Paint by Spices

By Vanessa Gillard

At The Silk Road, we are always trying to find new ways to show people our lovely spices. Years ago, one creative staff member was inspired by Tibetan sand mandalas to make a design with various spices in an interesting pattern. Customers enjoyed it so much that we now make a new one every couple weeks with different spices from all over the world.

Here are a few examples that our artistic staff have put together over the past year. Can you identify any of the spices? Try to guess before you check out the captions.


Peppercorns: Curious and Common (Part 1)

The Silk Road's black, white,  and green varieties of peppercorns.

The Silk Road’s black, white, and green varieties of peppercorns.

By Vanessa Gillard

Here at The Silk Road there are many spices and seasonings to intrigue and inspire our customers. People often come to see us seeking one thing but leaving with all sorts of others that have piqued their interest. But of all the many spices we sell, the one that seems the most commonplace has one of the most interesting stories: black pepper, sometimes known as “the Master Spice.”

Peppercorns are the fruit of the black pepper plant, Piper nigrum, with the chemical piperine imparting the “hot” aspect to its flavour profile. They are harvested from the large-leafed vine in groups known as drupes and then processed to prepare them for drying. The berries end up different colours and with different flavours depending on when they’re harvested and how they’re then processed and dried. The black variety is picked unripe and then dried in the sun and have that signature black pepper flavour; the green peppercorn is the unripe fruit as well, but they are quickly dehydrated to preserve their milder and brighter fruity flavour; and white peppercorns are picked when they’re almost ripe and have a yellowish-pink colour. This variety is treated with water to remove the skin and then sun-dried; they have less aroma that black peppercorns and a distinctly earthy sweetness.

PepperIn Marjorie Shaffer’s book, Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, she chronicles the various ways that pepper has changed cultures, trade routes and the course of history itself. Explorers risked life and limb to find it, and trade routes forked to deliver and procure it. In 408 A.D. the Visigoths laid siege to Rome, cutting of all of the city’s lifelines. When the Romans were finally brought to their knees by starvation and admitted defeat, the Visigoth army left with many prized items, including 3000 pounds of pepper. Pepper has been considered good for all kinds of things for hundreds of years, (medicinal, culinary and even as a cure for poison) but there’s no question that its taste has become one of the cornerstones of almost every type of cuisine in the world.

Our black peppercorns are sourced from Indonesia and India.

Malabar black peppercorns: Malabar black peppercorns are our basic peppercorns. They come from the state of Kerala in southwestern India, where the world’s best black pepper is grown. We offer several consistencies of ground Malabar black pepper for those who don’t have a grinder or who want the convenience of pre-ground.

Tellicherry black peppercorns: Tellicherry black peppercorns are our premium black peppercorns. Tellicherry is a higher-grade pepper, made from the largest, ripest 10% of berries from Malabar plants grown on Mount Tellicherry in India. These peppercorns are left on the vine longer, which produces berries with bolder, more robust flavour. They have a bright, almost citrusy taste that make them really stand out as something special, and are the preferred black peppercorn of most chefs.

Lampong black peppercorns: Lampong black peppercorns from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia have a very unusual and unique flavour, which makes them a nice change on the table or for special recipes. Their flavour is fruity and bright, followed by an intense spiciness on the tip of the tongue.

Green peppercorns: Green peppercorns are the same as black peppercorns, in that they are picked when green and unripe, but are rapidly dried and have a less intense pepper taste that is brighter and fruitier. We also carry Moulin Poivre Vert canned green peppercorns. The Moulin family of France hand-selects and sorts Madagascar-grown green peppercorns, preserves them in saltwater brine, and then packs them in a distinctive green, black and white can. These soft green peppercorns are common in French cooking, and are most famously used in steak au poivre.

