Pulling a crumpled Ziploc bag full of whole, dried green leaves out of my New York City tote one afternoon on the subway and secretly smelling a whiff, it occurred to me that to the casual observer, this really is like a bag of weed looks .
Reader, it wasn’t weed. In fact, it was fenugreek, a common herb in Indian cuisine that is often described as smelling like maple syrup. My friend Komali had recently visited her parents’ hometown of Hyderabad in southern India and brought the herbs for me, along with a bag of her grandmother’s biryani spice mix – freshly ground in the grandmother’s kitchen – each bag labeled with tape and sharpened.
The modest packaging only enhanced the intimacy of the gifts. These had come straight from someone’s pantry, folded up in a suitcase and carried around the world for 14 hours. Who cares about the packaging when so much effort has already been put into it? Komali’s gift made me think: Is this it? always is it necessary to put gift spices or food gifts in pretty jars?
Spice jars are often just another source of clutter
For people whose life or business revolves around food and taste, the resealable plastic bag is a workhorse, especially when it comes to condiments. Just like the chefs of even the fanciest restaurants equip their kitchens with them Take away plastic containers For storage, the pouch is a must-have item for those who trade in cumin and cardamom.
So does Nandita Godbole, author of the forthcoming book Masaleydaara literal cookbook of spice mix recipes.
“We lose some of the formality of a pretty container with old friends,” Godbole said. A nice container might actually do more harm than good, she thinks; Why stuff someone’s cupboard with another glass when a bag works just as well?
When her daughter, a first-year student, craved rasam – a hot, sour South Indian soup – Godbole sent her a dried rasam mixture in a small plastic bag with instructions on it.
“I said, ‘You don’t have a place in the dorm!'” Godbole said.
The bags themselves became almost talismans for Godbole, whose mother sends her home with bags of homemade condiments every time she visits her in India.
“Even after the bag is emptied, I’ll actually hold on to the bag for nostalgia,” she said.
Baggies make it easier to transport spices
Ziplocs make condiments—already lightweight, concentrated flavor bombs—even easier to transport or ship. And they allow Auria Abraham, who sells Malaysian spices and spice blends through her company Auria’s Malaysian cuisineto make beef rendang or shrimp sambal anywhere. Abraham moved to New York from Boston after college and was eventually invited to her friends’ house for dinner. She would always ask if she could cook something for them.
“You would never say no,” she said.
She arrived armed with different Malaysian curry powders depending on what type of curry dish (meat, fish or chicken) she was preparing.
“I would show up with all this stuff in little Ziploc bags,” she said. “And I would cook! And if the hosts liked it and it looked like it would be a hit, I would leave all that stuff there.”
The pouches come in particularly handy when spices are traveling internationally, of course – like the suspicious-looking fenugreek – but also when shipped domestically. This is how caterers and sous chefs work Stacy Seebode manages to ship her custom blended coffee steak rub to her mom in Georgia.
“I put the sandwich bag in another sandwich bag,” says Seebode. “Until it becomes like a Manila bubble envelope… it just gets mangled by the postal service.”
She does the same with leftover condiments from catering jobs, like the homemade baharat mix she once made for a wedding.
“I started putting it in sandwich bags and mailing it out to people as part of my weekly mail glee,” Seebode said.
It’s more about the spices than the packaging
Marisa Veve, a home cook who grows chilies and bay leaves in her Florida home, pushes Ziplocs of spices on everyone from her exterminator to the realtor selling her home. For Veve, the spices themselves are an opportunity to experience something new – maybe a new flavor profile or a new cuisine. The bags show that the spices are less of a gift and “more of an opportunity,” she told me.
Marisa’s exterminator (whom she affectionately calls “Bug Guy”) once mentioned wanting to try making jerk chicken. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I have Scotch Bonnet [peppers]—Here, take a bag home with you!’
Much like Veve’s homemade Scotch toques, Komali’s grandmother’s biryani blend, which she calls Pedda Nani, is a product of time and labor. When Pedda Nani makes her blend, Komali says, she always starts with whole spices like peppercorns, star anise, and both black and green cardamom, which are bought at a wholesale market in Hyderabad. These are roasted in a pan “until you can smell the flavors,” said Komali, who has often watched them do it. The spices are then ground until they are mostly powder with some larger chunks.
Komali didn’t know exactly what was in the spice mix, but maybe that’s what sets it apart from a store-bought mix: you just have to trust that the person who made it has your best interests at heart.
The best way to ship spices
Be aware: if you’re giving someone spices, you might have to do a little more work. In addition to packaging and shipping, you may need to pair your spices with instructions for actual use. If the recipient is an experienced cook, like some of Godbole’s friends, this is less of an issue – but for those less comfortable in the kitchen, you may need to provide a little more guidance: in which recipes to use the mixtures, in what amounts and at what stage of the recipe to add them.
But this can actually be a blessing in disguise. Abraham, who began traveling alone after her divorce, began taking her condiment bags everywhere.
“If people were open to it, I let them have it,” she said. “That would lead to another connection with someone, because now they would have to call you and ask what to do with those spices!”