Spotlight on Spice: Traditional Spice Mill

how to grind dried red chili into powder

There’s more than one way to grind a chili pepper.

But in Penang, we like our dried red chilies freshly ground from the spice mill, where the walls, floors and air are thick with colorful spice powders, burning your eyes, staining your clothes, and setting off sneezing fits.

V Kaleespari Grinding Mill on China Street in Little India Penang

A walk in V. Kaleespari Grinding Mill in George Town’s Little India is a walk back in time.  It is a reminder of Penang’s history as a spice entrepot in the region, when many of the shophouses were involved in spice related businesses.  Even one of the largest spice companies in Southeast Asia, Alagappa Flour Mills, began in a humble shophouse along China Street in George Town.

origin of alagappa flour mills spice shop in Penang

As the spice business industrialized, spice mills became obsolete as customers preferred the convenience of buying a packaged spice powder at the grocery store.  And now in the UNESCO World Heritage site of George Town, only V. Kaleespari Grinding Mill remains.
old spice grinder machines at a spice mill grinding coriander seeds and other spices

What is a spice mill?

When you enter V. Kaleespari’s, you are greeted with the deafening sound of spice grinding machines built a half century ago in Germany and India.  Some machines grind rice, corn, and dal into flour (ground twice), and other machines grind spices like chili and coriander into powder form (ground three times, then dried because of the oil in whole spices).  And we never leave without buying our favorite mutton curry powder.

dried red chili grounded into powder by old spice grinding machine, and drying red chili powder
In the face of powerful spice companies, how does this mill survive?

On a recent visit, an Indian-Muslim family brought a bag of rice to be freshly ground, as they wanted to ensure the most fragrant flour was used in their preparation of “Putu Mayam” for their guests during Ramadan.  Another family stopped by to order their own custom spice blend, a recipe that was passed down many generations in their family.  The spice mill also works with local restaurants and spice shops to create blends.

antique spice grinder machine grinding rice into flour for putu mayam in penang

The last spice mill in George Town is an important link in this society.  It connects the communities in Little India, keeping family cooking traditions alive.  It connects local businesses like spice importers/exporters, spice wholesalers, spice retailers, and restaurants, all of which rely on the mill’s ability to customize orders and for its convenience.  Without the spice mill, this local value chain – this local Spice Route – would be broken.