Spice Paradise

Head to the East Village's SOS Chefs to stock up

"I didn't want to be just another food distributor, but rather a chef's best friend," says Atef Boulaabi, owner of the incomparable East Village spice shop SOS Chefs.

Boulaabi opened SOS–the name stands for "Save Our Spices"–in 1996 as a wholesale spice market exclusively for chefs, but it has evolved into a retail store catering to both professionals and ingredient-obsessed lay people in search of Aleppo cumin seeds, Persian blue salt or the perfect tarbais beans for cassoulet.

Behind the arched windows of the Alphabet City storefront, there's a small souk of intriguing aromas, esoteric flavors and rare ingredients.

Many of Boulaabi's wares are sourced from far away (Nepalese timut peppercorn, manuka honey mixed with deer antler extract from New Zealand); others, like cinnamon water and the juniper vinegar, are mixed in-house. She's often seen chasing down customers, encouraging them to sniff and taste something new.

Top, clockwise: Atef Boulaabi | Green almonds | Shelves of spices | Orange blossom

"There needs to be a story to each product," Boulaabi contends. "You must soak these in rose water," she says of the freeze-dried saffron threads plucked from Iranian crocus flowers. 

And Boulaabi isn't shy about making certain non-culinary claims for some of her products.

"Black pepper for a man is better than Viagra," she says. "It keeps the body hot inside and allows everything to work properly"

Well, we're excited about this place. Here are a few other provisions shops we love:

Kalustyans: This New York Institution has been around for 70 years and is packed with ingredients from 75 countries. Try the yogurt from Choopoons ($6.95 for 8 ounces) which is available in mulberry, white cherry and honey-walnut.

La Boîte: Master blender Lior Lev Sercarz creates spice mixes that improve anything they touch. We like the Isphahan ($15), a blend of cardamom and dried lime; it pairs well with grilled vegetables.

Sunrise Mart: This market is a little taste of Tokyo. Try the satsumaimo sweet potato that has a burgundy-colored skin and white flesh inside ($2.99 a pound).