Beyond Salt and Pepper

Oaktown Spice Shop

By Sarah Henry
Photos by Robin Jolin


John Beaver at Oaktown Spice Shop

It took a man from Milwaukee, who started selling spices at age 16 at the renowned Spice House there, to spot a niche need in the Bay Area food scene and fill it. But John Beaver wasn’t expecting to become a spice merchant when his then-fiancé’s journalism job brought the couple to Oakland. An Adult ESL and German teacher by profession, Beaver simply couldn’t find work here in his field, and when Erica Perez quizzed her partner on what his alternate career might be, running a spice shop came immediately to mind.

The store became an instant favorite among the culinary set for its fragrant, fresh ingredients, fair prices, high quality, and extensive inventory. Beaver stocks basic and unusual herbs and spices (whole and ground) and dozens of different salts. Serious spice geeks can get their groove on debating the merits of, say, different cinnamons and vanillas for baking, or seeking out lesser-known spices, such as nigella seeds, commonly used in Indian flatbreads; or grains of paradise, brown seeds from the coast of West Africa that work well with steak, fish, and potatoes. This spice king also sells to local restaurants including Side Bar, Miss Ollie’s, Cosecha, Juhu Beach Club, Tribune Tower, Hog’s Apothecary, and Lungomare.

Located across the street from Lake Merritt, the store does a roaring trade in the spice-laden lead up to Thanksgiving, as well as during the pre-Christmas rush when holiday gift boxes are popular. And, given that the weather can be balmy any time of the year here, spice rubs and barbecue blends are in constant demand by backyard grill chefs.

This treasure trove of all things spice features rows of salvaged wooden shelves stocked with vintage jars, antique scales, large metal scoops, mortars and pestles, and other spice-related accoutrements. In the striped apron and tie he dons daily, Beaver looks the part of a mercantile man, as he grinds and blends his own signature spice mixes. He’s also happy to pass along his encyclopedic spice knowledge or answer questions from novice cooks and accomplished chefs alike. It’s a welcoming, well-tended space where the smell of spice wafting through the open door draws both regulars and newcomers.

Popular blends hail from the cuisines of India, China, Japan, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Consider Madras Curry Powder (turmeric, coriander, mustard, fenugreek, cumin, ginger, black pepper, cassia, cayenne, cardamom, and clove), which Beaver recommends using in a coconut tofu curry adapted from a Deborah Madison cookbook. He promptly pulls out a copy of said recipe from a former card catalogue now serving as a spice drawer and file box for recipes he’s printed up for customers. Other big-selling blends: Better Than Everything Bagel Spice (Celtic grey salt, Tellicherry black peppercorns, fennel, rosemary, roasted garlic, minced onion, alderwood smoked salt, dill seed, and brown mustard), which he recommends adding to roasts, vegetables, eggs, and salads. Shichimi Togarashi (black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, chile flakes, orange zest, Szechuan pepper, citric acid, and nori seaweed) pairs well with udon and ramen soups, rice, sushi, grilled meats like chicken yakitori, or mixed in a marinade with soy, vinegar, and scallions. And Moroccan Fish Tagine, packed with 14 ingredients including paprika, ancho chile, and lemon zest, which Beaver suggests sprinkling on fish or chicken before cooking. Hungry yet?

Culinary trends impact spice sales too. With modern Persian and Middle Eastern cuisines in ascendance, sumac is flying off the shelves, says Beaver. Ditto Aleppo pepper from Syria and Turkey, Hungarian and Spanish smoked paprikas, Mexican chiles, and Indian turmeric. But dill? Not so much. Beaver learned early on that this spice, popular among Midwesterners of German and Polish stock, doesn’t move so quickly in the Bay Area. “Post-World War II, most American households had around 10 spices and seasonings in their kitchen pantry, but that number has exploded to an average of 40 or more,” notes Beaver, who lives in the same neighborhood as his store.

“As our culinary palate has grown, so has our palate for spices. I have Ethiopian customers who come in looking for Italian herbs and Vietnamese shoppers seeking Moroccan spices. The ethnic diversity of the East Bay, and this area’s intense interest in cuisines from all cultures, makes this store a good fit here.” Oh, and his advice to home chefs: Be bold. Explore unfamiliar herbs and spices or use familiar seasonings in nontraditional ways. In other words, spice things up in the kitchen. •


Oaktown Spice Shop: 530 Grand Ave, Oakland. 510.201.5400.

Find out about upcoming workshops and events on facebook at oaktownspiceshop.


From the Oaktown Spice Shop Card Catalogue

Customers looking for a spicy Indian dish in the Oaktown Spice Shop recipe file might pull out the card pictured above along with one for the recipe below. They come from Deepa Natarajan, who wrote up the recipes for a class she taught through the spice shop in 2012. Deepa, who works at the UC Botanical Garden, shares her passionate interest in the culinary, medicinal, and artistic uses of plants at her multifaceted website, Information about spice classes she offers can be found under people/whatwedo/education.

Deepa describes sambar as “a staple dish eaten with rice.” She learned to make it in her South Indian mother’s Ohio kitchen and from relatives still living in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Sambar podi is a powdered spice mixture used in sambar.

Deepa says that her family used to own a rice mill in Tamil Nadu, where they also ground spices. “This was the source of my podi, and every year when we’d go to India, I would bring back enough for my cooking,” she says. “I started making my own sambar podi after my family sold our 100-year-old Kalyani Rice Mill.”

Note: Tamil cooks like to use pearl onions, eggplant, potato, squash, okra, and bitter gourd in their sambar, but they adapt the choices to make best use of seasonal vegetables. Deepa says that when squash is in season, they might add ground coconut, coriander, and red chiles to the sambar base.

Deepa Natarajan’s Tamil Nadu Sambar

Spicy tamarind and lentil stew with vegetables

Serves 4

1 cup toor or toovar dal (split pidgeon peas)
2 tablespoons sambar podi (see card above)
2 shakes asafoetida
½ green chile
6 fresh curry leaves
½ tablespoon tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon high-heat oil or ghee
1 cup diced or chopped vegetables of your choice
½ tablespoon black mustard seeds
Fresh cilantro

Cook dal with 2 cups water until lentils can be mashed into a paste. Set aside.

In a saucepan, combine sambar powder, asafoetida, chile, curry leaves, tamarind concentrate, and salt with 2½ cups water and boil for 10 minutes. Add vegetables and cook until they are tender (about 5–10 minutes). Add the mashed lentils and stir, cooking for an additional minute.

In a small skillet, heat the oil or ghee on a high, dropping a mustard seed into the oil to see if it’s hot enough. If it sizzles, add the rest of the seeds. Then pour the hot oil and mustard seeds into the sambar.

Serve over cooked rice with fresh, chopped cilantro for garnish.