Muntok white peppercorns: White peppercorns are picked when more ripe than their green and black siblings and are yellowish-pink on the vine. They’re then soaked in barrels of cool water to remove the outer skins. White peppercorns contain less essential oil than black peppercorns, as this is in the skin, so they have less aroma and a sweetish pungency to them. They are used often in French cooking, and are especially useful in white soups and sauces that require pepper, because they won’t add the little black flecks that black peppercorns would. We sell Muntok white peppercorns whole and ground.

Pepper loses its potency rather fast, so we recommend grinding your peppercorns in a mill to capture the freshness and complexities that have been enjoyed for so many centuries. Make sure to look for our second instalment of Peppercorns: Curious and Common to learn about some of our more exotic pepper relatives like Long Pepper, Cubeb Berries and Grains of Paradise.

A Better Bean for Vanilla Extract?

Submitted by Vanessa Gillard

Vanilla extract can be made from any vanilla bean and if you have any taking up space it's also a fun and simple project.

Homemade vanilla extract is a fun project. And it can be made using any vanilla beans.

In the moments between our daily comings-and-goings at The Silk Road we often find ourselves having discussions about new products we’re developing and the various applications that the products we carry have. One such conversation concerning making your own vanilla extract began in mid-April and has finally reached a conclusion.

In April, we made three types of homemade vanilla extract in order to compare what effect different types of vanilla beans and different base alcohols might have on the resulting extracts. We used both Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and Tahitian vanilla beans in a vodka base, as well as the Madagascar beans in a brandy base. Tahitian vanilla beans have a light, floral taste, while the more common Madagascar variety have a richer, creamier flavour.

We left the beans to infuse for over four months and then strained them through cheese-cloth. First test: scent. The three extracts had noticeably different smells. The Tahitian vanilla has a floral quality that really distinguishes it from the more classic flavour of Madagascar beans. Between the two Madagascar extracts, the brandy-based one had a clear richness that was lacking in the vodka one. Next up: the taste test.

We started by baking classic chocolate chip cookies with all three extracts. Although the variations were enthusiastically tested by staff (and all three were delicious) no one seemed to be able to detect any significant flavour difference. It seemed likely that the other flavours in the cookie recipe were overpowering the vanilla. Vanilla extract is often a contributing flavour ingredient, something to build upon rather than showcase. Recipes that are made to particularly showcase vanilla flavour often call for whole vanilla beans rather than extract, partly for the intensity you can get by directly adding vanilla beans, and partly for the dark flecks that the inner “caviar” of the bean contributes.

So, we went back to the drawing board and decided to try a more classic recipe: vanilla ice cream. Surely if anything could demonstrate the differences between our extracts, it was this.

Here’s what we found: the two vodka-based extracts tasted nearly the same in the ice cream, but the brandy-based one undeniably had more depth. The different bean varieties were very subtly noticeable to the best palates among us, but even then, no one was really sure.

Since vanilla is one flavour among many in most recipes, it turns out that the beans you use for making extract may not make a huge difference in the final product. But the base alcohol will, as will using enough beans in the first place and giving the extract enough time to infuse.

Ultimately, making vanilla extract is an easy project worth doing, no matter what bean you use. It can also be a great gift. For an out-of-the-ordinary Christmas present, how about extract-in-progress in an interesting bottle? Of course, for your own baking, if you don’t want to go to all the trouble of waiting for four months, you can pick up our Double-Fold Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract.

The Ins and Outs of the Spice Blend

Submitted by Vanessa Gillardblending_bowls2

Spice blends are enjoyed worldwide by all varieties of cultures and peoples. A region’s cuisine is usually heavily influenced by the herbs and spices that are native to the area. Those ingredients typically end up in the local dishes in various quantities and combinations. Some spice blends contain up to 50 spices and herbs and all blends will vary from region to region, from family to family and from cook to cook.

