A first glance down the Lexington Avenue corridor of Manhattan’s East 20s reveals little that would beckon a thrill-seeking food traveler into a detour. Taxi cabs occupy the parking spots on either side of the otherwise unassuming street, their vivid yellow exteriors a riot of color against the cement, like dual streaks of mustard flanking the sides of a street cart hot dog. Their drivers are on their lunch breaks, snagging quick, familiar meals at either Curry in a Hurry or Curry Express, bookending the same block between 28th and 29th Streets, their piquant, savory perfume overruling less enticing city smells for a stretch.
Food traveler or otherwise, should you find yourself lured down the avenue by the warm aroma of coriander and cumin, you’d easily miss the National Historic Landmark plaque, amidst a smattering of burgundy awnings at 123 Lexington Avenue, commemorating the home where Chester A. Arthur took the presidential oath of office on September 20, 1881. Other information to be found on the plaque—the home’s next owner was none other than William Randolph Hearst, newspaper mogul and father of sensationalist journalism.
The building itself must have some certain mojo, then, as the current occupant of the ground floor since 1944 is Kalustyan’s—a neighborhood spice market that is as sensational a reason to visit the block as any, especially for the particular ilk of adventure-seekers who puts grocery shopping on the spectrum between a dreamy way to pass a few hours and an all out, adrenaline-fueled, competitive sport. Arguably, Kalustyan’s is also as emblematic a New York figure as either of the aforementioned occupants in its limber ability to both follow and drive ever-changing neighborhood tastes.
“People always say, ‘well, Kalustyan’s you have everything’ and I always say, ‘well we don’t have everything, but we have a lot of things,’” laughs Dona Abramson, manager of operations at the market since 2013. That which the majority of us would classify simply as “staples” or “condiments,” Kalustyan’s manages to sub-categorize into no fewer than 25 departments, including Beans, Peas, Lentils and Dal; Extracts, Flavors, and Floral Water; and Sugars, Jaggery, and Palm Sugar. Spending an hour on its website alone is to indulge in a little culinary escapism: 80 nations are represented in their foodstuffs. “(They) say ‘oh, it’s like a museum’ and I say except you can touch things and you can afford to buy them.”
To say Kalustyan’s has anything you can imagine would do it a disservice, no offense to your imagination. The bean varieties in the legume aisle read like a cast of characters from a Dr. Seuss book. Despite a culinary school pedigree, there are products I can more easily believe were ripped from Professor Snape’s catalogue than I can conceive of their function: Peruvian Freeze Dried Potatoes, Burmese Fermented Tea Leaves, Irish Moss Flakes. The hot sauce aisle inspires a Gatsby-esque emotional frenzy for like-minded heat-seekers. Even if you’ve come simply to snag curry powder, you’re going to have to get a great deal more specific in terms of culture, method of production, and degree of burn you crave. Nevermind the scores more spice blends not specifically designated as curry. Oh, and would you like that in a 2 ounces, 6 ounces, or 16 ounces package? All this in a store about a quarter of the size of an average New York grocery.
Kalustyan’s obviously did not burst into existence as the temple of world flavor it is today, but from its humble roots what it has always done well is to keep a finger on the pulse of the neighborhood, with a generous interpretation of what qualifies as neighborhood. Aziz Osmani has been co-owner with his business partner Sayedul Alam since 1988: “Generations changed, ingredients changed, demands changed, and all these things had a a role to play. Besides a household grocery, we are in a stage that people consider us an institution, where you go and find things that you cannot find anywhere else, and people know that they will find it here.”
Kerope Kalustyan, a Turkish-Armenian spice trader, opened his market as a function for the small Armenian community who had settled in that area, providing access to taste-of-home ingredients unlikely to be found in the local Gristedes, including products such as bulgur, dried fruits, and specialty oils as well as spices. Then the U.S. saw a boom in Indian immigration in the 1960s and 1970s when immigration laws changed and many came here to attend college. At the time there were few places to find Indian ingredients in all of the U.S., nevermind just New York City. “Many years back, let’s say the ‘80s, we used to see many immigrant families that used to buy hundreds and hundreds of dollars in groceries,” Osmani explained, coming from all over the Northeastern U.S., establishing Kalustyan’s not only as a resource, but also as a cultural center, which in turn caused an influx of Indian immigrants to establish a strong hold in the neighborhood, and with it the nickname ‘Curry Hill.’”
A generational shift happened in the 1990s, whereby the American-born children of the initial wave of immigrants were less interested in the foods their parents ate, but meanwhile the revitalization of the restaurant industry radiating out from Union Square was bringing more chefs through the doors, and Kalustyan’s responded with more Southeast Asian and Latin American products, as well as cocktail bitters to meet the growing interest in cocktail culture of the late 1990s and 2000s. “We used to have about three or four bitters, the basics,” Osmani explained, “and then over a period of time lately it’s increasing and increasing and increasing.” “It’s really become become a big destination for bitters and cocktail syrups,” Abramson added. “People don’t expect it; they think ‘oh it’s an Indian market’ but it’s so much more.” Following that they were ahead of the curve on the molecular gastronomy movement of the 2010s, rightfully acknowledging that “this is a moment and we need to be on top of it.” Initially driven by requests from chefs, they currently stock over 100 products for all of your emulsion, spherification, and flash-freezing needs.
The moral of the story is, to stay relevant and serve whatever community treats you as a resource, you have to listen. “What we sort of do is if one person asks for something, we say sorry we don’t have that. If we start hearing it two, three times then we say alright now we have to look for it, we have to bring it in. We source things based on customer demand, if it falls within our big world.” A big world indeed, even with the smallest of packages.
So, what’s up-and-coming according to the lens of demand at Kalustyan’s? “Right now there’s a big interest in Middle Eastern,” says Abramson, “so, a lot of za’atar, sumac, tahini, couscous, bulgur…” due perhaps to several upscale Middle Eastern restaurants such as Ilili, Nur, and Kubeh who are experiencing a rise in popularity. “And then people want to cook with those flavors.”
But what I found more interesting is a bit of a full-circle trend that Kalustyan’s is experiencing now in a moment where authenticity has become avant garde. “There’s a period where you don’t want to eat like your grandmother and you don’t want the old stuff but now that’s kind of turning, and I hear young women saying ‘oh yeah my grandmother used to make that’ and I’m going to ask her for the recipe, and it seems there’s more of an interest in learning about your roots and your culture.”
No matter where your grandmother is from, you’ll do well to bring her recipe to Kalustyan’s with you.
Header image courtesy of Pamela Vachon.