As I pulled a rumpled Ziploc bag of whole, dried green leaves out of my New Yorker tote bag one afternoon on the subway, furtively stealing a whiff, it occurred to me that to the casual onlooker, this really does look like a bag of weed.
Reader, it was not weed. It was, in fact, fenugreek, an herb common to Indian cooking and one often described as smelling like maple syrup. My friend Komali had recently visited her parents’ hometown of Hyderabad in South India, and she’d schlepped the herbs back for me along with a baggie of her grandmother’s biryani spice blend—ground fresh in said grandmother’s kitchen—each bag labeled with masking tape and sharpie.
The modest packaging only enhanced the gifts’ intimacy. These had come straight from somebody’s pantry, carried 14 hours across the world folded up inside a suitcase. Who cares about the packaging when so much effort has been put into them already? Komali’s gift made me think: Is it always necessary to put gifted spices, or any food gifts, for that matter, in pretty jars?
For folks whose lives or businesses revolve around food and flavor, the resealable plastic bag is a workhorse, particularly when it comes to spices. Just as chefs at even the chicest restaurants stock their kitchens with plastic takeout containers for storage, the baggie is an essential item for those who traffic in cumin and cardamom.
Such is true for Nandita Godbole, author of the soon-to-be-released Masaleydaar, a literal cookbook of spice blend recipes.
“With old friends, some of that formality of a pretty container is kind of lost on us,” Godbole told me. A nice container might even do more harm than good, she thinks; why clutter up someone’s cabinet with yet another jar when a bag would do just as good a job?
When her daughter, a freshman in college, craved rasam—a spicy, sour South Indian soup—Godbole sent her a dried rasam blend in a little plastic bag with the instructions written on it.
“I said, ‘you don’t have space in the dorm!’” Godbole said.
The bags themselves became almost like talismans to Godbole, whose mother sends her home with bags of homemade spice blends whenever she visits her in India.
“Even after the bag is emptied out, for the weird sake of nostalgia, I will actually hang on to the bag,” she said.
Ziplocs make spices—already lightweight, concentrated flavor bombs—even easier to carry or ship. And they allow Auria Abraham, who sells Malaysian condiments and spice blends through her company Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen, to create a beef rendang or shrimp sambal wherever she goes. Abraham moved to New York from Boston after college, and eventually started getting invited to her friends’ homes for dinner. She would always ask if she could cook something for them.
“They would never say no,” she said.
She would arrive armed with different Malaysian curry powders, depending on what sort of curry meal (meat, fish, or chicken) she was making.
“I would show up with all these things in little Ziploc bags,” she said. “And I would cook! And if the hosts enjoyed it, and if it looked like it was a hit, I would leave all that stuff there for them.”
The bags come in particularly handy, of course, when spices are traveling internationally—like that suspect-looking fenugreek—but also when they’re being mailed domestically. That’s how caterer and sous chef Stacy Seebode manages to send her custom-blended coffee steak rub to her mom in Georgia.
“I put the sandwich bag into another sandwich bag,” said Seebode. “By the time it goes into like a manila bubble envelope... it is just gonna get mutilated by the Postal Service.”
She does the same thing with leftover spices from catering jobs, like the homemade baharat blend she made once for a wedding.
“I started packaging it in sandwich bags and mailing it to people as part of my weekly snail-mail joy,” Seebode said.
Marisa Veve, a home cook who grows chiles and bay leaves at her home in Florida, pushes Ziplocs of spices on everyone from her exterminator to the realtor currently selling her house. To Veve, the spices themselves are a way for people to experience something new—a new flavor profile, perhaps, or a new cuisine. The bags show that the spices are less of a gift, and “more of an opportunity,” she told me.
Marisa’s exterminator (whom she affectionately calls her “bug guy”) once mentioned that he wanted to try making jerk chicken. “I’m like ‘oh, I have Scotch Bonnet [peppers]—here, take a bag home!’
Much like Veve’s homegrown Scotch bonnets, the biryani blend from Komali’s grandmother, whom she calls Pedda Nani, is a product of time and labor. When Pedda Nani makes her blend, Komali said, she always starts with whole spices like peppercorns, star anise, and both black and green cardamom, purchased from a wholesale market in Hyderabad. Those are toasted in a pan “until you can smell the aromas,” said Komali, who has watched her do it many times. The spices are then ground until mostly powder with a few larger pieces.
Komali didn’t know for sure what all was included in the spice blend, but maybe that’s what separates it from a store-bought blend: You’ll just have to trust that the person who made it has your best interests at heart.
Be aware: if you’re giving someone spices, you may need to do a bit of extra work. In addition to packing them up and shipping them, you might have to pair your spices with notes on how to actually use them. If the recipient is a seasoned cook, like some of Godbole’s friends, it’s less of an issue—but for those with less ease in the kitchen, you may need to provide a bit more guidance: what recipes to use the blends in, what quantities, and at what stage of the recipe to add them.
Yet this can actually be a blessing in disguise. Abraham, who started traveling solo after getting divorced, started bringing her baggies of spices with her wherever she went.
“If people were open to it, I left them for them,” she said. “That would lead to another connection with someone, because now they had to call you and ask you what to do with these spices!”