However, a spice blend doesn’t need to be complex to tickle the palate. Many of us as children enjoyed a simple blend of sugar and cinnamon on toast at breakfast. It was certainly always a big hit at our breakfast table, but I suspect that if someone had mixed just about anything with white sugar I would have gladly put it on my toast. The Silk Road’s Vanilla Sugar is a simple blend—containing only sugar, vanilla beans and vanilla extract—and yet goes incredibly nicely with coffee, fruit salad or (you guessed it) toast, cookies and other baked goods.

At The Silk Road we hand-mix over 80 spice blends on a consistent basis and are continuously developing new recipes. Some are our own creations and some are our versions of tried and true favourites. The creation of a new blend can involve quite a lot of research (as well as trial and error) because there are always infinite possible variations of each blend. The final product that you find on our shelves has been tried, tested and tweaked by staff members who try out the newest creations at home. It’s a collaborative process to be sure, leading to multi-layered flavours in our blends.

This being said, all our blends begin with an idea and underlying all bright ideas are some basic spice-blending principles.  Anyone can make their own mixture, but as in cooking, spice blending needs to strike a balance between sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste elements. Ian Hemphill, author of The Spice and Herb Bible, breaks spices into five categories in order to achieve this balance with more ease.

Amalgamating spices: These spices recur in many (though not all) spice blends and will give the mixture a base of flavour to build upon. This category includes things like coriander, turmeric and paprika. These spices will tie the recipe together without commanding too much attention.

Sweet spices: These spices have their own natural sweet tendencies and are often used in desserts like puddings, cakes and pastries but they have their place in savoury foods as well. The sweet spices include cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and aniseed.

Pungent spices: These spices may be camphorous and astringent and will have quite apparent aromatic “top notes”. Pungent spices have a freshness of flavour that may be otherwise be lacking in food and should be used rather sparingly due to their strength. Cardamom, ginger, cloves, nigella seeds and star anise are among the family of pungent spices.

Tangy spices: Just like sweet and sour can balance each other quite nicely, tangy spices have a sourness to them that will balance a blend with their fruity citrus-like vibrancy. The most common tangy spices are citrus peels, tamarind, sumac and amchur.

Hot spices: This group is one that can easily be used too generously. The ideal amount is relative to the palate so it’s always a good idea to start small in this hot little group. Chiles, horseradish, mustard and pepper can make or break a blend, so be warned.

The proportions that Hemphill recommends for spice blends are approximately 3% hot, 5% pungent, 12% tangy, 23% sweet and 57% amalgamating. These numbers are not set in stone, but they are a useful starting point when thinking about a new blend. Incidentally, once a blend is mixed, it can take a further 24 hours for the flavours to marry. A blend we’ve made one day will often be a different colour the next day once the ingredients have mingled and dyed each other.

In the hopes of capturing some of the mystery of the mosaic of spices that is our Ras El Hanout blend, we’ve documented some of our process here (though we aren’t giving TOO much away). Ras El Hanout is a Moroccan blend whose name translates to “top of the shop.” Each spice shop has their own secret recipe for this blend that traditionally uses the best spices in the shop. Our recipe uses over 25 different spices and involves many different blending steps.

Steak Season Is Here, and So Is Father’s Day

Submitted by Vanessa Gillard

The Father's Day draw at the Inglewood location will see one lucky person win the Barbegue Season Gift Set on June 14, which includes Sharples Ranch Smoky Barbeque Rub, St. Laurent Steak Spice, Driftwood, Texas Bar-B-Que Rub and Barbeque Belt Chicken and Rib Rub.

The Father’s Day draw at the Inglewood location will see one lucky person win the Barbeque Season Gift Set on June 14, which includes Sharples Ranch Smoky Barbeque Rub, St-Laurent Steak Spice, Driftwood Texas Bar-B-Que Rub and Barbeque Belt Chicken and Rib Rub.

