautifully sealed airtight container. The airtight container is where it’s at. Spices that are neatly prepackaged and sitting on the selves require further investigation. They might be just fine, but whenever we bought a spice we asked for it directly from the freshest source the store had available. (usually some airtight container they put their freshest newest spices in)

All shops have the capability to seal up a fresh bag to order, if a vendor claims otherwise, he’s not the person you want to buy from. Like all transactions in India, if you’re serious about buying, a good vendor won’t let you walk out the door without exactly what you want. It might not have a pretty sticker on the package, but at least you know exactly what you’re getting.

5. The ol’ saffron trick

Buying_Spices_in_India_5Fake saffron dissolving into nothing (top); Real saffron stays intact (bottom) 

 The world’s most expensive spice is also the most often and most easily counterfeited one. Newspaper can be compressed, dyed, cut, and perfumed to look just like the real deal. Newspaper.

Counterfeit saffron was a new scam to us. We never paid much mind to street kids claiming to have high-grade saffron for sale. Maybe it was our gut instincts, or maybe it was the fact that between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates we had hoarded enough pure Iranian Sargol saffron to put our kids through college. Either way we were shocked to hear what these kids are actually selling.

Our spice expert broke down how to tell the hero from a zero and gave us a demonstration on how to tell the two apart. All you need to test the authenticity of saffron is a little water. Place a thread of the saffron into the water and roll with your finger a couple times. Pure saffron will release its distinctive golden hue into the water but remain physically intact. A fake will bleed brilliant yellow and then continue to completely dissolve. Whatever flavor and color fake saffron adds to a dish is artificial at best and harmful at worst. Buyer beware. As the old saying goes, “If it’s too good to be true, it is.”

6. Competition is fierce, use it to your advantage

Competition for the tourist spice dollar in India is fierce. In the last decade “spice traders” and spice shops have sprung up like pesky weeds. All of them viciously discrediting their neighbors’ businesses. Do your research and ask lots of questions. If a vendor can’t back up his story with details, such as where the spices come from, how fresh they are, how much he goes through in a week, it’s probably because he has no clue. There are plenty of real deal spice traders out there that would be more than happy to sit down over a glass of chai and discuss every detail of their operation.