We don’t think about spices as plants, and we really don’t think about the people who grow those plants. Spices are almost entirely grown on small farms, picked by hand, and dried in the sun. Through my company, Burlap & Barrel, I’m trying to connect people with their spice farmers. We work directly with farmers across the world who grow unique, wonderful spices—think cinnamon with hints of citrus peel and sea salt—that don’t fit the mold of growing generic flavors for giant companies.
Eight years ago, I was a pastry chef with an itch to do good. I left my kitchen and got into a grad program for conflict and development. After school, I went to a remote northern province of Afghanistan with an NGO (non-governmental organization) to manage infrastructure programs, like building roads, schools, hospitals, and bridges. In the countryside, you wind up eating lunch in peoples’ homes and learning the local specialties. This province had an intense, wild cumin with pine and mint flavors, but none of the funky body odor we’re used to. As I traveled more, and cooked and ate more, I kept finding these unique spices that were never exported.
I had the urge to start my own business and spices seemed like a uniquely untapped market where I could also help support farmers around the world. We’ve seen this revolution in coffee and chocolate, where people start to care about terroir, cultural practices, and the special techniques of a region. But so far, it hasn’t extended to spices.
I began carrying spices like that wild cumin home and sharing them with chefs. I also reached out to friends at NGOs around the world for leads. One connected me to a farmer co-op in Zanzibar, an archipelago off Tanzania, and that became my first import relationship.
It was a perfect place to start because of the quality of their spices—incredible nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla beans. There were also no other U.S. spice companies working with Zanzibar, and I shared a lot of business values, like profit sharing, with the co-op.
That first trip to Zanzibar, two years ago, set me up to launch . We started with small shipments and I also carried stuff home on the plane. Once I was back in New York, I started cold-calling restaurants. I’d pick a neighborhood and go door to door with my backpack of spices, showing chefs what I had.
It worked. Now, Danny Meyer’s Untitled at the Whitney loves messing around with whatever I can bring in. David Chang’s Momofuku Ko has been great. And some of the Andrew Tarlow restaurants, Diner, Marlow & Sons, and Reynard, like to see what I have.
On this recent trip to Zanzibar, I wanted to meet the co-op’s new leadership and see the northern island of Pemba, where most of the farms are. My background is not in agriculture. But if I’m going to do this well, I need to learn as much as I can, and the best people to learn from are the farmers who have been doing this every day for most of their lives. Spices are not something you grow on a whim—it takes generations to build up the expertise to do it well.
Take vanilla: The flowers must be pollinated by hand. There are only a few hours every year the flowers are open, but the farmers know which weeks to go into the jungle and check their vanilla vines. It takes up to nine months for a vanilla bean to mature, then another month and a half of curing in sun and sealing in wooden boxes at night.
The farms in Zanzibar aren’t what we think of: There aren’t neat rows of plants. The vanilla farms keep the vines close for pollination, but the clove and cinnamon trees more or less grow wild and look like jungle. Nobody is planting more trees. The fruits drop to the ground and soon there are sprouts.
Using the nutmeg fruit was new to me on this trip. The yellow meat surrounding the light brown core and shiny black pit (the brown core is what we think of as nutmeg) is typically composted. It’s dense, acidic, and bitter, but has a lot of flavor and can be candied for a jam or dried or pickled.
Zanzibar’s cinnamon is pretty rare: Ceylon, known as the true cinnamon. It is this small wonky tree with more branches, allowing you to harvest pieces of tree instead of cutting the tree down. These guys also use a technique called coppicing that encourages the tree to grow extra branches, so the tree survives as you keep harvesting the spice. It gives you huge control over the age of the bark. Younger cinnamon has a sweeter, more citrusy flavor. Older bark tastes darker and spicier.
Ethan Frisch's Spice-Hunting Gear and Tech
A big part of every trip is storytelling, creating that connection to the hands behind your food. The majority of farmers are in developing countries with little connection to the consumers. Through the spices, our website, and social media, we give farmers a platform to talk about what is important to them. Ultimately, I want to humanize the process of putting food on your plate.
Recipe: Zanzibar Fish Pilau
Frisch, a former line cook in New York, developed this recipe to showcase the ingredients and culinary traditions of Zanzibar.
- 2 Tbsp ghee or coconut oil
- 4 shallots or 2 large red onions, sliced
- 3–5 whole cinnamon verum chips,* or 1 tsp ground true cinnamon
- 5–6 whole Pemba cloves,* or other high-quality cloves
- 2–4 green cardamom pods*
- 4–5 garlic cloves, minced
- 3–4 inches of fresh unpeeled ginger, minced
- 2 cups long-grain basmati rice
- 3–4 cinnamon-tree leaves, or high-quality bay leaves
- 1 lb white fish, ideally kingfish or swordfish, cut into small pieces
(*Available on )
1. In a large pot or wok, heat ghee or coconut oil with sliced onions and a pinch of salt until caramelized.
2. Add spices, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until fragrant, about 90 seconds.
3. Add the dry rice to the pot and sauté until slightly translucent to develop a slight nutty flavor.
4. Add cinnamon-tree leaves and raw fish pieces and arrange in the middle of the pot of rice, with rice all around the fish.
5. Add water to cover the rice, about 3 cups, and bring to a boil.
6. Bring heat to the lowest setting and cover the pot. Let simmer until the rice is cooked, about 20 minutes. Check periodically and add a little water if the rice is too dry.
This appears in the May 2018 issue.