Whether they are handymen, car guys, outdoorsmen, jocks, chefs or something in between all the stereotypes, dads are hard to shop for. They seem to have everything they need, and if they don’t, they’ll just go out and get it themselves in the most efficient manner possible. But what father doesn’t like to fire up the grill and sear those artfully cross-hatched lines into a big piece of meat?

Well, perhaps focusing on the meal for Father’s Day is a good place to start. The Silk Road has a plethora of rubs and marinade blends, as well as our Barbeque Season Gift Set, which is perfect for carnivorous fathers and anyone else who’s getting out the old charcoal and lighter fluid.  Unlike at Mother’s Day, Father’s Day brunch just doesn’t seem…well suited. How about tailor-made steak and eggs in bed, or a nice tenderloin on the barbeque for dinner? In Alberta, a good cut of beef is almost always a welcome surprise, and giving dad the day off the grill might be a nice treat too. That is, if he’ll let you. I had a friend whose dad called his grill “flavour country,” and if you went near it, that was an open declaration of war. Incidentally, he kinda resembled the Marlborough Man.

All unfortunate allusions to tacky billboards aside, cooking a good steak isn’t as simple as one might think. This is perhaps why so many men take such pride in their grills, gizmos and associated skills. There are things like grade, cut, seasoning and cooking technique to consider. Here’s a quick rundown on steak and how you can best satisfy your dad, husband, gramps or dude on this, the day for dudes.

There are 13 grades of beef in Canada but for our purposes you only need to know the first four, unless you’re making food for a dog dad. A, AA, and AAA and Prime are the highest grades of beef, according to Canada Beef Inc., the very best being “A”. A-grade cuts don’t show up on the butcher’s table or vac-packed in grocery coolers often: it usually gets exported or sold to restaurants. The determining factors are generally age of the animal and the amount of marbling in the meat itself.

Marbling refers to the amount of fat and connective tissue in the cut, and at its best, a cut of beef should look like a red piece of marble with off-white veins in it. A strip loin, which has almost no marbling, will be tender but have little flavour because it has little marbling, whereas a grilling steak like a top sirloin will be a little less tender but have far more flavour due to copious marbling. The best way to check for freshness is to check when the meat was packed. There are a number of factors that can lead to beef being very red in colour that don’t necessarily indicate freshness. Choose a cut that reflects your meal plan and budget, as steaks can get pretty pricey.

Regardless of the cut or grade, you can produce a great steak with a little preparation and know-how. Firstly,  tenderize your steak with the appropriate method depending on what cut you’re working with. For a higher grade steak, tenderizing gently with fingers, the bottom of a jar, or meat tenderizer is essential because of the amount of connective tissue. But go easy – it won’t take much. If you over-tenderize, it can crush the flesh and result in a less-than-ideal texture. For a lesser grade cut, poking it with a fork thoroughly may be adequate prep because the tenderness is already there.

That being said, lesser cuts do well with a marinade instead of a rub or sauce because they tend to be less flavourful and the marinade will infuse its flavour. A marinade is a simple balance between an acid (like citrus, vinegar or alcohol), oil and spices. It’s simple to make, best made fresh and often keeps for a while. Use a sealable bag or flat dish with plastic wrap over top. The acids tenderize the meat, so use your judgement as to how long your cut should sit. It depends on size and grade. Also, for safety reasons, never reuse marinades. Rubs are great for better cuts that you can’t wait to throw on the grill. Just tenderize, rub and grill. Rubs are even easier than marinades; they are simply blends of spices with salt and sometimes sugar. Of course The Silk Road has plenty of rubs to choose from. Try our St-Laurent Steak Spice, Old Chicago Steak Spice or Sharples Ranch Smoky Barbeque Rub at your next steak cookout.

As for cooking times, a simple technique to figure out your steak’s doneness is the finger test. There’s a little more to it than just poking it with your finger, though not much. Open and relax your hand and poke the fleshy part under your thumb. This how a blue-rare steak will feel when you poke it. If you gently put your index finger and thumb together and touch that same fleshy part of your hand, it feels like rare. Do the same with your middle finger and it feels like medium-rare; ring finger is medium and pinky is well-done.  You always thought dad was doing some kinda meat math, right? Now you know the secret. You didn’t hear it from me.

