Is Peter Bahlawanian the Willy Wonka of the spice world? For those who appreciate “little taste bombs going off” in their mouth, be they explosions of chilli, ginger or wasabi, his bijou LA shop elicits the same kind of pulse-quickening excitement as the fabled chocolate factory.
Located down a quiet foliage-canopied passage just off West Sunset Boulevard in hipster Silver Lake, Spice Station’s floor-to-ceiling reclaimed-wood shelves are stacked with jars of multicoloured chillies, salts, peppers and sugars, creating cocooning aromatic walls. The atmosphere is part apothecary, part Middle Eastern spice market, part sweetshop. Its reputation for bespoke blends and original infusions touches on the proverbial, stretching from India to Japan, Ethiopia to Australia – where packages are mailed – and a trip to the store might involve brushing shoulders with award-winning chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Anthony Bourdain.
Bahlawanian, a film and music producer of Armenian descent, opened the shop just over six years ago in a glorious stirring of his Silk Road heritage. He sources directly from about 75 growers across the world, some of whom don’t have the means to distribute globally, so collection is by hand – and may be only a few ounces. The spices are often unusual, rare and kickstart truly unexpected taste journeys. The variety is mind-boggling.
“It’s a good confusion,” he says. “It opens up thought processes and spices stop being just an ingredient and develop a life of their own.” You might find cumin from India; basil from the US and Egypt; or oregano from Greece, Turkey and Mexico (prices start from $2 per oz). There are over 35 types of chilli ($2.50-$20 per oz), including Urfa biber from Turkey that is now popular with chefs and has become a feature on many menus (look out for Urfa chicken). “Chillies and spices are coming out of the old world and becoming hip in the new world,” says Bahlawanian.
Myriad jars of peppercorns – black, pink, white, green – include such finds as west African Grains of Paradise, such as “ginger, cardamom, peppercorn all in one”, and Sarawak, aka “the Rolls-Royce of peppercorns” (both $6.50 per oz). Special infusions also result in over 50 salts (from $3.50 per oz), from black truffle to vintage merlot, and some 20 sugars, from ginger to raspberry ($3 per oz).
But it’s the signature blends that have really raised the temperature. Dukkah Down Under ($4.50 per oz), for instance, replaces hazelnut in the traditional Egyptian spice mix with Australian wattleseed (a cross between cumin and hazelnut). “Spices have been around for ages, but flavours are changing, fusing, crossing borders – and being used in new ways,” says Bahlawanian. “There’s a familiarity to our blends, but also something different.” Fresh combinations take what was once a one-dimensional taste journey in three or four new directions at the same time. “You mix sweet, savoury, smoky and salty all in one – so your mouth almost has its own gourmet zip code.”