Travel 3 minutes 14 September 2016

The Magic of Kerala And Its Spices

An encounter with a spice sage and his enchanting spice garden.

India ingredients Travel

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.

kerala map.jpg
Today, the spice industry no longer has connotations of luxury but Kerala retains its ancient role as a major spice exporter. Through the ages, its land has remained fertile. This is where the magic happens, where satisfied soil and joyful air meet, where water and sunshine are pure and potent, and the bounty of the earth is full, flavorful and endless.

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.
(Related: The Fascinating Journey of Cardamom, From Pod To Packet )

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.
Mr. Abraham, The Spice Sage
Mr. Abraham, The Spice Sage
Abraham briefly says hello and then starts talking a million miles an hour, “There are three kinds of turmeric and here they are . . . that one there is the black kind.” What? I am obsessed with turmeric: How have I never heard of black turmeric? “Oh, we don’t eat the black kind,” he says casually. “That is only for medicinal purposes.”

I clearly have a lot to learn.
The spice garden spans about two acres and feels truly enchanted. I have never seen so many fruits, vegetables and spices growing in one space. Mr. Abraham is very proud of his garden and points out huge trees that his father and grandfather had planted themselves on the property.

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.

(Related: North Indian Dining: Three Things You Need to Know to Sound like a Pro)
Yellow passionfruit, allspice leaf, lemons and cocoa.
Yellow passionfruit, allspice leaf, lemons and cocoa.
We walk around for an hour or so, the drizzle is constant, but it adds to the verdant scene. Abraham is pacing along rapidly like a 20-year-old and I have a hard time keeping up with him. He stops to grab a gorgeous yellow passion fruit that has fallen to the ground (there are passion fruits strewn about—hundreds of them!) He pops it open and insists I suck up the juice right away: “Very high in vitamin C,” he adds.

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.

(Related: What It Means For An Indian Restaurant To Receive A Michelin Star)
Pepper vines and cardamom
Pepper vines and cardamom
Abraham is a spice sage, he has an incredible depth of knowledge about his plants and states the botanical names of everything. He explains the drying process involved in harvesting black pepper and cardamom, and shows me his very vintage-looking cardamom-drying machines.

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.

Further reading: If you enjoyed reading this travel story, click here for more.


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