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Spice of Life

Oaktown Spice Shop: Bringing evocative flavors from around the globe to the East Bay.


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Photography by Jennifer Martiné

It’s how I imagine an apothecary shop of old. Vintage signs of “herbs,” “baking spices,” and “hand-mixed blends” bring order to scores of jars filled with precious powders and shapely spices—concentrated flavors from around the world. In the center of the shop, John Beaver works his digital scale, doling out flavor (as little as a quarter-ounce, if you want).

Customers one early Friday evening arrive on cue, seemingly part of a skit, coming and going to the music of Kishi Bashi—an exotic-sounding one-man band. Beaver is the only employee in the shop, and I sniff around while he works.

Though an executive chef for many years, I’m surprised by every jar I unscrew. The cumin is deep and earthy—soft somehow. Moroccan thyme is like flowers. And the caraway is like nothing I’ve come across—the seeds musty with hints of menthol.

A customer arrives wanting chile powder from Chile, and Beaver doesn’t disappoint, breaking out a powder of smoked chiles, coriander, and salt produced by the country’s indigenous Mapuche people. Then the phone rings with a question about spice rubs.

Later, a pair of men walk in and pause at shelves of cinnamon, looking for “the real stuff.” Beaver cracks open a jar of Ceylon sticks, showing off the light and flaky bark, offering tastes all around. All I detect at first is bark on my tongue, but soon my mouth is atingle with warm citrus and a teasing heat.

“It’s delicate but works well even with spicy stuff—like Mexican chocolate,” he says.

Beaver, bearded, tall, and trim with clear sparkling eyes, admits to chewing on cinnamon throughout the day—calling it “lunch.”

“I might have cloves for dessert,” he says.

For Beaver, this is a lifelong passion. He worked in a spice shop growing up in Milwaukee and was surprised when he found no equivalent upon moving to the food-obsessed Bay Area. He opened Oaktown Spice Shop with his wife late last year.

His expertise shows: Beaver is casually fluent in every spice, herb, and rub his store has to offer, and how they interact and play off each other, and off of different foods.

I stick my nose into a jar of prime rib seasoning—my brain primed for roast meat—and start salivating like Pavlov’s dog. The stimulus, strangely enough, is a smidgen of celery seed. 

“You taste celery seed, and it’s bitter; it’s terrible,” Beaver points out. “But when you smell beef roasting with celery seed, it’s magical.”

Star anise also has alchemical properties when it comes to protein. This petaled spice is positively heady with spicy sweet licorice (think sambuca). When combined into a Chinese five-spice blend, like the one rubbed into the pork belly at Hawker Fare a short walk away, Beaver says it “soaks into that fat perfectly and kind of cuts it.”

Or rediscover humble sage, which Beaver turns into fluff (a texture well-suited for massaging into meat). “Rub that on a turkey or chicken. It’s the most amazing thing ever—and it’s just sage.”

I start to wonder why I’ve added so many calories, spent so much money, and focused so much time on preparing saucy accompaniments when these wonderful spices are so inexpensive, flavorful, and a cinch to use. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been surrounded by such a vast quantity, much of which is ground fresh on the shop’s industrial grinder.

The general shelf life for ground spices is six months to a year, and to illustrate, Beaver brings out a box of McClintock Claremont Quality cloves from the 1960s. Surprisingly, it still has an aroma, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d probably put it in your cookies. But after taking an intoxicating whiff of the store’s vibrant spices, I find that those cloves suddenly smell a lot like sawdust.

If you want something that lasts longer, Beaver suggests you stick with salts—and Oaktown has a mind-boggling supply. But that’s another story.
 

530 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 201-5400, oaktownspiceshop.com.
 


 

Five to Try

Think of the Oaktown Spice Shop as an interactive museum for foodies. Take time to sniff, and ask for a sample. You may become a spice connoisseur before you know it. Here are five to start with.


 

Grains of Paradise

Keep an extra grinder filled with these precious West African seeds (about $9 an ounce). They deliver a racy heat on the tongue and leave a lingering cardamom-coriander glow. Google them and Alton Brown for recipe ideas.
 

Dried Ginger

Looking like portly animal crackers, these spicy knobs allow you to freshly grate just what you need—just like nutmeg. And with their long shelf life, you’ll always have ginger at hand for savory and sweet applications alike.
 

Dried Chives

These finely chopped and vivid green herbs have a sweet and buttery aroma. Never slimy, they are ready to sprinkle and more versatile than fresh. Your scrambled eggs will never be the same.
 

Santa Fe Chile Powder

A mesmerizing mix of New Mexican chile, garlic, cumin, coriander, jalapeño, chipotle, thyme, star anise, and bay leaf. Take a whiff alongside your pantry chili powder, and realize what you’ve been missing.
 

Kala Namak Black Salt

Not for the faint-hearted, a bit of this sulfury mineral (also pictured below, ground)brings out the flavor of tropical fruit and is used by vegans to turn soft tofu into mock egg salad. If you dig it, you might try the potent onion-garlic powder, asafetida.
 

 

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