Spice Shop Keeps Old World Traditions Alive

First published in the Oct. 9 print issue of the Glendale News Press. By Ani Duzdabanyan

One day last week, Anna Abelian, co-owner of Novin Herbs & Spices in Glendale, took a moment to help one of her customers find the right pepper.
She located it in a row of colorful containers filled with bulk spices, arranged by the wall under the shelf that carries symbols of ancient culture — an antique grinder, wooden statues of Indian elephants, a hookah and an old coffee-making machine. Abelian’s husband, Aaron, noted that the store smells like “magic,” with sweet, piquant and piercing aromas wafting from every corner.
“Spices doing magic,” he reiterated. “There are unlimited ways to use spices in cooking and baking!”
The Abelians, modern-day spice merchants, opened their shop in 2017, completely transforming the peculiar corner of Ocean View Boulevard and Verdugo Road with bright orange cafe chairs and a promising journey to a faraway land. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1998 and for many years continued to import saffron from their native Iran.
After establishing some success over time, they added more seasonings to the list of imports. With the new inventory, they began renting a stall at the weekly Montrose Harvest Market. The demand grew fast, and people started to ask for a specific location — a shop where they could visit any time they wanted.
It became the perfect moment for the couple to fulfill their longtime dream — to open a specialty shop.
“There is no other spice shop around here, and I know that this culture is going away,” Aaron Abelian said. “I tried to revive it and also teach our customers how to use these spices.”
Novin, which is Farsi for “innovation,” now imports its products mostly from the southern regions of India but also from Indonesia, where the Abelians often travel. Once a year, they participate in a conference where they meet with different companies specializing in spice production and distribution. After a visit to the facilities, the couple will choose the right products for their store and bring them home.
The spice companies must meet the Abelians’ strict requirements, the first of which is that the seasoning has full Food and Drug Administration approval. The next step is to make sure that the company agrees to all of the shop’s procedures.
“I grew up in a country where we grew up with spices,” Anna Abelian explained. “In Tehran, we used to go to bazaars where all the spices were openly placed. Middle Eastern, Persian food uses a lot of spices. We grew up with that. Now we want to reestablish that tradition here, for our customers.”
The Abelians said their next goal is to help customers recycle the spice containers by reusing them.
“They are bringing whatever jar they have in the kitchen and we’re filling them up with the spice instead of using a [single-use] plastic container,” Anna said, adding that about 30% of Novin’s customers follow this simple way of reducing plastic waste.
The couple’s tastes are the same when it comes to the favorite spice — Kashmiri chili pepper, which they say reminds them of chili and paprika at the same time.
“If you want to have the color of paprika in your food and the heat of a spicy taste,” Anna confidently said, “then this is the best mixture you can have. It goes well with chicken, meat, vegetables, almost everything.”
In the last four years, the couple established a number of strong connections with spice producers and were able to operate their business without making the long trips. This became very useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, when personal travel took a backseat.
Just before the pandemic, Novin began working with restaurants to source their herbs and spices, but the subsequent lockdowns forced the store to close its doors and lose its valuable clientele. During the shutdown, Anna helped to operate the business with the income that she got from her primary job; emergency loans provided by the Small Business Administration, plus grants from the city of Glendale, covered little of the shortfall.
“It’s a new start for the store,” Aaron noted, with hope.
Before the pandemic, Novin used to do cooking demonstrations on Saturdays to teach customers how to incorporate different spices in the dishes.
“We were sharing the recipes, offering tea to everyone. People were having a good time and also learning,” Anna recalled with a smile. “Maybe we should resume the classes.”
Novin’s customers often are longtime home cooks searching for a familiar spice, or young couples who want to explore new flavors. This helps foster new habits of cooking at home, eating healthfully and building family traditions — significant milestones for the Abelians.
“They all like the freedom to buy the amount they want,” Anna said. “They even get spices by ounces.”
Arabic coffee with cardamom and a freshly baked cornetti is a daily treat in Novin. The coffee selection goes even further, combining all-time favorites with a touch of an exotic spice. Looking to the future, Aaron said he is thinking of expanding the scope of the venture by offering new products like DIY ice cream, with real fruits and spices.
“It is going to be something that nobody did before,” Aaron said with a wry smile. “It is going to be a surprise.”