In these series for T, author Reggie Nadelson revisits the New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from centuries-old restaurants to little-known dives.
About 10 years ago, the actor and food writer of Indian descent Madhur Jaffrey, who lives in Manhattan, needed kudampuli, a small pumpkin-like fruit, for a number of his recipes. When she couldn’t find him, she went to Kaloustian, the prodigiously stocked specialty food store on Lexington Avenue between East 28th and East 29th Street, and Aziz Osmani, one of the store’s co-owners, traced a source in India. Kalustyan now wears kudampuli for much of the year. âWe don’t like to say no, so if it exists, we try to have it, or we’ll create a mix, or we’ll get it from anywhere,â says Osmani.
The store, which opened in 1944, was originally a small spice supplier owned by Kerope Kalustyan, an Armenian from Turkey. Osmani and his cousin Sayedul Alam bought it in 1988 and made it bigger over the years. It now sells products from suppliers in around 80 countries, not to mention Brooklyn and Queens. And every square inch of its 6,500 square feet of space, which spans three storefronts (123, 125, and 127 Lexington), seems crammed – not just with spices and spice blends, many of which are made by the store, but also with every herbs and aromas imaginable, a huge range of coffees and teas, a myriad of hot sauces, pickles and much more.
You enter at 123. To the right are the checkouts, made up mostly of women, some of whom, if they are chatting, may divulge their own culinary secrets. On the other side are the nuts, including Lebanese pine nuts and the beautiful, fat pistachios from Iran. And beyond that are the spices and condiments, lined up on shelves in seemingly endless rows: fresh turmeric from Fiji, holy basil from Ethiopia, black pepper from Ecuador and white from Cameroon, thick bitter orange jam. from the Greek island of Khios, organic ghee and tapenades from Turkey, Palestine and Israel and homemade mango chutney.
And still there is more. Here is a Persian ice cream flavored with rose water; Here’s a habanero hot sauce, bottled in Queens and bought by Dona Abramson, the store’s operations manager, who is sometimes referred to as the oracle of Kalustyan’s. Even so, it’s not so much a food temple as it is a mind-boggling bazaar of aromatics, rarities, and even dailies, like Heinz baked beans and Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup. There are dozens of varieties of rice, the bags and boxes are neatly organized along an entire wall. My friend Troy Chatterton, manager of the Three Lives & Company bookstore in Greenwich Village and a serious home cook, heads straight to the Tilda basmati every time he does his shopping at Kalustyan.
Barrels and crates of dried fruits are arranged in the space: giant prunes; succulent figs; sliced ââdried persimmon and blood orange; dried white mulberries, which look like small pieces of human brain. “Try this, it will change your life,” says Abramson, who hands me a large orange-gold apricot from Uzbekistan with a pair of pliers. Sweet and succulent, it expresses the essential nature of the fruit. Kalustyan was indeed somewhat of a lifeline, if not a total life changer, during the lockdown, when people took to cooking as if to hang on to their sanity. âI needed green cardamom for a curry recipe I was tinkering with,â says publicist Sarah Hermalyn, who works in the food industry. “I knew Kalustyan would have it, and of course they did and obviously I had to have Medjool dates and Sicilian pistachios when I left.”
As I walk through the store, I meet Alam, who mainly oversees financial and infrastructure matters, while Osmani is in charge of research and development. And the store is really a family affair: Alam introduces me to his wife, Rubina, who manages the tea box and cookbook department, among other things.
In 1968, when Alam arrived in New York City, there weren’t many other Bangladeshis in the city. He had obtained a degree in mechanical engineering in Chittagong, where he was born, and would study the same subject at City College of New York. He graduated in the early 1970s when the job market wasn’t great, but he saw a gap in the spice market. And so he rented a small space at the corner of East 29th Street and Lexington Avenue – that once Armenian part of town just south of Murray Hill that was then home to more and more Indian city dwellers (and is now often jokingly referred to as Curry. Hill) – and started selling spices and sweets.
âI was single and didn’t know much about cooking,â says Alam. “But I worked for the Bangladeshi Consulate, so I met people from other places, especially the Middle East.” Many of them came to his shop. âWe were like the United Nations,â he says. He went on to open a handful of restaurants in town, including the much-loved Curry in a Hurry, which he has since sold (it’s located right next to Kalustyan’s). In 1982 Osmani followed Alam to New York from Bangladesh and six years later they bought Kalustyan’s together.
Over time, the extra space for additional storefronts became a necessity. Partly because of the trend in fusion cuisine, Alam explains, Kalustyan’s now offers more than 300 spice blends, as well as individual spices. “And peppers and salts, black pepper, pink pepper, blah, blah, blah,” he said with a smile. âWe receive chefs, immigrant families, Asian and Middle Eastern clients,â says Osmani. âWe have old people who want the things they have always loved and young people who want to try everything again. In fact, I don’t know anyone in New York who likes to eat or cook or who isn’t partisan.
Chefs and writers who visit the store frequently consult with Najmoul “Nigel” Choudhary, who has been with the company since 1975 and whose portfolio includes research and development, herbal remedies and salts and seasonings, on flavors of various fruit powders or dried peppers. And then there’s Abramson, who is invested in food – eating it, cooking it, growing it (she plants tomatoes at her upstate home in Saugerties) – deeper than almost anyone. that I have never met. Working from an office at the back of the store’s first floor, she is integrated with Kalustyan’s as a general in the field. But she’s always on the move, eager to show you one more thing she’s added since joining the store in 2013.
“Few years ago, Yotam OttolenghiCookbooks became popular and people started asking for harissa rose, âshe says. “I found the brand he mentioned, and now we’re importing it from the UK. We’re buying 50 cases at a time.” Over the past decade or so, she has realized that “the cocktails are getting huge.” On the third level are all the fixings: orange bitters, chocolate bitters, hibiscus, lavender and oak bitters, Mexican mole bitters, Jamaican jerk bitters, peppermint and yuzu syrups. I’m eyeing black cherries in brandy when I meet Anthony Baker, a well-known mixologist who worked at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. âI come here at least once a week,â he says. “I can find absolutely anything, including dried blue lotus slices for a cocktail garnish.”
All over the store people are engaged in conversations, often with strangers, talking about star anise or fennel pollen, salt ash for making cheese or – on the top floor, where the cooking utensils and cookbooks – admiring the beauty of a Moroccan tajine in glazed earthenware. âYou can get any kind of utensil from Kalustyan,â says Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta, who owns the Il Posto Accanto trattoria in East Village with her husband, Julio Pena. She’s right. There are Indian tiffin carriers, ghee pots, woks, a noodle press, and falafel molds.
In an era where food and cuisine may have become more central to everyday life in New York than ever before, Kalustyan’s plays a leading role in keeping the city’s hungry and diverse population alive. In fact, I’ve often thought, “Why bother walking through an airport when you can just take train 6 to Kalustyan and taste and smell and buy the whole world?” As Valminuta says, “In terms of spices and many other things, you can find anything there is on the planet there.”