"All the herbs and spices and perfumes in the world—they're here. What you're smelling, it's all the things that smell good in the world, mixed together." Salmal unfolded a clear plastic bag of fresh curry leaves and held it up. "Smell this, ah! So good!"
We're standing in Dual Specialty Store, an Indian market found a few steps down from the street, on 1st Avenue, in the chili-pepper-lit neighborhood known to most as Curry Row. Salmal—the boss's kid—gestured with pride towards the aisles overflowing with every imaginable herb, spice, tea and grain. "My father opened the shop in 1987. I was just an idea back then."
Dual Specialty Store was more than an idea in 1987, but it was a different idea from the store I was standing in, twenty-six years later. Its first iteration was not an Indian superstore but rather a humble fish market, with just a handful of only the most popular Indian spices sold on the side. "We had a good set-up—fish and spices—for about a decade, half the store was fish. Our primary objective was to cater to the Indian and Bengali community, so once we got a little following going, we started adding more products from our home country, Bangladesh, and from India."
All that changed in the mid 1990s. "First, the Bengali community couldn't afford the rent anymore, and they left. Then when the gulf war began, a lot of our restaurant customers closed down." I looked at him quizzically, to which he answered with a laugh: "I was maybe three then, I'm just telling you the story!" The fish went away—people simply stopped buying it—but Dual Specialty did not find itself lacking for customers. Newcomers to the neighborhood came with an increasing interest in Indian cultures, and the store morphed into a proper "Indian bodega," with many of the products you find there today.
Then, in 2005, Dual Specialty Store burned to the ground. "That was probably the worst year of my life...The fire destroyed everything." Salmal shook his head. "But it really was an opportunity in disguise. We got a chance to think of a new vision for the store."
The Dual Specialty Store of today—its third iteration—is a marvelous place. Descending into the entrance one has the impression of discovering something hidden, with it colors and scents and soft music. The space is small, but expertly laid out, and from the vantage point of the entrance steps you can gaze upon its colorful wares with satisfaction.
Though the store has changed, the mission hasn't: "The real mission of the Specialty Store is to make the community more aware of Indian culture and cooking," Salmal explained. It's a mission that has been lovingly and thoughtfully pursued. The selection is thorough and no-frills, with bulk-sized packages aimed at eager enthusiasts rather than curious beginners.
In those aisles you'll find spices, herbs, salts, rices, beans, legumes, oils and flours in all colors of the rainbow. Whatever you might imagine needing—from avocado and mustard oil to sorghum flour and red Sri Lankan rice—you'll find at Dual Specialty.
Spices are the real star: "We have more than 400 herbs and spices from South America to Europe to India, even Native American herbs, like Goldenseal." I noticed some interesting ones among the lot: powdered dandelion, burdock and Kava Kava root, smoked black salts, fiery red Aleppo, as well as red Moroccan clay and dusty green henna and tiny packages of Naga Jolokia Sea Salt (the "hottest salt in the world"). The few fresh ingredients are another star: fresh curry leaves and makrud lime leaves, Chinese bitter gourd, Indian squash, and Samal's favorite, nobby orange bits of fresh turmeric. Salmal picked up a root, "this is mukhi, hmn, what is that in English." He called over a fellow employee, to discuss. (Mukhi is Bangladeshi for taro.)
Dual puts its own spin on popular staples, like chili-spiced crystallized ginger and masala cashews, and they have their own line of beauty products, as well, which they source from Morocco ("The women there, muah!" Samal kissed his fingers. "They are seventy but look thirty.") All the spices are still packed and labeled by the small staff. "We make many of our own blends here, in house. This garam masala we make, it's the best. And see, we tell people how to use things, on the labels. People kept asking how to cook things, so we thought we'd help by printing it out."
Another persisting feature: the beer selection, 400+ labels strong. "We always had the beer. We had to have the beer. It's the East Village. People love drinking."
Dual Specialty Store
91 1st Ave New York, NY 10003 (map)