Ever heard of Grains of Selim? What about calabash nutmeg? Or guinea pepper? Alligator pepper?
Those African flavors are not the only flavors Essie Spice features. Bartels combines the aromatics of her native land with the seasonings she unearthed traveling around the world (“three continents, 24 countries,” she said.) “Our food, our flavors, work well with other cuisines,” she said, adding, “We all eat from everywhere.” Essie Spice, she hopes, demonstrates that the flavors of Africa can not only stand up to but enhance the flavors — and foods — of other regions.
Her aromatic spice mix, Mekko Dry Rub, blends African nutmeg (“it’s smaller and sweeter than nutmeg you get here,” she said) and Grains of Selim (“a West African seed pod that has a licorice flavor”) with Asian seasoning (star anise and cloves among them); it also includes roasted African peanut powder. Bartels suggests using the dry rub on fish, lamb, chicken, shrimp or beef. Her sweet and tangy “Tamarind Oh!” sauce mixes tamarind and ginger from Africa (“African ginger is so much smaller, it has less water, more flavor”) with guava and vanilla from Mexico. Its recommended uses: as a glaze for poultry, ribs and on desserts, including ice cream. Her other two products: Mango Chili Medley, a mélange of sweet mango, Thai chili peppers and fiery Jamaican Scotch bonnet pepper, which can be used as a sandwich spread, on some cheese or in crêpes; and CoCo-For-Garlic, a coconut garlic sauce that, Bartels says, can spice up soups and stews or add flavor to omelettes, frittatas, quiches and pizza.
Since age 8, Bartels has been obsessed with spices. She learned how to cook in her mom’s tiny kitchen in Accra. “In Africa, it’s a disgrace if your daughter can’t cook,” she said. She learned to cook traditional dishes but she often found ways to sneak more spice into a dish.
“My mom would always get mad,” she said. “But I noticed that a spice would change everything. Knowing the effect they have on cuisine always intrigued me.”
Nevertheless, she put that intrigue aside to come to America to study international business at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. After graduating, she worked at several multinational corporations, including Panasonic and Unilever as a procurement specialist. The jobs gave her opportunities to travel.
While in Mexico one year, she fell in love with tamarind candy, and decided to bring a whole bunch home. On a whim, she melted some down and put it on chicken wings “as a glaze,” she said. “I thought it was good. When friends came over and couldn’t get enough of the wings, I knew I was onto something.”
She started experimenting with tamarind and other African spices … and soon gave birth to her Tamarind Oh! sauce. For the next few years, she continued experimenting, giving friends and family her blends as gifts. “People kept encouraging me to turn it into a business,” she said.
She did, founding Essie Spice in 2013, though she didn’t quit her day job — yet. “Weekends, evenings — any time I had, I was on it,” she said.
When she turned 30 in November 2015, she realized she had to make a decision. “Either give it up or do it full time.” So she quit her corporate job. “I invested so much time and money and energy. I don’t think that I ever invested so much effort as I did on Essie Spice.”
Her sister, who joined her in the venture, imports the Ghanaian spices. Her friends and cousins help her blend and package everything in a commercial kitchen she rents in the Bronx. They are available online at essiespice.com as well as a handful of gourmet shops in New York City for $9 to $9.40.
“It’s an amazing product,” said Liana Khatri, a student at culinary school Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, who connected with Bartels on Instagram. “It’s earthy, spicy. I put the Mekko Dry Rub on just about everything. I love it on popcorn. I gave it to the students in my culinary class and now we are all obsessed with it.”
Bartels hopes more and more people become obsessed with her product. And the more who do, she says, will help her with her next goal: “Eventually I want to market products made with our nuts, our butters, our milks. People don’t know about them and they should.”