Meherwan Irani sounds genuinely pained when asked to choose his favorite spice. “Good God, that’s like asking what my favorite protein is — I love them all!” he exclaims.
It’s a cry born of passion. Irani made his name as the executive chef of Chai Pani, the self-described “mind-blasting Indian street food” restaurant on Battery Park Avenue in downtown Asheville (now a small chain with a second location in Decatur, Georgia). He also started MG Road Bar & Lounge, co-founded the South Slope anchor Buxton Hall BBQ, and opened Botiwalla in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market.
Last September, the restaurateur — who’s been nominated three times for a James Beard award — opened a new venture, Spicewalla Brand. Running the wholesale spice-manufacturing facility, he hopes to further spread his attitude toward bold flavors. “In Hindi, ‘walla’ means a guy that does something, so if you sell chai in India, you’re a chaiwalla,” explains Irani, who uses the title “Chief Chaiwalla” at Chai Pani. “Chefs around town had been asking me to get them better-quality spices, so Spicewalla just made all kinds of sense.”
Irani’s love affair with spices began during his childhood in India, where he lived until moving to America for an MBA program. When he started Chai Pani in 2009, he refined his culinary chops while remaining true to the way his family had always treated their seasonings.
The Indian approach to spices, Irani says, shares similarities with a barista’s approach to coffee. “You’d never buy a pre-ground can of coffee, let it sit in direct sun or next to a heat source for a year, then make a cup and expect it to taste good,” he says. “It’s the same with spices: they grow on plants and have a shelf life.”
While all spices benefit from better handling, Irani points to coriander as a particularly dramatic example. “In every kitchen I walk into, the first thing I do is go to their pantry, find their coriander seed, and show them the difference between that and a fresh batch,” he says. The smell alone — a vibrant hit of floral notes and sharp citrus — has converted many chefs to his perspective.
Through Spicewalla Brand, Irani offers that revelatory experience to home cooks and culinary enterprises throughout the region. Using the same direct-from-India suppliers Chai Pani has cultivated over eight years, the company currently serves customers such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. with paprika, High Five Coffee with a chai spice blend, and Luella’s Bar-B-Que with a brisket rub.
Individuals can buy tins of pre-made spice blends such as garam masala and madras curry powder, emblazoned with a rickshaw logo that evokes an old-school patent medicine jar. But Irani encourages patrons to visit Spicewalla’s storefront and develop their own mixes.
“Every household in India has their own version of how they want each blend to taste,” Irani says. “By adding or taking away a little clove or cinnamon or cardamom, you can customize a garam masala to match the flavor profile you need.”
When people realize the power of spices, emphasizes Irani, they take their cooking to another level. “Spices and seasonings are some of the world’s most precious commodities,” he says. “No other ingredients accentuate flavor and transform a dish like they do.”
Spicewalla Brand, 829 Riverside Drive, Asheville. For more information, call 828-417-7010 or visit spicewallabrand.com.