Image design by Mollie Suss

Meet the Nice Jewish Guys Who Are Modern-Day Spice Merchants

Try to come up with the most Jewish spice out there and you might have some trouble answering. But ask Ori Zohar and Ethan Frisch, the founders of the single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel, and you’ll quickly get a list of spices with a robust claim to the title.

“Jewish food uses so much cinnamon, baking sweet and savory,” Frisch, a native New Yorker, said, noting cinnamon is used in babka, rugelach, sweet noodle kugel and tzimmes.

Zohar, who family moved to Baltimore from Israel when he was 5, offered up nigella seeds, often used in Middle Eastern baking, and cumin, a staple of Middle Eastern savory dishes, but ultimately went with poppy seeds. “Obviously bagels and hamentashen and all the other wonderful pastries that use either poppy seeds or poppy seed paste. I think poppy seed has a deep history there,” he said.

Since starting their company, which is based in Jackson Heights, Queens, in October 2016, Zohar and Frisch have traveled to Tanzania to visit cinnamon and black peppercorn farms, Guatemala to find cardamom and chili producers, and India to source turmeric among many other countries.

Along the way, they’ve studied the spice industry top to bottom and founded a business, based in New York, that they say was ready for the kind of “supply chain revolutions” that happened to the coffee and chocolate industries. We spoke to Zohar and Frisch about how they first learned about the spice industry, what makes for a higher quality spice and why you should find out where your spices come from.

How did you first become interested in spices and the way they’re sourced?

Ethan: I’m the culinary half of our business and Ori is the business half of our business. My background is half in restaurant kitchens, which is where I learned about food and learned to cook. I worked at a high-end Indian restaurant here in New York City called Tabla under a chef named Floyd Cardoz, a kind of iconic Indian American chef, so I learned a lot about spices.

And then I left kitchens to go to grad school to work in international development, got a master’s degree, moved to Afghanistan and I lived there for about two and a half years and was working for a big nonprofit spending a lot of time in this pretty remote mountainous area of the country in the northeast, a province called Badakhshan, which is famous within Afghanistan for this amazing wild cumin that grows in the mountains. I’d never tasted anything like it so I started bringing it home to share with friends in the restaurant industry and they got really excited about it. And as these things sometimes go, they started to ask if they could buy some, or could they get it into the restaurants. And so I called Ori and said, “there isn’t a business here, right?” And he said, maybe there is.

What do people not know about their spices that they should know?

Ethan: We realized pretty quickly that there had been these sort of supply chain revolutions in coffee and tea, in cacao, even in veggies. People go to the farmers market, they want to know where their food is coming from, and that had not yet extended into spices at all. But spices are traded in similar ways to other agricultural commodities: Farmers are pushed to grow for volume, not for quality. So most people are accustomed to cooking with pretty low-quality, stale spices that have been sitting around forever.

Ori: I’d say spices are the food in your pantry that people know the least about. What’s been really cool is we’ve been able to kind of demystify that and go back to origin and to create a connection directly from the cinnamon that you’re sprinkling over your oatmeal and the farmer that got that cinnamon tree when they were a kid from their parents and watched it grow for 20 years as the bark matured and became more fragrant and more flavorful.

Photo credit Burlap & Barrel. Pictured: Ethan and Ori exploring a recently harvested paprika field in Spain

So where do you find the producers of these spices?

Ethan: That’s the fun part. We’ve been in the business five years and we have built a really strong network. We now source from 20 different countries and close to 300 farmers. We meet them through NGOs, through the local government offices, and more and more, we’re meeting farmers online, or they’re finding us on social media. For example, we work with a nutmeg farm in Grenada, where the niece (who is in her late 20s, is taking over the business from her aunt and uncle) found us on Instagram [and] reached out. We went to visit in July, and now I have four shipments from them.

Why is buying spices from a smaller company like yours better, ethically or quality-wise? 

Ethan: Most spice companies, especially spice importers in the U.S., are sort of these faceless arbitrage-kind of trading corporations: They’re buying from anybody, they’re always looking for the lowest price and selling at the highest price. It’s not really about relationships, it’s just about the short term. What we’re building is a long-term relationship. They set the prices; we don’t honestly know or care about the commodity prices. Early on in a conversation with a new partner farmer, we will have a pretty detailed and open conversation about costs on both sides. We also help with food safety regulations and testing, with their FDA registration, and navigating other kinds of regulatory hurdles that they may need.

Photo credit Burlap & Barrel. Pictured: dried Cobanero chilis from Guatemala.

Do any of your spices come from Israel or the West Bank? 

Ethan: We just got a shipment of Palestinian za’atar from Ein Sabiya, right outside of Ramallah. And it’s all Palestinian-grown ingredients in the za’atar herb itself: the sumac, the sesame. But there really is not that much grown in Israel or in the West Bank. There’s some interesting things happening around seaweed and Ori’s father, who is a marine biologist, has connected us with some seaweed producers so we have carried some seaweed products asa  result. 

Are the spices you buy in an Israeli shuk actually better than what you buy in a store?

Ori: I think there’s food and memory associated together, especially if you carried it back and it feels like your secret stash that you brought across the country all the way back to you. We’ve also seen just an explosion in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking specifically in the U.S. So I think there is a greater appetite people now have for spices like sumac, za’atar, nigella seeds that are relatively new to the American cooking lexicon. 

Is there any Jewish history of the spice trade that motivates you?

Ethan: We were just in Hungary in October to meet a paprika farmer who we’re starting to work with and we went to visit the Szeged synagogue. Szeged is a famous Hungarian paprika-producing region. Ori’s family went to that synagogue many, many decades ago. But we were both really struck by in this stained glass in the synagogue. There were all of these spice plants, there was ginger, there were peppercorns on the vine, that were fresh cloves, I mean, things that most people wouldn’t even recognize, you know, most people don’t know what fresh cloves look like and there they are etched into the stained glass. So that was pretty incredible to see.

Ori: You know, the spices that you smell after havdalah, that’s cloves. So there is this big connection between Judaism in spices and also in the foods that we eat.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

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