I Swear I'm Not A Drug Dealer: Making A Living Selling Spice
"Spice merchant" sounds like a charmingly obsolete profession, like "blacksmith" or "newspaper reporter." But spice trading is still very much a thing, so we got ahold of "Sol," a spice importer, and peppered him with stupid questions about pirates and krakens, as well as some terrible spice-based puns. Turns out that while spice trading has lost some of its bloody, colonial-era edge, it still remains a risky, dirty trade.
There's A Reason Home Cooking Never Tastes Like Restaurant Food
Why would you need to hire a guy whose job title is also a Game Of Thrones villain? You can get any spice for pennies by the pound at Costco, right? Wrong. In fact, unless you frequent the kinds of restaurants that don't put prices on the menu, you've probably never tasted the kinds of spices I deal with. Ask for Persian blue salt at your local grocer, and they'll assume you're some kind of magical racist. But I've got your back.
Perfect for foie gras, caramel sauce, and convincing Breaking Bad cosplay.
Or take true cinnamon, also called Ceylon cinnamon. It's sweeter and makes for better baking, which makes it a must-have for high-end bakeries and Mexican chefs, but you've probably never heard of it because it's not grown at the same scale as Chinese cinnamon (the kind you get in the supermarket). Grocery stores don't bother with these rare spices, due to the cost difference and limits on mass marketing. Think a grass-fed ground Angus burger versus a Big Mac -- everybody knows the former is better, but McDonald's moves a lot more of the latter.
But it's not all for people who wear ascots and refer to themselves as "gourmands." One of my colleagues in New York fields big tamarind orders from Buddhist groups, and he never knew why. One day he asked, and it turns out they use it to polish statues the old-fashioned way. There's also camphor, which makes smokeless gunpowder -- historic ammunition makers still ask for it, in order to make authentic duplicates. At least, that's what you assume when a guy dressed like a redcoat runs into your shop rattling a musket. It's probably best not to ask him too many questions.
Never challenge a man who willingly eats hardtack.
Spice Markets Can Be Very, Very Gross
One time in 2014, I was in a spice market in Jakarta. Usually, I go straight to the farmers themselves, but I needed to find a local seller. The spices were just laid in heaps on the ground. One kid working at the market licked his fingers clean every time he switched spice piles. I saw a woman swat a rat straight into her pile of red chilies. Sometimes, your rare imported Indonesian chilies really do get their extra kick from the exotic soil. Other times, it's rat urine.
Remember that, no matter how exotic, no food is supposed to have "subtle hints" of ammonia.
That's not to harp on Indonesia -- I've been to similar markets in India, Turkey, and Brazil. Plus, no matter how good your system is, some tainted spices will get through. According to the FDA, 12 percent of all spices have dirt, feces, or something equally disturbing in them. In many places, spices are dried outside, where birds and mice eat them, poop on them, and probably hump atop them. That's one reason customers buy from someone like me -- actually being there means I can vouch for the quality of the spice. I finally did find a seller near Jakarta, one whose family had owned spice farms for several generations. They invited me over and showed me everything was on the up and up. So that's where I go, rather than the rat orgy.
Customs Might Mistake You For A Drug Dealer
If you've ever come home from a trip abroad with exotic foodstuffs that you'll insufferably work into every conversation you have for the next few months, your story probably doesn't include getting the shakedown from customs agents. It's a little different when you're packing whole pallets of shrink-wrapped powders.
"'Spice?' Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?"
I've been doing this for years, so most of the customs workers know me. As long as I have the paperwork and everything checks out, I'm all set. But that trust was hard-earned. I made some rookie mistakes on my first bulk order. Instead of saying I was a spice importer, I said I was a spice dealer. Sounds way cooler, right? Really grabs attention. Yeah, yours and the customs officials. Indonesian suppliers grind their nutmeg, so my shipment was all powder. Fun fact: Ground nutmeg is a shade of brown remarkably similar to some kinds of heroin. They brought in the dogs.
But at least as an innocent, he could rest easy in his 44 percent chance of not triggering a false positive.
After their furry friends detected nothing but fond Thanksgiving memories, the officials asked, "Does anyone know what nutmeg tastes like?" The poor souls. Pity their bland and flavorless pumpkin pies. They wound up calling my customers -- a chef, a local spice company, a small store -- before finally letting me go. But if I had screwed up a single line on that paperwork, I could've endured several hours of getting-to-know-you searches while the local nutmeg expert drove over. Which would take a while, seeing as how he doesn't exist.
Saffron Is Worth More Than Gold
Saffron goes for more than $1,500 a pound, making it literally worth more than its weight in gold. That's because it's a bitch to grow. It only thrives on a scalable level in a few countries -- Spain, Italy, Turkey, Iran, and India -- because it needs such precise climate conditions. Most of the world's saffron is grown in Iran, which you may recognize as basically the country that America restricts trading with. They do make a partial exception in the case of saffron, because Axis of Evil be damned, we're not sacrificing Masala Monday.
No international conflict is ever worth sacrificing the luxury of eating dried plant genitals.
There's no buying in bulk, because saffron's sky-high demand is matched only by its ludicrously low supply. Even in the best-case scenario, farms only harvest a tiny amount of the crop. Those little red tendrils come two per flower, and that's it. You need 250,000 flowers for an ounce of saffron. If you're ordering saffron for your restaurant, you'd better know precisely how much you need. Much like the big spice companies, I only sell Saffron 1/20th of an ounce at a time.
Split it up stateside. Customs is complicated enough without introducing tiny baggies into the mix.
It's simply not the kind of thing you stock up on, unless you're an eccentric billionaire or a doomsday prepper who can't live without a good paella.
Spice Smuggling Is A Thriving, Dangerous Practice
If you hear "spice merchant" and your mind jumps to naval battles and Mongol hordes, you'll be happy to learn there's still an illicit side to the trade. Even having a few poppy seeds on you can mean a four-year jail sentence in the United Arab Emirates, since they equate them with opium usage.
You don't want to get stopped at the border with this kind of haul.
Meanwhile, other spices have become so expensive that India, a top producer, has a huge smuggling problem. For example, smuggled Iranian saffron is far cheaper than the legal stuff, so the Indian mafia runs a Saffron ring so expansive that police arrest three smugglers a day, on average. Mules cross the border any way they can, and because the return on investment is so high, they're about as expendable as a stormtrooper wearing a red shirt. So in a way, the dumb jokes that kicked off this article weren't entirely wrong. People do still die for spices.
Evan V. Symon is a personal experience team member and interview-finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome experience you want to share with us? Hit up the tip lines at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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