While all spices benefit from better handling, Irani points to coriander as a particularly dramatic example. “In every kitchen I walk into, the first thing I do is go to their pantry, find their coriander seed, and show them the difference between that and a fresh batch,” he says. The smell alone — a vibrant hit of floral notes and sharp citrus — has converted many chefs to his perspective.
Through Spicewalla Brand, Irani offers that revelatory experience to home cooks and culinary enterprises throughout the region. Using the same direct-from-India suppliers Chai Pani has cultivated over eight years, the company currently serves customers such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. with paprika, High Five Coffee with a chai spice blend, and Luella’s Bar-B-Que with a brisket rub.
Meherwan Irani keeps a photo on his phone of his mother’s handwritten recipe for garam masala, a spice mix that varies across India. During his childhood in the western state of Maharashtra, Irani’s family would buy the whole spices that went into their version of the classic blend, one that reflected his mother’s history in the Himalayan region as well as his father’s Parsi heritage. Then they would roast and grind the spices at home.
“The air would be thick with the aroma of coriander and cumin,” recalls Irani. “In India, we think of spices as produce, ingredients to be valued and used fresh.”
STARCHEFS - When was the last time you ordered coriander or caraway? How fresh are your fennel seeds — really?
When was the last time you ordered coriander or caraway? How fresh are your fennel seeds— really? With the launch of Spicewalla, Chef, Restaurateur, and Entrepreneur Meherwan Irani hopes to freshen up and maximize chefs’ spice racks. “There’s no other ingredient on the planet that has the ability to change the flavor of food like spices,” says Irani. “Spices transform the simplest of ingredients into something spectacular.”
In the heart of Asheville’s River District, Irani’s factory imports spices from all over the world. His team lightly roasts them in small batches and ships them to 100-and-growing accounts across the country. Because they’re importing directly and understand restaurant margins, they offer spices at 10 to 15 percent less than most vendors, and in quantities (6, 32, and 64 ounces, and 1 to 2 gallons by special request) that make sense for chefs, brewers, charcutiers, ice cream makers, pitmasters, and distillers.
Spices still have the power to transform food if they're handled right, and Spicewalla's mission will be to bring that magic to restaurants and retail customers in the Southeast and beyond. "We want to be the spice whisperers," Irani said.
"It was an eye-opener, and when we would talk to the chefs, literally there would be a crowd around James showing them (our) coriander, and they're losing their minds, like, why does this smell so different? Why does this smell so amazing?"
Spicewalla's and Chai Pani's distributors buy direct from India. In most cases, spices will have been harvested less than a month before they land in the factory.
"We'll have the knowledge," Irani said. "We'll record it. It will be down somewhere. If 20 years from now, someone wants to remember what a recipe for dhansak masala was like, we'll have that."
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