The Spice of Life

The Spice of Life

Spicewalla brings flavors from around the world into your kitchen

Words by Lyndy Berryhill

North Carolina chef Joe Kindred expected something familiar when he first reached for the roasted cumin powder—yet everything was different. There was weight to the small canister. Instead of glass or plastic, the nostalgic metal tin kept any scent from escaping. A tiger guards the lid.

Opening it, Kindred inhaled an intricate mosaic of flavor notes. The first whiff turned his palate upside down and put his taste buds in a tailspin. “It was just out of this world, so delicious,“ Kindred said. “This was like no flavor profile I had ever had before.”

Kindred, who operates two North Carolina restaurants, is talking about the Spicewalla spice company’s cumin. Marketed as developed by chefs for chefs, the company was founded in 2017. The brand imports ingredients from around the world to offer a wide range of spices, as well as masala, or “blends,” that represent specific cuisines and rubs for meat.

Kindred’s personal favorites still include the cumin and the Kashmiri Chilli Powder. His avocado toast is not complete without a sprinkle of earthy heat on top. “We have not gone a day without since we got our first bottle,” he said.

Shortly after testing the products, he made the switch to reinvigorate his menus at Kindred in Davidson. “All of our rubs have improved drastically. It’s been very well received,” Kindred said.

Kindred was familiar with the spices offered, but the starkest difference between Spicewalla and its competitors was the quality. “Everything seemed to be much fresher than anything else you can get,” Kindred said.

Kindred, as well as chefs from 600 other restaurants and the many home chefs who have lined their pantries with Spicewalla, have responded just as founder Meherwan Irani hoped they would. “I want people to understand the role a spice can play in how amazing their food can be and open people’s minds to other cultures and other cuisines,” Irani said.

Irani’s passion for superior flavor is lifelong. Before he was the five-time James Beard-nominated chef and spice master of Asheville’s Chai Pani restaurant group, Irani was an apprentice at his mother’s table. He absorbed the importance of spices through memories of meals in India.

Irani grew up in Ahmednagar, about five hours from Mumbai, the major financial and industrial hub of the subcontinent. Ahmednagar lays on the Deccan plateau, which stretches between the Western and Eastern Ghats mountain ranges. The landscape is arid and rocky but fertile. “It’s very dry and arid and not quite desert-like, and we have a lot of droughts,” Irani explained. “What mostly grows there are things like peanuts, onions, and garlic, and things that grow well in that dry, hot weather.” Other crops also flourish, such as rice, sugarcane, wheat, and many staple spices of Indian cuisine. Residents have easy access to dozens of spice and herb varieties at a nearby market.

When droves of “Westerners” came to Ahmednagar in the 1970s in search of spiritual guidance at the nearby secluded Hindu sage’s dwelling, called an ashram, they found limited lodging available. “It was this tiny little dusty town in the middle of nowhere that just happened to have an ashram there,” Irani said.

Irani’s paternal grandmother took in borders, and his mother cooked meals. For every meal, Amrit would open her stainless steel spice box, called a masala dabba, and pinch together each spice while customizing dishes to what ingredients were available and could be improved upon. Since she had been abroad, she knew how to adjust meals to foreign palates when cooking traditional meals. “That was a massive influence on me when it came to my relationship with both Indian food and Western food,” Irani said.

Amrit would cook a lunch of rice and dal, or dried legumes, one day. The next, she’d cook spaghetti and goat meat meatballs. The next day, she might bake an apple pie. “We had this bizarre combination of Indian and Western food,” Irani said. “She refined Indian food to make it lighter and brighter without losing any of its feel or objective flavor,” Irani said. “For Western food, she always made it just a little bit more interesting.”

In 1990, Irani arrived at the University of South Carolina at Columbia as a broke graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in business. The available American and Indian fare disappointed him. “Everything tasted very monotone, very heavy,” Irani said.

That fall, Irani tried to recreate the home-cooked meals. “Of course, I failed miserably,” he said, laughing.

When Amrit visited campus and cooked for her son, Irani noticed how she cooked with flexibility and creativity that never compromised flavors. “It’s the way I cook now,” he said.

It is also a foundational principle behind Spicewalla. When quality spices are accessible and foreign recipes are understandable, anyone can cook with superior flavor. 

To combat intimidation, Irani hosts Instagram Live sessions to teach how to create dishes flavored with lesser-known spices. He wants cooking new cuisines to be inviting, likening the palate to a canvas for creating. “I don’t want people to be excited about what’s in the tin, but what it would allow you to do,” he said. 

Irani gets giddy talking about spice blends that encompass 5,000 years of Indian cuisine, such as cumin-based Dhana jeera. Blends such as chaat masala add a tang with the spice amchoor, which is dried mango powder. Spicewalla also sells a cajun and several Latin spice blends, such as Al Pastor rub. 

Each blend is researched to represent cuisine from different cultural realms and eras. Spicewalla is currently researching a Southern-inspired gumbo filé blend that incorporates the creole and indigenous uses for sumac and sassafras. “We look at a region and dive in and figure out how to tell a story,” Irani said. “The spices in the tins are just props to tell that story. They’re a delicious prop, but that’s what it is.”

As soon as word got around that Spicewalla began selling directly to consumers in 2018, the company saw a drastic increase in demand. The following year, Oprah Winfrey included Spicewalla’s $95 18 Pack Kitchen Essentials Collection as one of her favorite things of 2019. “That’s when things went insane,” Irani said. “I’ve never seen folks so excited to buy spices.”

The company grew four times as much in 2020 as in 2019. Home chefs built custom racks to house the tins, and consumers showed off the array of colors on their countertops. Irani soaks up every gram of enthusiasm. “I want people to stop and think about why they buy spices,” he said. “It’s an attempt to create something. It’s the most affordable way that you can travel the world.” 

He hopes consumers throw away the notion of a kitchen drawer crammed with barely-used spices and get excited about what meals can be with the best ingredients. “We’re not just selling spices–we’re selling an incredible meal.”