Spice specialist and cookbook author Namita Mehra Moolani gives us a first hand account of her spice journey Kerala in southern India.
Hundreds of kilometres away from the picturesque houseboats of Kerala’s coast, beyond the lush green tea plantations and four hours into a very bumpy, twisty and speedy ride, I am here at Thekkady, a mountainous region part of the Kerala state.
Kerala is known as God’s Own Country: it has been a major spice exporter since at least 3000 BCE – the same time Troy was founded and Stonehenge was being built. Back then, spices were worth more than gold. It was in fact, such a luxury that it sparked off the age of European colonisation which saw the West scrambling for control over the production and trading centres of the spice trade.
I’m here to learn about spices, meet spice growers and wholesale suppliers for my business. As luck has it, Kerala is rife with spice gardens – condensed versions of massive plantations which make it much, much easier for visitors to experience the magic of Kerala without having to traverse these farmlands.
The hotel manager of the resort I’m staying at has kindly agreed to be my local chaperone, and he suggests we first stop at Abraham’s, a small spice garden featured in Around the World in 80 Gardens. It’s a book and BBC program by British media personality Monty Don which takes a look different gardens around the world, but standing outside, I had little idea why this spice garden was chosen.
There is no signboard, it’s drizzling, and all I see is a dilapidated house. I’m a little unsure of what to expect and am unimpressed so far as there isn’t a single guide in sight. Suddenly, a man in his 60s appears; it’s Mr. Abraham himself, and I’m told by the manager that it must be my lucky day as even he has never met Abraham before.
I clearly have a lot to learn.
The spice garden scene has exploded in Kerala, but most places are tourist traps and created mostly for demo purposes with no real farming or harvesting going on. Abraham stresses that they were the first spice garden in the area and that everybody followed their model.
He points out ginger, pepper vines, vanilla plants, cocoa pods, cardamom shrubs, avocado trees, lemongrass, plus all sorts of gorgeous flowers and wild orchids. He shows me four kinds of banana trees including the super nutritious Kerala red banana, gigantic jackfruits, papayas, bitter gourds, squash, the biggest lemon I’ve ever seen in my life (“Oh, that’s nothing”), nutmeg, allspice . . . it goes on and on.
He gives me leaves, fruits, pods, seeds to smell, touch and taste. He crushes leaves in his hand to extract their oils and magical fragrance for me to smell, like the leaf in his hand, which he has just plucked from an allspice tree.
He tells me to take a whiff and clove, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, ginger—I can smell them all! And this glorious fragrance is just from the leaf! Allspice is actually the dried fruit of the tree and not the leaf, but just imagine the heaviness of the aroma and fragrant oils pulsing through the veins of this tree. What an incredible and humbling thing nature is.
Cardamom and pepper are his main revenue generators. He talks about the challenge of growing vanilla, its laborious and high-stakes pollination requirements, which are the reason it’s the most expensive spice after saffron.
I am transfixed by and in awe of this man, his garden, these fruits, vegetables and spices that all live in luscious harmony here. I feel overwhelmed and besotted by this garden, but it was time to go. I bow my head to Mr. Abraham, thanking him for his precious time.
I feel lucky to have met the spice sage himself and couldn’t have asked for a better immersion to the magic of Kerala.
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