You've got the spices – now let's meet the Spice Merchant of Australia. . .

June 6th, 2012

Who is this Spice Merchant?

Well, he was born and raised on a farm in Dural which is about 50 kilometres from Sydney.

He grew up in a family where the topic of conversation at the dining table was, no, not cricket, or rugby, or soccer, but yes, you’ve guessed it, herbs and spices!! His parents were one of the first families in Australia to start a herb nursery.

The world knows him as ‘Herbie’.

I know him as Ian Hemphill, the ‘spice man’!!
I met Ian and Liz (his wife and business partner) by chance when. . .

Liz and Herbie Hemphill

Well, here goes. . .

In August 1997, Meera and I cut short our trip around the globe when our doctor, Dr Lele,  advised us to return to Sydney, ASAP, as Meera was showing signs of discomfort. She was pregnant with our son, Aniruddh, and the doctor felt it was important to return back to base in case there was any. . .! Well, you know what could happen!

So we left the USA and came straight back to Sydney  just as the doctor had ordered!!

On our return we found that Meera was doing just fine, and so was the unborn baby, so there was no cause for any concern. Phew!!

So, with Meera and the, as yet, unborn baby sorted (for the moment!) it was time to look for opportunities in Sydney.

As you might guess, this ‘something’ had to be food related and definitely had to be Indian.

Prior to going overseas we had sold our share of the business that we had run for nearly six years and it was now time to look for new range of mountains to climb!!

We thought of starting a small-scale catering business, or a cooking school, or even a small Indian cafe. As our discussions grew, we also thought of starting a small spice shop selling our own range of spice mixes along with our own pickles and marinades.

Meera had read in the papers about a new spice shop, called ‘Herbie’s’, that had recently opened in a suburb called Rozelle.

Herbie’s shop in Rozelle, NSW

Ah, we thought, it’ll be another kirana shop [you know these, the local owner-operated, small-scale store, the ‘corner shop’] and so we decided to pay a visit to see what was so special about it and why it had been written up in the newspaper.

Well, when we entered the shop we were absolutely blown away by what was on offer.

This was not just another kirana store! This was a spice temple.

It was unlike any other spice shop we had seen before anywhere in the world.

The man behind the counter greeted us with a smile; he knew what spice went well with meat or fish; he knew what the constituents of garam masala were and he spoke with knowledge and authority.

Well, this blew me away. Never, in my 16 or so years (well, it’d be more years now!) of cooking Indian food had I come across someone who knew so much about so many spices, without once referring to a book!!

And to top it all, this man was white.

“Surely, I said to Meera quietly, “this man must be Anglo-Indian, or he’s probably a white migrant from India, just like the family in Bondi who run a spice shop.”

Meera gestured for me to keep my thoughts to myself as we were led to a small, but compact, nursery adjacent to the shop.

And there it was. A healthy, green curry leaf tree. For Meera this was the true measure of someone who knew his herbs.

Indians believe that anyone who can grow a curry leaf tree, and then sell it, knows a thing or two about herbs!!

My knowledge of spices was pretty good, or so I thought, until I did a spice appreciation class with Ian a few weeks later.

And this is where Ian’s knowledge really came to the fore. This man is one of the world’s foremost authorities on herbs and spices. He’s written countless books on spices, cookery books and runs Spice Appreciation classes which are extremely informative.

During his class I realised there was a lot more I had to learn about spices.

The knowledge this man possesses is unbelievable! He is a walking encyclopaedia on herbs and spices. He even gives Spice Tours to India about discovering 12 spices . These tours are  so good,  India Tourism awarded Herbie’s Spice Discovery Tour an Award of Excellence (But hurry, as he and LIz won’t be going to India after January 2013!)

Well, we veered away from our idea of a small spice shop, I mean, how does one compete with Herbie’s, and we decided to start nilgiri’s, a dream that we had been ruminating over for a long while. Ian sent us a bouquet of cinnamon quills on our opening night and I still have it!!

Well, since starting nilgiri’s our appreciation and respect for Ian has grown stronger with each passing year. And I’m saying this 15 years down the track!

a treasure trove of spices

One year we decided to give all our staff a copy of Ian’s book, Spice Travels, and another year we gave our ‘Employee of the Year’ a copy of Ian’s masterpiece, Spice Notes. This is a book all aspiring Indian chefs must possess if they want to have a better understanding of their cuisine! And yes, it’s written, not by an Anglo-Indian but by a real ‘fair dinkum’ Aussie!