Come in to The Silk Road in Inglewood this week and enter our Father’s Day draw. For every $20 spent you will receive and ballot to win a Barbeque Season Gift Set on June 14 – perfect for dad. Or if you win, you can just keep it for yourself. We won’t tell. Happy Father’s Day!

Urfa Biber from Turkey

“Biber” is Turkish for chile, and these crushed Urfa Chiles are unlike anything else we’ve tasted. They are a sort of cousin to our popular Marash Chiles – they grow one mountain range over in the Urfa region of Turkey – but with an intense smoky depth that really sets them apart.

Our Urfas are crushed into oily purple-black flakes and have the same moderate heat as the Marash and Aleppo chiles from the same part of the world. Their flavour is pruney and smoky with a distinct scent of chocolate and tobacco. Use them in rice dishes, stews and anywhere you want a deep, dark flavour and a touch of heat. They also pair very well with chocolate and sweet dishes.

Urfa Biber flakes are quite moist and clumpy due to the high level of oil in them. We recommend keeping them in the fridge.

Here are two tasty recipes that showcase the Urfa flavour with just a touch of heat.

Chocolate Chile Cinnamon Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache Topping


This recipe makes a totally delicious, rich, dark cupcake that really shows off how well Urfa Biber works with chocolate. Urfa Biber chiles are very dark, earthy chiles from Turkey with a chocolaty, tobacco-y flavour of their own. The basic cupcake recipe came to us from pastry chef Nichole Philipchuk. We added the ganache topping and chiles and used Sri Lankan True Cinnamon, which is the traditionally used cinnamon in Mexico, where chocolate and chiles are a natural combination.

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1½ cups butter (3 sticks)
1 cup water
¼ heaping cup Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder (or try 50% Black Onyx Cocoa for extra-deep flavour)
1 tsp baking soda
½ cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Sri Lankan True Cinnamon
1 tsp Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract
1-2 Tbsp Urfa Biber (depending on your taste)


7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¾ cup whipping cream
Splash of Dark Rum
Urfa Biber

  • Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
  • Combine the flour and sugar in a large bowl and set aside.  In a saucepan, heat the butter with the water and the cocoa until the butter is melted, whisking to break up cocoa lumps. Add this mixture to the dry mix and stir until incorporated evenly.
  • Dissolve the baking soda in the buttermilk in a medium bowl. Add the eggs, salt, cinnamon and vanilla to the buttermilk mixture, and once you have mixed this up, add it to the flour mixture. Mix well until smooth with no lumps.
  • Pour into a muffin tin equipped with cupcake liners until the batter is about half an inch away from the top of the liners.
  • Bake 15-18 minutes until the tops are firm and there is no batter left on your toothpick when you stick it into the cupcake.  When cool, take the cupcakes out of the muffin tin and let them cool on a baking rack.
  • To prepare the ganache topping, heat the cream in a saucepan on the stove until it starts to steam and is hot to the touch. Do not let it boil!
  • In a medium sized bowl, add the bittersweet chocolate and the hot cream. Stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is nice and smooth. For the chocolate to melt fully, it will need to be chopped up quite finely. Add the splash of rum. Stir this mixture a bit until it cools down and becomes less liquid and more viscous.
  • Take each cupcake and dip them upside down into the ganache. Let any excess ganache drip into the bowl. Place cupcakes on a sheet of parchment paper while the ganache dries to avoid a mess. Finally, while the ganache is still setting, sprinkle each cupcake with a pinch of Urfa Biber.
  • Let the ganache set, or if you can’t wait, go ahead and enjoy!

