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The Spicy Gourmet

Sprinkle culinary cred with a Sri Lankan chef's enticing spices

by Julie Wolfson in Food + Drink on 08 March 2011

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Sri Lanka's rich history as an important port and trading post in the ancient world has contributed to the mouth-watering cuisine—combining traditional ingredients with influences from merchants around the world—that the country is known for today.

Born in Sri Lanka, self-taught chef Dinesh Perera has vivid memories of growing up on the beautiful island and the scent of his grandmother's cooking. After moving as a child to London, his family's desire to eat food from their homeland inspired his father to learn how to mix spices and cook Sri Lankan food. Perera, now known as The Spicy Gourmet, continues the legacy. He searched the globe for the highest quality fair-trade spices, creating a spice box set with a custom-designed mill, sure to help even the novice home cook master a deliciously complex garam blend.

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In addition to spices for Sri Lanka dishes, the Spice Blending Collection includes 16 flavors from India and Thailand and an illustrated recipe book with step-by-step instructions for roasting, blending, and cooking up fragrant dishes including Peppers and Cauliflower with Garam Masala, Lamb Skewers with Kashmiri Masala, and Beef Curry with Ceylon Roast Blend.

We asked Perera about his quest to offer the tastiest fair-trade spices, why he developed the Spicy Gourmet spice mill, and about how he became the man who loves to teach people around the world how to make the freshest most authentic garam masala warming blends.

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What was your goal when you created this spice collection?

I just wanted to bring absolutely the best product possible to the marketplace. This package is a means to introduce something that you can really use. That was my goal, and part of that was to provide the best possible spices available. By nature I am an entrepreneur. Food and spices have been a passion of mine. This idea started as a cookbook. I wanted to incorporate a selection of spices with the book. That project evolved into this package.

The Spicy Gourmet Collection with the electric spice mill ($125), as well as several single spices for $8-13, sell online from The Spicy Gourmet. Read more of the interview with Perera after the jump.

You are a member of a collective of small organic farmers. Why is this designation by your peers important to you?

We have third-party verification. All of our spices come from small family farms, not from plantations. That is the way I wanted to build this business. We initially joined an organization called Trust. That is a group that consists of a combination of producers, suppliers, and manufactures. We all vouch for each other. The more commonly recognized organization in the United States is Fair Trade USA. We are applying to be accepted there too. That designation assures people who are looking for fair trade products that we are in fact fair trade.

Why is it important for the customer to look for fair trade?

All spices need to be processed. By that I mean, they are not fresh off of the plant. Spices have to be dried. Some of them need to be powdered like tumeric. There is a process involved. Many of these spices are sourced from tropical countries there are ways that historically these spices were preserved. Consumers don't really know what is being sprayed on them to make sure that they do not get moldy. So to me it is important that they are organic. It is easy for spices to spoil, they get moisture and grow mold.

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Why did you decide to develop a custom spice mill?

The mill is part of my mission is allowing people to experience the freshest possible spices. When spices are ground, the flavor and taste that are based in the essential oils start to dissipate. The difference between a fresh spice blend and one that has been sitting in a bottle is remarkable. When you make your own garam masala, it makes a huge difference. Traditionally people grind spices with coffee mills. I have too in the past before we created our own. I found the coffee mill that worked best for me in terms of ease of use. Milling spices is different than milling coffee. Coffee is a consistent in shape size and density. I designed a mill that is smaller, so that you could hold and operate it with one hand. While it is operating, you can shake it like a cocktail shaker. This technique allows the spices to better come in contact with the blade in a different way that if it was just sitting on the counter, so you get a better grind.

You live in Santa Barbara and also offer a dinner experience called Friday Feast.

I love socialized enjoy good food and friends and wine. Friday Feast started as a way of promoting the product at a grassroots level and exposing people to this type of cuisine. When we first started we had about four people and for the last one more than 30 joined us. We had to turn people away. It’s a fun thing. I also offer a Spicy Gourmet Culinary Experience. In the class a small group learns to blend spices, cook some dishes and enjoy them after words. The cooking experience helps people learn how to experience traditional flavors of Sri Lanka.

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