New York Jewish Week via JTA – Try to find the most Jewish spice and you might struggle to answer. But ask Ori Zohar and Ethan Frisch, the founders of single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel, and you’ll quickly get a list of spices with a strong claim to the title.
“Jewish food uses so much cinnamon, sweet and savory baking,” said Frisch, a native New Yorker, noting that cinnamon is used in babka, rugelach, sweet noodle kugel and tzimmes.
Zohar, whose family moved from Israel to Baltimore when he was 5, offered nigella seeds, often used in Middle Eastern baking, and cumin, a staple of Middle Eastern savory dishes -East. But, ultimately, it went with poppy seeds. “Obviously bagels and hamentaschen and all the other wonderful pastries that use either poppy seeds or poppy seed paste,” he said. “I think the poppy seed has a deep history there.”
Since launching their Queens-based business in October 2016, Zohar and Frisch have traveled to Tanzania to visit cinnamon and black pepper farms, to Guatemala to find cardamom and chili growers, and to India for s sourcing turmeric, among many other countries.
Along the way, they said, they found a product that they believed was ready for the kind of “supply chain revolutions” that have occurred in the coffee and chocolate industries. New York Jewish Week spoke to Zohar and Frisch about how they learned about the spice industry, what makes a better spice, and why you should know where your spices come from.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you become interested in spices and their origin?
Ethan Frisch: I am the culinary half of our company and Ori is the commercial half of our company. My background is half in restaurant kitchens – I worked at an upscale Indian restaurant here in New York called Tabla under a chef named Floyd Cardoz, sort of an iconic Native American chef, so I learned a lot about spices. And then I left the kitchens to go to graduate school to work in international development, got a master’s degree, moved to Afghanistan. I lived there for about two and a half years and worked for a large non-profit organization, spending a lot of time in this fairly remote mountainous region of the country in the northeast, a province called Badakhshan, which is famous in Afghanistan for this incredible wilderness. cumin that grows in the mountains. I had never tasted anything like it so I started bringing it home to share with friends in the restaurant industry and they were really excited about it. And since these things happen sometimes, they started asking if they could buy some or if they could bring them to restaurants. And so I called Ori and said, “There’s no business here, is there? And he said, “Maybe there is.”
What are the social issues related to the spice industry? What don’t people know about their spices that they should know?
frisch: What we realized pretty quickly was that there had been these kinds of supply chain revolutions in coffee and tea, in cocoa, even in vegetables, right ? People go to the farmers market, they want to know where their food comes from, and that hasn’t extended to spices at all. But spices are marketed in the same way as other agricultural products – farmers are pushed to grow for volume, not quality. When an individual farmer does something different, like growing an old variety or using regenerative techniques, taking a more holistic approach, it’s all lost, because that special thing that they’ve grown just gets mixed in with that of the others. So most people are used to cooking with low quality stale spices that have been lying around forever, [that] have no sense of terroir, no origin, no farmer behind them who created something special.
Ori Zohar: I would say that spices are the foods in your pantry that people know the least about — where they come from, what they are. What’s been really cool is that we’ve been able to kind of demystify that and go back to the origin and create a connection right from the cinnamon that you sprinkle on your oatmeal or float in your coffee and the farmer who got this cinnamon tree when they were children from their parents and watched it grow for 20 years as the bark matured and became more fragrant and flavorful.
frisch: This was exactly my experience working in high end restaurants in New York, where we listed the name of the farm that raised the lamb, but the spices were totally generic, name brands.
Where are you going to find the producers of these spices?
frisch: That’s the fun part. We have been in the business for five years and have therefore built a very solid network. We now source from 20 different countries and nearly 300 farmers. We meet them through NGOs — that’s how we met the farmer in Guatemala. We meet them through local government offices. This is how we met our star anise producer partners in Vietnam, and a few others [through the] ministry of foreign affairs or ministers of agriculture, persons [who] know who are the best farmers in a given region. And then, more and more, we meet farmers online, or they find us on social media. We work with a nutmeg farm in Granada where the niece, who is in her late twenties, is taking over the business from her aunt and uncle, and found us on Instagram and contacted us. We went to visit in July, and now I have four shipments from them.
Do any of your spices come from Israel or the West Bank? Are there any other spices you plan to bring from this region?
frisch: We just received a shipment of Palestinian za’atar from Ein Sabiya, just outside Ramallah. And these are all ingredients grown in Palestine – the za’atar herb itself, the sumac, the sesame. But there really isn’t much grown in Israel or the West Bank. We looked at a few other things. There are some interesting things happening around seaweed and Ori’s dad put us in touch with some seaweed growers.
Zohar: My dad is a marine biologist, so he works with kelp and seaweed and all that. I’m Israeli, we go back every year, my parents spend a lot of time there. So it was really nice to be able to come back and have business there too. We are always trying to find ways to introduce flavor into people’s food in better and more interesting ways. And that’s the general story around spices and how people should cook with them more often. You know, people often build flavor with salt, fat and sugar, which we love. But there is a much wider palette to paint. And we think seaweed should be part of that palette.
Is there a Jewish history of the spice trade that you have thought about or that motivates you?
frisch: We were just in Hungary in October to meet a paprika farmer with whom we are starting to work, and we went to visit the synagogue in Szeged. Szeged is a famous paprika producing region in Hungary. Ori’s family went to this synagogue many, many decades ago. We were both really smitten by, in that stained glass window [in the] synagogue, there were all these spice plants – there was ginger, there were peppercorns on the vine, there were fresh cloves. I mean, things that most people wouldn’t even recognize; most people don’t know what fresh cloves look like, and there they are etched in stained glass. So it was pretty amazing to see that.
Zohar: You know, the spice you smell after Havdalah is cloves. And so there is this great connection between Judaism and spices and also in the foods that we eat.
Why is cinnamon so emblematic of Jewish cuisine?
frisch: I think it’s a connection with the Middle East, a hub of the spice trade from the beginning. There were stories that the cinnamon sticks came from the nest of a giant eagle, and you had to lure the eagle with meat to be able to steal the sticks from the nest. And it was Jewish and Arab traders, all the way back, who transported spices around the world, ultimately to and through the Mediterranean. So we chose some interesting flavors.
Zohar:I also think it’s worth mentioning that the creator of Old Bay Seasoning was a Jewish immigrant who came to Baltimore, got a job with McCormick, and was fired almost immediately. McCormick, years later, acquired the brand, so I think it’s a really fun connection between Jews, trade, and spices. There has always been a deep connection, historically, in this area, and I am very happy that the crab seasoning that is so famous was pioneered by a Jew. It’s like, you know, we did.