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posted: 2/4/2014 5:30 AM

Go for the food: One spice shop, too many choices

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By J.M. Hirsch
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Kalustyan's is an exceedingly difficult place to shop, a jam-packed warren of rooms and uncomfortably tight passages, the navigation of which will require sucking in your gut to squeeze past the too many clerks. The other customers with their giant parcels and lingering ways will annoy you. The sometimes haphazard, sometimes obsessive-compulsive order to the shelves will confound you.

None of that will matter.

Because the moment you step into this Indian/Middle Eastern spice and specialty food shop nestled into a row of like-minded stores on Lexington Avenue, you'll immediately begin the calculations. First, of how much you can carry. Next, of how much you can afford. Then, of how much your spice cabinet at home can fit. And finally, how much it will cost to get a bigger spice cabinet.

This not-so-little gem of a shop -- known to New Yorker foodies, but off the map for most tourists -- really is that good.

Walk into Kalustyan's and you are confronted by a delicious abundance. To your left are display cases filled with Lebanese halva (sweets made from ground sesame seeds), flaky Greek pastries dripping with syrup and walnuts, semolina honey cakes, and dozens of others you won't be able to identify, but nonetheless will find hard to resist.

To your right are bin upon bin upon bin of dried fruits and nuts (12 varieties of ground nuts alone). Then come the dried lentils and beans. Then the wall of jams and jellies. Grapefruit jam? Smoke salt marmalade? They've got it. Spicy pear jam? That, too. And then there are the hot sauces ... I lost count after tallying roughly 250 of them.

Keep going -- maybe peruse the wall of dried chili peppers on the way -- and you'll find the sea salt collection. What are you in the mood for? Smoked serrano sea salt? Black lava sea salt? Aged balsamic sea salt?

The showstopper is the spice room, reached down a short set of stairs. Wall after wall of bags of dried herbs and spices, nearly all of them imported, processed and packaged by the shop itself. Need curry powder? Which one? Pick from West Indian, Jamaican, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai, among others. Paprika more your speed; you'll have 10 varieties to pick from. Whole peppercorns? There are roughly 30 kinds.

The shop has been at the same location since the 1940s, but Kalustyan's is anything but stuck in time. Over the years, it has expanded repeatedly to keep up with consumers' changing tastes. For food science geeks, they recently added a molecular gastronomy section where you can stock up on your guar gum, malt powder and agar.

But before you weigh yourself down with a basket of spices, head upstairs for sustenance (and check out the multiple walls of tea on the way). This is where cooks at the shop's tiny deli -- there is little seating, but lots of choices -- dole out hummus, falafel, moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, 16 types of olives, and more varieties of feta cheese than you'll know what to do with.

There are plenty of vegetarian options, and most offerings come as both platters and sandwiches. Depending on how hungry you are, consider getting a medley to go: olives -- the Alfonso are simply amazing -- a hunk of feta, some stuffed grape leaves and a few rounds of pita bread.

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