The spice merchant

Kevin Yarr

by Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca

Fresh, fresh, fresh is the mantra for many chefs, and this is as true for spices as for anything else, so I was pretty excited when I saw the new spice merchant at the Charlottetown Farmers Market.

Looking at rows and rows of spice jars at the supermarket I have to wonder how long they've been sitting there (the disappointment that sets in when I add them to my food is my answer: too long). The spices from the local bulk store seem fresher, but coming from those big buckets you have to think you can do better.

There had been an Indian woman selling spices at the Farmers Market six or seven years ago. A little packet she put together for me was the key to the best curried soup I ever made. Sadly, her business did not last long there.

So I was thrilled to see Katharine Lee's display laid out in a tiny little stall on Saturday. My shopping plans had included a trip to the local bulk store for spices, but I made a quick detour.

Dinner plans included grilled Tandoori chicken, cucumber raita, and palak paneer (curried spinach).

"Do you have garam masala?" I asked.

It turns out Lee does several varieties of masala. She grabbed at the first one that came to hand, a moghul masala, and stuck it under my nose. Even through the plastic bag it set my brain tingling.

I left with some cumin and fennel seeds for the raita as well.

I will confess I cheated, with bottled Tandoori for the chicken and bottled "curry paste" for the palak paneer. I put in more onion than the web recipe called for, the whole of a small onion, which I sautéed with the bottled curry. The spinach was fresh, I substituted plain cottage cheese for the paneer, and I added a couple of teaspoons of the moghul masala when the cooking was done.

The result, everyone agreed, was spectacular. Like candy.

The raita benefited from the fresh seeds as well. Best of all, Lee sold me the spices in tablespoon-sized packets, so they won't go stale simply sitting in my cupboard.

I told Lee about the fate of the last spice merchant at the market, and she told me not to worry. She has contracts with many local chefs, who had been ordering off-Island for spices that could be weeks old before they got them.

"This is just fun," she said of her market stall.

Next time, maybe I'll see what she can do for my curried carrot-cashew soup.