Baked Eggs with Urfa Biber Butter

Baked Eggs with Urfa Biber

This recipe was donated to us by our friend and customer Tyler, who says it’s his go-to brunch dish for special occasions. He claims to have found it in Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty, but he’s adapted it heavily to make it his own. We present it below in Tyler’s words (with our own itty-bitty additions).

It’s a perfect way to show off our Urfa Biber chiles from Turkey – with no other dominant flavour, the smoky, earthy flavour of the Urfas really takes centre stage. The quantities in this recipe are all approximate. Use however much of each ingredient seems right.

You need:

Large bunch of fresh spinach (most of a bag, depending on how many you’re serving)
Leeks, finely chopped (about 1 Tbsp per 2 eggs)
Greek Yogurt
4-5 cloves garlic
Chives, minced
A Lemon
½ tsp Urfa Biber
Kosher Salt

  • Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
  • Sauté the leeks in a good-sized chunk of butter with a pinch of kosher salt. When soft, add the spinach and stir around until wilted.
  • Use a muffin tin. Makes beds of spinach in as many holes as you’d like. Push down in the middle to make it sort of cup-like. Crack an egg into each spinach cup.
  • Bake for 10-15 minutes until the eggs reach your desired baked egg consistency (though this dish is best if the yolk is nice and runny). You need to watch the eggs closely. They will look nowhere near done then be overdone in a hurry.
  • Meanwhile, chop the garlic into teeny tiny bits. How much depends on how garlicky you like your food.
  • Take some Greek Yoghurt (sour cream also works, though it’s not as good) and mix in the teeny tiny bits of garlic, along with some minced chives, a good squeeze of fresh lemon and a pinch of kosher salt.
  • Melt some butter (1-2 Tbsp per egg) in a small saucepan. Let it get a little frothy. Add Urfa Biber. Stir it vigourously into the melted, frothy butter over heat. Eventually the butter will turn an orangey-brown and it’s ready. Don’t overcook this – it’ll get kind of black and gross.
  • Scoop out the spinach/eggs and put them on a plate.
  • Add a couple spoonfuls of the yoghurt/garlic stuff, not quite on top of the eggs, but not quite beside. Sort of on, but off the eggs. Easy to mix while eating.
  • Pour over the butter/Urfa sauce.
  • Serve and eat.

Book Giveaway

PepperWe are excited to host a contest to win Marjorie Shaffer’s Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. Today, pepper is a spice common to most kitchens and widely used as a ‘must’ seasoning along with its salty counterpart for almost every dish, but this spicy dried berry has not always been so easy to come by.

Pepper illuminates the rich history of pepper for a popular audience. Vivid and entertaining, it describes the part pepper played in bringing the Europeans, and later the Americans, to Asia and details the fascinating encounters they had there.”

“From the abundance of wildlife on the islands of the Indian Ocean, which the Europeans used as stepping stones to India and the East Indies, to colorful accounts of the sultan of Banda Aceh entertaining his European visitors with great banquets and elephant fights, this fascinating book reveals the often surprising story behind one of mankind’s most common spices.”

To enter our contest, all you have to do is leave us a comment on our blog below, and tell us how pepper changed your life, or at least made your food taste better. Whether it’s sitting down to your morning eggs and adding a sprinkle of fresh ground black pepper to make you smile, or a perfectly braised pink peppercorn dish that has been in your family for decades, we want you to share your food moments with us. On Friday, June 28th, we will put all the entries in a spice tin, and draw for the lucky winner! The winner will be contacted via social media and asked to provide an address for us to send the book. This draw is limited to one entry per person, so tell all your friends and family.


As Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds, said, “After reading Marjorie Shaffer’s Pepper, you’ll reconsider the significance of that grinder or shaker on your dining room table. The pursuit of this wizened berry with the bite changed history in ways you’ve never dreamed, involving extraordinary voyages, international trade, exotic locales, exploitation, brutality, disease, extinctions, and rebellions, and featuring a set of remarkable characters.”