Spice shop brings the world's richest flavors to Detroit

By Sharon Gittleman

DETROIT-Are you searching for a quarter pound of bladderwrack? Is blue vervain at the top of your shopping list? If your quest for these flavorings has been in vain, the Rafal Spice Company has your answer. This landmark Detroit shop, located in Eastern Market, offers spices, herbs, perfumes, teas, coffee beans and spice accessories, all at reasonable prices.

Step inside their store, and you'll be surrounded by exotic scents culled from around the world - everything from berbere, a spice blend popular in Ethiopia to Australian ginger. Owner Donald Rafal, said his store carries hundreds of herbs and spices, both exotic and familiar.

"We have several unique spice blends," he said. "One is called Ras el Hanout - it's a Moroccan spice used in stews and meat dishes. We also have Za'atar. It's a Middle Eastern spice blend. You can add it to a little olive oil and spread it on pita bread."

Some spices have special qualities, he said.

"One of our stinky ones - Asafoetida, is a substitute for garlic and onion in Indian vegetarian dishes," he said. "Krishna folks can't have roots."

This June, the family-owned shop will mark its 45th year in business.

"I always tell people I got the job because my mother slept with the boss - my father," he said, laughing.

When construction of I-75 in the late 1950's, put Rafal's father's two Hastings Street grocery stores out of business, his dad took up the spice trade, he said.

"Every mom and pop grocery store made their own homemade sausages in Detroit," Rafal said. "He supplied the bulk spices."

Politics has been a part of the spice trade since Columbus set out to discover a new route to the orient in 1492. Things haven't changed much, said Rafal. He said his company doesn't import directly from foreign shores because of complicated regulations created by the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and other U.S. and overseas agencies.

"With bioterrorism threats - it's worse," he said.

Weather also takes a toll on his industry, said Rafal. A typhoon that struck Madagascar four years ago wiped out that nation's vanilla bean crop, sending the price of vanilla extract soaring today.

"Right now, because of the tsunami, tea, cinnamon and peppers may come short," he said.

Rafal Spice Company sells 2-3,000 lbs. of spices a month, he said.

"We sell to restaurants, bulk food stores, gourmet and country stores," Rafal said. "We have retail in Eastern market."

Rafal also offers online and phone orders.

At the shop, you'll discover facts about spices your corner grocery can't provide.

"We have three different kinds of cinnamon - Indonesian, Chinese and Vietnamese," he said.

Vietnamese cinnamon has the highest volatile oil content and is therefore more fragrant, he said.

Supermarkets' spices may not be as fresh as you think, said Rafal.

"Our cinnamon will taste better than anything in a can," he said. "You don't know when theirs was purchased and ground."

Rafal said there are four primary reasons to buy your spices at his store.

"Their quality, price, freshness and the sassy sales people," he said.

You can visit the Rafal Spice Company from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mon. through Sat. The shop is located at 2521 Russell Street in the heart of Detroit's Eastern Market. Find out more about the company by setting your browser to http://www.rafalspicecompany.com on the Internet.

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