A whiff of the exotic spices once you enter Foodhall and you’re drawn in instantly. That’s what Asa, the spice station does to you, with over 150 spices to entice.

Though it was a eureka moment, Asa was put into place meticulously with everything from the name to its identity, and the four-point vision it is based upon. Just ask the ‘master of spice’ Julian Amery and you will be left intrigued, with your spice quotient a notch higher at the end of it. Established in Denmark in 2010, the Copenhagen spice specialists have chosen India to expand, with not just one but three organic stores in Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore since 2013. With eyes set on London next, Asa seems on its way to achieving a global foothold, with promise of garnering spice lovers aplenty – as we see here, back home.

Where does one start when telling the tale of Julian and Asa, the spicy trail that was set off in 2008. You start from the basics, where a 21-year-old Literature graduate bussed at Notting Hill’s restaurant 192, got promoted to manager and went on to work under top chefs, inclusive of Fergus Henderson and Alastair Little. Thus finding his industry niche, Julian gave 20 years to high quality hospitality before deciding he had places to go. So off he went, ‘riding into the sunset’, on his newly-acquired 30-year-old Mercedes bus called Hope from Europe all the way to South Asia. And what an adventure Julian describes, from braving an icy Anatolian plateau to hearing the call of Buddhism in northern Pakistan, paying respects at Mount Kailash, and finding joy in Indian flavours and tastes which he took back with him when he returned to Denmark two years later. Thus was born Asa – from ‘hope’, rightly pronounced ‘Asha’ – a social enterprise which Julian just had to give back to India.

“When I was 18, I was in Jamaica. That’s to tell you that travel is my raison d’etre; for it is magic,” begins Julian. “To acquaint yourself with the food, philosophy and the love of the people and their place… take India, where there is a surprise around every corner. I have been associated with North Indian cuisine from a young age.” The association with our country would only be strengthened by a chance encounter two years ago when a family of Indian tourists stopped by Asa in Coppenhagen during September on a Saturday, the busiest day of the week. Recalls Julian, “I was sitting in my shop when this family came by. I offered them masala chai to sample and we got talking. The man introduced himself to me as a ‘shopkeeper’ back in Bombay and we exchanged cards and waved goodbye.” Going by the noteworthy saying, ‘you feed an Indian chai outside of India, you become friends in an instant’, goodbye was just the beginning. For Julian later received a reply from said shopkeeper’s daughter only to uncover that it was from Ashni Biyani, daughter of business tycoon Kishore Biyani – CEO of Future Group. Mails, calls and conferences later, Asa the spice station was opened at Foodhall in Delhi and a relationship forged between Julian and the Biyanis.

Asa at Foodhall in Bombay is a compact space which brings comfort to Indian customers, for spices are an integral part of our culture. The spice master is well-versed with the nuances of spice trade and is quite right when he opines that selling spices to Indians is where the challenge lies; you master that and you’ll be fine. Asa is hence, a flavourful union of Indian heritage and European standards, the Danish being among the highest.

The venture, as Julian shares, is a dharma project with the four-point vision being to source ethically produced organic spices directly from the producers, get the produce EU certified, indulge in fair-trade, and ensure that profits help promote sustainable causes. This would take the travelling master to Sri Lanka for cinnamon, Kashmir, as well as Madrid, for saffron, Uganda for vanilla pods, Northern Europe for whole corn flower, and wherever else he sources the spices from. “The bestseller back home and here would be the garam masala and chai masala,” states Julian as he grinds some of the latter and talks of how Indian spices are not as harsh as perceived to be, and hold medicinal properties, too. Middle Eastern spices Baharat and Za’atar are very popular here, as well. The Middle Eastern Spice Collection is available with six different spices neatly packed. And the gift collections are just the thing to earn brownie points with. If you feel pricing is on the higher side in general, it is so, but at Asa, VFM lies in the minimal use each time of its flavourful spices.

Julian states further, “As the food culture around the world is changing, so too the use of spices. Indian food is mostly untouched by spice fusions yet European cuisine seems to be adopting the concept gradually.” A butternut soup with sambar powder, for instance. The world of spices is unending. Spruce up a glass of gin with pink pepper (from Peru) or juniper berries (from Scandinavia) while blue corn flower adds to the decorative delight of a dessert.

So at Asa, you could spend hours. You can even grind and create your own spice blends; the staff is equipped to help you out. To conclude, we ask Julian what he plans to do next, to which he responds with a smile, “Oh, I want to go mountain climbing now!”

Asa
Foodhall
Level 3, Palladium Mall,
High Street Phoenix, Senapati Bapat Marg,
Lower Parel (W), Mumbai 400013
Ph: 022 3026 4581

This feature was published in UpperCrust magazine, Oct-Dec 2014 and used here with prior permission from the publisher. Photo courtesy: UpperCrust magazine