Chai Pani-created spice factory to open on Riverside Drive

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times


Meherwan Irani and James Grogan are behind the new Spicewalla spice factory.

ASHEVILLE — In modern kitchens, spices are often forgotten on dusty racks. But in ancient times, they had the power to launch ships. 

While there's little chance spices will ever again be as powerful, Chai Pani's Meherwan Irani is looking to evoke and preserve a whiff of that ancient allure when he opens Spicewalla, his new Riverside Drive spice factory, in early September.

Spices still have the power to transform food if they're handled right, and Spicewalla's mission will be to bring that magic to restaurants and retail customers in the Southeast and beyond. "We want to be the spice whisperers," Irani said. 

By way of example, Irani pointed to the alchemy of a simmering spice oil transforming a basic pot of lentils to a deeply flavored dish of dahl.

"It's sputtering with ginger and garlic and turmeric and mustard seeds and hing, and it's all been frying with chiles, and you pour it in and watch mud water turn into this beautiful golden liquid," he said.

That transformation caught the eye of Southern Foods, a Greensboro-based company distributing high-end wholesale products to restaurants as far north as Washington, D.C., as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas.

The company tapped Chai Pani to answer a demand for spices in an immigrant-influenced and ever-more adventurous food culture.

Smaller canisters from the new Spicewalla line from the Chai Pani Restaurant Group.

Attention to detail is also driving demand for a fresher product, and Chai Pani's spices are to commodity spices what whole-bean coffee is to Folgers.

On Sept. 15, Spicewalla will ship out its first Southern Foods wholesale order. A retail line will launch a couple of weeks later.

The Spicewalla team, which includes project manager and Chai Pani chef de cuisine James Grogan, expects at least 300 wholesale customers initially.

Irani reported 140 orders already in place for Spicewalla gift boxes, most by national media outlets looking to feature the company in holiday gift guides. 

Spicewalla will be in the RAMP studios, a Riverside Drive complex home to artist studios, UNC Asheville's new STEAM Studio and, soon, a chocolate factory from French Broad Chocolates.  

The spice factory will include a receiving room, grinders, roasters, and space for packing, labeling and shipping. There will also be a retail area that Michael Files, Chai Pani's brand manager, likened to an apothecary.

At 2,200 square feet, it sounds like a squeeze. But plans are to turn out a fresh product quickly — just a matter of weeks, or even days, from spice grinder to restaurant shelves — so storage needs are somewhat small. 

That's a rather significant shift from most traditional spice producers, who most often treat their products like grains or other long-storing commodities. 

It's hard to say how old many grocery store or restaurant kitchen spices are, said Irani. but some could conceivably be years old. 

Madras curry powder was traditionally favored in Madras, the capital city of British India.

Irani and Grogan have been surprised by the poor quality of some spices they've found even in high-end kitchens. 

"It was an eye-opener, and when we would talk to the chefs, literally there would be a crowd around James showing them (our) coriander, and they're losing their minds, like, why does this smell so different? Why does this smell so amazing?"

Spicewalla's and Chai Pani's distributors buy direct from India. In most cases, spices will have been harvested less than a month before they land in the factory.

They're roasted whole in small batches to release hidden aromas. Cumin seeds exposed to heat undergo a chemical change when roasted that releases an earthy aroma, for example.

Even turmeric will be ground whole from the golden-orange colored root. Most mass market turmeric is often adulterated with corn starch or "god knows what" to add heft, Irani said. 

The largest canister Spicewalla sells is 16 ounces, versus the 32-64 ounce containers in most restaurants. The smaller quantities won't mean higher prices, Irani insisted. 

"If you get produce delivered every day, why can't you have spice delivered (often)?" he said. "It's not a staple. You wouldn't order coffee in bulk every six months for your restaurant. It's produce. It grows on a plant. It comes out of the ground. Let's treat it as such."

It's hard to overstate the difference between the coriander seeds Chai Pani uses and the lightly floral version in most grocery stores. These are vibrant with a scent reminiscent of exotic citrus and lime leaf.

Chai Pani's black cardamom pods have a smoky, almost meaty aroma, while Irani's own garam masala blend is almost aggressively lively with cloves and other warm spices. 

Store-bought spice blends, in particular, tend to quickly lose flavor on the shelf. And they're rarely true representations of authenticity. 

The Chai Pani crew, which has traveled extensively to India, perhaps knows that as well as anyone else. 

"There's not going to be generic curry powder, because there's no such thing in India," Irani said. "If you went to India and said 'curry powder,' they'd look at you blankly like you just said, 'gravy powder.'"

Blends in India are deeply personal and seasonal, with Indian air redolent of different spices dependent on the time of year. "Indian grandmothers are holding this knowledge about how to dry these spices and when," Files said. 

Irani displayed an iPhone photo of his grandmother's 20-ingredient, 60-year-old recipe for dhansak masala, which includes instructions such as "clean and peel the ginger and dry in the sun."

"Blends in India really meant something," he said.  "You never, ever went to a store and bought garam masala. You wouldn't even be able to find it. It just didn't exist when I was growing up."

But being too busy to linger in the kitchen is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. As such, pre-made spice blends are now common in India.

With the rise of convenience foods comes a creeping loss of cultural heritage in India, Irani said. "I never spent hours learning from my mom how to make rotis. I went to college and got a job at a bank. I get it."

But his growing food empire seems to have spurred a sense of responsibility to the food culture that gave him the power to turn mud water into gold.  

That's why Spicewalla's adjoining 1,500-square-foot test kitchen will act as center for something of a heritage project, a space for preserving authentic Indian recipes gathered from travel and family records. 

"So much of India's culinary heritage is not written down, it's shared," Irani said. "For centuries, you never imagined that would change."

"Every day, things are getting lost," Files added. "A grandmother dies, and it's gone forever. It feels urgent."

"We'll have the knowledge," Irani said. "We'll record it. It will be down somewhere. If 20 years from now, someone wants to remember what a recipe for dhansak masala was like, we'll have that."

Spicewalla is at 829 Riverside Dr. Suite 110. Follow the project on Instagram.