Julian Amery, who runs spice stores in India and Denmark, can hold forth on hing, and makes his own blend of garam masala
Julian Amery is perhaps a symbol of our new complex world. Raised in the United Kingdom, a traveller drawn into Buddhism while in Nepal and Tibet, he set up a spice shop called ASA (pronounced “asha” like in Hindi to mean hope) in Denmark, and trades in spices in India. He can tell you what notes of flavour cinnamon hits, dissects the ingredients of paani puri, describes the smell of hing, and tells you how to decorate desserts with blue corn flowers from the south of France. He also makes garam masala.
In Bangalore recently to set up ASA’s spice station at Foodhall, Amery says you must know of his own personal journey before he tells you of his spice route. Amery was a restaurant manager first and a stagiaire (a cook who does an unpaid apprenticeship under a well-known chef), before he set out on his spiritual quest. At the beginning of 2008, he left London and a 20-year career to embark on a solo trip East. He was in Baltistan, Amritsar, crossed the Khumbu Glacier, and experienced the sacred Mount Kailash. He camped on the beach for five months in Goa. He travelled in his 30 year-old Hippie-style painted bus named “Hope”. After two years of wandering and adventure, he returned to Europe, with images and tastes of the journey, from which the idea of ASA was born.
“I never thought I was coming back,” he says of his return to India. But why did his journey result in spices? “It’s a rich and fascinating topic. On a romantic level, it’s a fascinating story of Empires, about medicine, culture, spirituality, flavour, taste, aroma, music…I love the intensity of things. I want to discover the essence of things.” Another reason he offers, is quality. “It came to me that not everyone was doing it (spices) well. They were mixing good quality products with the not-so-good. I bring good production and hygiene quality to these products. The bottomline is, does is taste nice? Is it harmonious… spice is like music. There are various notes to it and there must be harmony.” His trade is also his way of practising Buddhism, he says! What is the connection between Buddhism and spice-trade? “According to the eight-fold path, we must choose a livelihood that’s not at conflict with its intrinsic philosophy — not to cause harm to anyone… My organisation sources directly from the growers; it’s a fair-trade organisation. And this is a social enterprise. We reinvest profits into sustainable development work — my first project will be setting up improvised chullhas (cooking stoves) in NE India.”
He’s labelled cinnamon bark ‘Cassia’. “Did you know that salty dalchini you are holding originated in Burma? It’s called Cassia and is one of the five families of cinnamon grown the world over. It’s got a hot, loud note and I would use it while making a savoury dish, like a stew. The more crumbly cinnamon, grown commonly in Sri Lanka, is more subtle, sweeter and fruity. I would use it in a dessert,” says Amery. Apart from all the standard spices you’ll find in an Indian kitchen, to Bangalore he has brought whole cinnamon quills from Sri Lanka, vanilla pods from Uganda, smoked paprika from Spain, pink pepper from the Camargue, juniper berries and blue cornflowers from Scandinavia, and more. His store features not just whole spices, but have bespoke masalas stone-ground (in an electric stone-grinder!). Much like what we Indians were used to doing till some years ago — go to the nearby mill and have the masalas blended.
His love for all things Indian, including language, food, and spices is amply clear. ‘Come and get a chai, a chat, a sniff, a taste’, says the invite to his store in Copenhagen. He offers sambhar masala, garam masala, chai masala and tandoori masala blends! He acknowledges that in India the masala changes every 200 kilometres.
But a British guy bringing spices to sell in India — he must be looked at with much suspicion. Even at the suggestion of it, Amery is quick to say “It’s not the next East Indian Company. Oh no! We are the antithesis of the last Raj,” he smiles. He believes that every one must have a look at what the Universe offers. Taste the various tastes. “Culinary traditions cross borders. Food doesn’t belong to any country. It either tastes good, or bad.”
He recalls his first taste of Indian food growing up in North West London where there was a population of about a million Indians and Pakistanis. “My father, a doctor, made a barter deal with one of the Indian restaurant owners — he would do his surgery and we could eat at his restaurant every month. So I was introduced to Indian food as a child — I had my first taste of daal and butter-naan way back.”
Starting at the beginning of this year, Amery has opened three stores in India — Delhi, Mumbai and now at Bangalore. Next he plans to open stores in Pune and Gurgaon. His spices are available at Foodhall in 1, M.G. Mall, M.G. Road, Bangalore. Check www.asatrading.dk.