There’s something about adding spices to a boiling pot that makes me feel like a real chef. My husband jokes that I view cooking as a science experiment—a dash of this, a pinch of that, and voilà! What results is not so much an explosion of flavor as just, well, a messy kitchen. Usually I dump in a bunch of salt at the end and if it’s still not edible, there’s always the hot sauce option. Having grown-up on bland cuisine myself, how am I supposed to know what exactly to do with dried ginger or saffron? It wasn’t until I started travelling—sampling tagine in Marrakesh, spicy curry in Bangkok, cochinita pibil in the Yucatán—that my cooking became more flavorful.
My travels eventually led me to the Czech Republic and as most of you expats know, moving to a new country hits your finances pretty hard (especially now with the airlines’ stingy baggage allowance). While outfitting your new kitchen with the essentials might be a priority, stocking your new spice rack is probably an afterthought. For five years, I’ve been browsing the Tesco spice aisle, shopping on a need basis—recipe by recipe—and the end result is a million half-used Kotányi seasoning packets littering my cupboards (I never remember what I already have on hand). There must be a better way.
After a recent visit to Lehká hlava, I got my answer. I was strolling around, digesting my veggie quesadillas, when I stumbled upon Prodejna U Salvátora, which is tucked on a parallel side street. Upon entering the tiny spice shop, a potpourri of smells welcomed me. Miniature sailing ships trace the old spice routes on a world map painted onto the arched doorway. Though I was disappointed not to see mounds of colorful spices, the shop has other nice touches, like a 100-year-old antique cash register imported during the First Republic.
With my bumbling, pre-intermediate-on-a-good-day Czech, I attempted to extract some information from the owner, Jana Velebilová, whom you can find there Monday to Friday from 10:00-18:00. The shop has been around since 1969, first located on Mostecká street in Malá Strana. But in the early 90s they were forced to move due to restitution, and after various locations, its final resting spot is on Náprstkova street in Prague 1. During communism, the range was considerably smaller, due to obvious import complications, but now U Salvátora boasts around 200 spices and mixes to choose from. Mrs. Velebilová admitted her personal favorite is “beautifully fragrant cinnamon.” Even with thirty plus years in the business and so many quality spices at her disposal, she modestly claims, “I’m not a chef. I like cooking and sometimes it turns out well.”
I felt overwhelmed by the wide selection (I should’ve gone with a recipe in mind). The pre-mixed spices tempted me because they’re full-proof and convenient even though it seems like cheating. Since Mrs. Velebilová said the mixes are specially made for her shop, I gave in and bought a goulash mix (26 CZK) to honor my host country, a Thai curry mix (20 CZK) to tickle my taste buds and a tzatziki mix (20 CZK) because I’m bored with eating šopský salát. All of the spices are sold in quantities of 50g unless otherwise specified on the countertop menu.
On the way home, just out of curiosity, I stopped at the Tesco in My Národní to do some comparison shopping. As inconspicuously as possible, I pulled out the spice menu from U Salvátora and a pen to jot down my findings. My eyes slid down the list and I chose bobkový list celý (whole bay leaf) at random. My jaw dropped as I did the first calculation: a Kotányi packet of 5g cost 21.90 CZK versus 10g/4 CZK at U Salvátora. Unbelievable!—what kind of backwards math is that? I checked again, this time with bazalka (basil): 9g/21.90 CZK in Tesco and 30g/8 CZK with Mrs. Velebilová. I had no idea I had been getting so royally fleeced in the spice department.
As long as I was there, I grabbed a couple of cucumbers and yogurt to complete my tzatziki salad, and on a whim I put the equivalent Kotányi spice packet (13g/12.50 CZK) in my basket. An idea was starting to form in the back of my mind, and I would call it: The Tzatziki Challenge.
Obviously, I couldn’t be trusted to set aside my personal bias during a taste testing, so I would have to involve my friends. Friday evening rolled around and I had sliced the cukes and mixed up the two versions of the yogurt and spices earlier so when my friends arrived, they were none the wiser.
There was only one teensy-weensy problem: the quality of the spice mixes differed so greatly you could tell which was which just by looking at them.
The Kotányi packet contained a white powder, absent any dill—a key ingredient for tzatziki—whereas U Salvátora’s had individual grains of seasoning visibly notable in the yogurt. My friends all agreed that the U Salvátora version was bolder, fresher, and had a bite to it. Though slightly anticlimactic, it was still a fun Friday evening and the tzatziki salad gave us some respite from the heat.
To be fair, the packaged spice does have some advantages: it’s more convenient to buy your spices at the supermarket, they have a longer shelf life (up to 3 years), and you don’t have to speak Czech to buy them. On the other hand, if you need your spices to last for three years you probably don’t cook often enough to need spices in the first place. And if you can recognize the spice name, point your finger and say prosím, then you should be able to get by at U Salvátora.
I’ve decided that as soon as I use up all my Kotányi packets, I’m heading back to restock my spice rack at U Salvátora. But don’t take my word for it; I encourage you to do your own experiment. “Every customer can choose what suits him or her best, but after tasting our spices, the majority of them come back to our shop again,” said Mrs. Velebilová. I couldn’t agree more—tasting is believing.
WHERE: Náprstkova 2, Praha 1
PUBLIC TRANSPORT: closest to tram stop Národní Divadlo or Karlovy Lázně
OPENING HOURS: Mon-Fri 10:00-18:00
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