On the 15th anniversary of nilgiri’s we thought we should salaam this spice man who, I think, has single-handedly tried to tell the whole world the importance and fun of using different spices and herbs in their cooking.

I tell all the students who do my classes that Indian food is all about understanding the ‘nuts and bolts’, or to keep it in context!, the ‘herbs and spices’ and that there is no better place to source these, and no better person to tell you about them, than Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill.

Here is an excerpt of a conversation I had recently with Ian and Liz which, to me, sums them up so well.

“Ian,” I asked, “How, when and why did you get the name Herbie, because I think of you more as a ‘spice man’, than a ‘herb man’?”

With his customary warm smile he told me, “When I was a boy at school, my classmates thought it very funny that my parents had a herb nursery and wrote books on herbs and spices. ‘Herbie’ was a nice alliteration with the surname Hemphill, and the school nickname followed me as I went into adulthood, and has been used by both close friends and business associates ever since.”

Well, you can’t argue with that! But I had so many more questions and here are some more that always intrigued me.

“What,” I asked, “according to you, is the difference between a herb and a spice?”

Without so much as a pause, Ian said that he defined a herb as the leaf of a plant e.g. bay leaves, coriander leaves, and etc., and that a spice uses any other part of the plant such as the roots, buds, bark, berries, and even stigma in the case of saffron. He continued to say that we get both a herb and a spice from plants, such as fennel or coriander, because we use both the leaves and the seeds.

Herbie amongst the cardamom plants in India

“If you were to pick an all-time favourite herb or spice, which one would it be and why?”

Liz chose black pepper, mainly, she added, because people tend to forget it’s a spice, and it’s necessary for so many foods, even a simple tomato sandwich. (And I couldn’t agree more, see last week’s blog about the versatility of this seemingly straightforward spice.)

Ian said that he would choose green cardamom, because it adds light and life to both sweet and savoury dishes. For example, he said that a curry without cardamom would be flat and dull, and who could imagine something sweet without the fragrance of cardamom? A man after my own heart!

“What’s your favourite spice story from your travels to India?”

Ian starts, “We were visiting the spice markets in Chandani Chowk, Old Delhi, when a shop owner sprang out and said: ‘You’re Herbie – I was on your website last night!” And Herbie described how he was embraced by this spice owner in a bear hug of spicy-brotherhood affection! He continued, “We thought it was amazing, in a city of so many millions, to be recognised as we walked down the street.”

And my final question had to be about recipes. Well, of course!

Herbie in a spice store to die for!

“Would you and Liz be kind enough to share your favourite recipe?” And I suggested we could cook it together!!

Well, they chose delhi dahl as they said it was a dish they always encountered in Delhi during the winter, and that it was so easy to make at home.

So, here is Ian and Liz’s delhi dahl recipe.

[Serves 4-6]

2 x 420g cans red kidney beans, undrained
1½ teaspoons Madras turmeric

½ teaspoon each of asafoetida, chilli powder, chilli flakes

1 medium onion, puréed or grated
2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tablespoon ghee or butter

1½ teaspoons whole cumin seeds

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1 x 420 g can chopped tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala

2 tablespoons plain yoghurt


Fresh coriander leaves, to serve
Combine undrained beans, turmeric, chilli and asafoedita in a saucepan and heat to simmering point. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 30 minutes to let flavours combine.

Mix onion, garlic and ginger in a bowl. Drain the beans, reserving 250 ml of the liquid.
Heat the butter, or ghee, add cumin and mustard seeds and let crackle.  Then add, in the following order: onion, garlic, tomatoes, ground coriander, cumin and garam masala, yoghurt, beans and reserved liquid, stirring well after each addition. Add salt, to taste, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Garnish with a generous amount of fresh coriander leaves and serve with rice or Indian bread.

And I had to ask, last but not least, “And your best ‘spice pick-up’ line is?”

“May your life be peppered with many enjoyable spice experiences!”

Well, I can’t beat that but to conclude, Ian’s book, Spice Travels, is full of such amazing experiences. I particularly enjoyed one where he meets the ‘Cardamom King of the World’, AKA, Mr Jose, in a place called Periyar. . . but that’s another story which I don’t have the time for. So, go and read his book!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!


  1. Ajoy Joshi

    Great Ansh,
    Love people who are passionate about what they do!!

  2. Spiceroots

    Oh what an aromatic post. I just downloaded Ian’s book on my kindle! Look forward to reading it. I also a favorite spice store here in Boulder and the man behind it knows his spice and how!

  3. Anonymous

    Interesting – will visit Herbie’s when next in Sydney.

Comments are closed.


Garam Masalas