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Shopping: Tea, spice, nice

Some early favorites: lime-coconut smoked sea salt, black truffle salt, a slab of Himalayan pink salt, ghost pepper salt and some of the shop's lovely salt cellars. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

It’s not Kalustyan’s, but I suspect local cooks will soon find their way to the new Spice and Tea Exchange of Alexandria, situated in Gadsby’s Arcade on King Street. Northern Virginia residents and owners Joy Quinn and Taruna Reddy opened the store on April 10 and showed me around the neatly organized place last weekend.

Freshness and variety seem to be major selling points. Quinn says their shop receives several shipments a week. Spice blends are made in-house (with custom blending available), including some dehydrating of fruits and vegetables that become fine powders. The spices that make us run from one ethnic market to another are largely represented here (grains of paradise, hibiscus flowers, sumac), along with exotic rices, little pots, salt cellars, glass jars, mortar and pestle sets, scoops and more.

More things to experiment with: pumpkin and spinach powders (shown here in small honey-pot jars); tomato and coconut powders in 1.5-ounce resealable bags; habanero, blueberry and sweet onion sugars, and one of those lidded salt cellars that Alton Brown's always snapping shut on "Good Eats." (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

Unexpected finds such as burgundy wine and vinegar powders, dried jasmine, a real black truffle salt and a selection of salt- and gluten-free blends will fuel lots of culinary creativity. Reddy says the business, which began as Old Florida Spice Traders in St. Augustine in 2003 and just began franchising in 2007, is known for its blends and rubs. You can read the company history here. You can shop online, of course, but it's more fun to experience the trading-post setup of the stores, with large glass canisters and rustic display shelves.

Quinn, Reddy and their small staff are knowledgeable and accommodating, often keeping the doors open a bit longer than advertised. Expect to sniff and sample. Prices are not cheap, but the quality’s obvious.

Here are some standouts:

Lime-coconut smoked (1.5 ounces, $4.89). A sea salt from bali smoked over lime leaves and coconut husks. Contains lime zest. A natural complement for seafood.
Black truffle (1.5 ounces, $7.29). Contains ground Italian truffles and Pacific sea salt. Great for eggs and pasta, or as an hors d’oeuvre garnish.
Ghost pepper (1.5 ounces, $5.29). H-O-T. Made from dried Naga Kolokia peppers, said to be the strongest in the world. Suggested uses include chicken wings and bloody marys. I’m still trying to figure out what I’d use this for. But it sure makes a statement.
Slabs of pink Himalayan salt (as shown, 3.8 pounds, $24.95). Fun for serving crudo and just about any foods that benefit from a subtle sodium hit. They are reuseable.

POWDERS (1.5 ounces, $4.29)
The tomato is Intense and fruity, a great flavor booster for sauces; spinach tasted pure but hard to take on its own. It'd be good for flavoring and coloring pasta dough; coconut flake, combined with a little water or juice, might make a nice low-calorie sauce alternative or could be added to cookie dough.

SUGARS (1.5 ounces, $4.89)
Sweet Onion. Made with dehydrated onion puree. Good for baked breads, roasted asparagus, shrimp on the grill.
Habanero. Made with dehydrated habanero peppers. Blend into chocolate or sprinkle on fresh fruit.
Blueberry. Made with dehydrated blueberry puree. Lovely color, nice for oatmeal and muffins.

And in the tea category: 1-ounce bags of some black teas with fruity notes and a collapsible silicone single-serve strainer. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

TEAS (1 ounce, $4.89)
Almond Cookie. Black tea with almonds, cinnamon, safflower.
Pear Caramel. A blend of China black and Ceylon teas with dried Washington state pear and a caramel
Orange Dulce. Another China black-Ceylon tea blend with orange peel, jasmine flowers and vanilla (similar to the Constant Comment I like, but sweeter).

Collapsible silicone Tea Spot Steepware, which can handle loose tea and coffee ($9.95).
Crosby and Taylor stoneware pots with pewter spoons ($28.95 and $39.95).
1.7-ounce honey-pot jars made with recycled glass and cork stoppers ($2.95 to $4.95).
Large stainless-steel and glass salt cellar ($19.95).

If you live too far away from the Alexandria shop, you may only have to wait till early summer for a franchise store to open in Georgetown. Maryland resident and businessman Keith Campbell Rosen is finalizing exactly where that shop will be, but he hopes to have it up and running by mid-June.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

The Spice and Tea Exchange of Alexandria, 320 King St., 571-312-8505, Hours: Sundays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

By The Food Section  |  April 16, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Shopping  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, shopping, spices  
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