Cooking with exotic spices can be intimidating. Even experienced cooks might think that the only thing they can make with, for example, a Moroccan tagine spice blend is…well, a Moroccan tagine. But Nirmala Narine says that isn’t so. “You can take that spice blend and put a teaspoon of it in your meatloaf or hamburger. Spice it up, and you get some nutrition from that, as well.”
The comment encompasses the essence of what Narine has made her life’s work about: demystifying the exotic and making the faraway local. It also reveals her passion for Ayurvedic principles that utilize nutrition as holistic medicine.
Narine makes the suggestion while talking about the products in her new spice shop, located in a former tack room on her 15-acre farm in Highland. The new venture bears the same name as her global gourmet food business, Nirmala’s Kitchen, launched 15 years ago. Since then, she has travelled to 167 countries (and counting) to obtain exotic spices, rock salts and grains that allow home cooks in the US to replicate global flavors without leaving the comforts of home.
Now Narine hopes to create a destination in the Hudson Valley where people can obtain her global food products locally and learn how to cook with them. Visitors can get advice from her in the shop, and Narine also offers cooking classes on the farm. Reflecting on the farm-to-table movement in the region, she says that she would like to enhance it. “We grow all this healthy produce here, but how do you heighten the flavor of it? And at the same time, fuse cultures through it?”
Fusing cultures through food has long been the mission of Nirmala’s Kitchen, she says. “But I’m not reinventing anything or suggesting people need to learn long, complicated cooking processes. Spices just really take simple food up to another height. Juniper berries heighten the flavor of vegetables. And if you take allspice berries and put them in corned beef to marinate, it’s heavenly. That’s the whole concept of Nirmala’s Kitchen, and that’s what people will get if they come to my shop or these classes.”
Changing our mindset about how to use spices can mean taking something like cinnamon – usually associated with baking – and adding a few teaspoons of it to some agave or honey and virgin olive oil. “Brush that mixture over fresh salmon,” Narine says, “and bake it. It comes out beautifully caramelized, and it has health benefits.”
Spices influence our health in a positive way, Narine says. “They’re not just for flavor. They have medicinal properties. Turmeric brings out the beta carotene in butternut squash and carrots, and cinnamon has an effect on diabetes.” In fact, she adds, “It’s important to treat your spices like vitamins. We sell ours in tins because it preserves the volatile oils longer.”
The shop in Highland retains the structure’s original hand-hewn beams, giving it a rustic feel, and it smells deliciously of the spice blends that it contains packaged in those metal tins. There are one-of-a-kind antiques in the shop from Narine’s travels around the world, and artisanal beauty products created with natural ingredients sourced from local farms, including her own. A resident goat provides milk for handmade soaps that contain lavender grown in the fields there. The cookbook authored by Narine, In Nirmala’s Kitchen: Everyday World Cuisine, and Nirmala’s Edible Diaries, a travel memoir that incorporates global recipes, are also available. Shop hours are currently Saturday through Sunday from 12 noon to 6 p.m.
The property was once the location of a rodeo, and more recently was known as the Wishing Wellness Ranch. Narine has done much of the restoration work on the property herself, and plans to construct a permanent location for her cooking classes there, which for now are held in her own kitchen, where she has hosted diplomats from the UN who travel upstate to enjoy a private dinner prepared by Narine featuring their indigenous foods.
Those dinners are exclusive, with a waiting list of six months to a year, she says; but her cooking classes for Hudson Valley residents can be arranged within a much shorter time frame (although the upcoming holiday season classes are sure to fill up fast). Her kitchen accommodates a dozen or so people, who are welcome to sign up individually or come with a group of friends. Narine has done cooking classes for bachelorette parties and couples, and says that she enjoys the camaraderie of groups where everybody knows each other already. For information about registering for a class, send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Narine learned to cook at the age of six in a tiny kitchen with no running water or electricity. She was born in Guyana, South America to parents of Indian descent. “My dad worked in the sugar cane fields and my mother was a rice farmer. As a little girl I would walk from village to village, selling with a basket in my hand,” she says. “Maybe that’s why when I travel, I connect with the folks: because when I see these young girls doing the same thing, I see myself.”
She learned about the traditional Hindu system of Ayurvedic holistic medicine – based on the idea of balance in the body and utilizing dietary principles – from her grandfather, an Ayurvedic scholar. “Villagers from all corners of the country would come to see him; they’d be blind or handicapped, and I would make a poultice or spice mixture for them under my grandfather’s guidance. As a little girl I would taste it, and that’s how my palate with spices became sophisticated.”
When she was 11, the family immigrated to New York City, where they lived in Queens. Their path to the US began when her uncle was recruited by the US government to fight in the Vietnam War with the reward of US citizenship. “When he was 17, he left his family and served two tours in Vietnam,” Narine says. “He has the scars still. He sponsored my grandmother, who still lives in Far Rockaway, and she sponsored my dad and mom and me and my three brothers.”
When they arrived, she notes, they’d never seen snow or television, and electricity was a new thing to them. “All of these things were just so different for us! But I guess we adapted; Queens is so diversified, anyway.”
Narine may not have experienced television until coming to the US, but she has cooked alongside Martha Stewart on TV many times now, and she became the host of her own TV series, Nirmala’s Spice World, in 2013, airing internationally since then on the ZLiving network, dubbed into five languages around the world.
Her most recent book is a foray into an entirely different arena from her cookbook and travel memoir. Ellishiva Cinnamon and the Sixth Element is a novel for the Young Adult reader: a fantasy tale with a resourceful young female heroine.
Narine has a soft spot for children living in poverty, establishing the nonprofit Nirmala’s Global Village to rescue Third World children who were sold into sexual slavery by teaching them a trade such as farming. “We send them to school and give them an education; teach them a trade so they don’t just make tourist stuff. We believe they should be able to one day learn to cultivate the land or start their own business, so they can feed their village or the world.”
She moved to the Hudson Valley eight years ago. “I guess I moved here because of my childhood, and who I am,” she says. “We grew up on a farm, but food for us was always about survival. And the thing is, I was importing so many things from around the world from small farmers, I thought, ‘Why not grow things here?’”
Narine has gotten to know the local farmers in the area, and says that the conversations she has with them are the same conversations that she has with village farmers in Sumatra. “For me, it’s not a big difference. I’m at a farm in another country; I come home to a farm. And I love offering the local community these different things. They don’t have to travel or go into the City for these things; they can come right here. And I can teach them how to cook.”
Ultimately, Narine says, “Everything I do, including the spice shop, is a reflection of me. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to be somebody else. I know my Ayurvedic background with spices and I know what they can do for your body, so I pass that along. In my travels around the world, I’ve seen how other people cook in their kitchens, and the ingredients they use, and I pass that along. I don’t water it down; I try to make it as authentic and real as possible, so you can experience it. I give little pieces of myself no matter what I do.” She laughs. “Why not?”
Nirmala’s Kitchen spice shop, Saturday-Sunday, 12 noon-6 p.m. 690 New Paltz Road, Highland; (845) 834-2363, www.nirmalaskitchen.com.