For many years I lived in a part of London that is well-known for Southern Indian restaurants; the variety and tastes of this regional cuisine have long been my preferred go-to curry night menu. Give me bonda, vadai and masala dosas over tikka masala anytime.
Travelling across Kerala, it’s not hard to see why it is called “The Land of Spices.” This part of India is lush and verdant; the hills covered in a mosaic of tea bushes and the waterways lined with coconut trees. So many of the different spices typically used in Indian cooking grow here and a visit to a spice plantation was a real insight into the cultivation of the spices that live in my store cupboard.
Surprisingly, although there are several different colours of peppercorn, they all come from the same climbing vine and are the product of different stages in the development or treatment of the seeds. Historically, pepper has been called “black gold”, much prized for trade or as a commodity for payment in its own right – hence another pepper related phrase still in use: a “peppercorn rent”. Peppercorns are traditionally picked by men, due to their height from the ground and the difficulty in climbing trees if dressed in a traditional sari.
Cloves are usually a dark brown, hard spice we stick in oranges or chuck into mulled wine. I don’t think I’ve ever considered what they look like before they arrive in my little jar from the supermarket. It turns out cloves are actually the bud from an evergreen tree – they start out pale green and gradually turn red as they develop. These were a surprise but not quite as much as the cardamom plant.
This grows on a low down plant that was quite easy to miss. Again the dried-up, three-sided cardamoms in my kitchen bore no resemblance to the fresh, young seed pods. The cardamom flower has an orchid like quality which somehow matches the aromatic fragrance of the really fresh pods. cardamom is also one of the most expensive spices and is typically picked by women, who don’t have to climb trees to get to them.
One of the most interesting activities I took part in during my trip was a cookery class in Thekkady. This was led by the hilarious Sheril, whose catch phrases of “mixing, mixing,” and “cooking, cooking,” lasted longer than the night we visited his homestyle restaurant! Over the course of an evening we prepped, cooked and devoured a really delicious meal – using many of the spices we had seen earlier in the day. As I can’t share the smells and tastes of the food, I shall leave you with a visual collage of what we cooked and ate. You’ll just have to imagine the rest.
©Chez l’abeille 2018