Thursday, 14 August 2014

Spicing things up a bit

It was the lure of spices that first attracted traders from Europe to seek a route to India - Vasco da Gama, from Portugal, was the first to reach the continent in 1498. Similarly, given my family's love for spicy food, journeying to where the plants are grown was also an attraction for us, when deciding to visit India this summer. We have now reached Kerala, and, rather than rushing to the coast, we have chosen to stop over in the mountains, where the best spices are grown. We are 1000 metres above sea level and it is cooler than on the plain, but very humid (the bed-sheets are clammy - and were so before we arrived - and swimming costumes refuse to dry). However, the air is wonderfully clean (it reminds me of the zing you get when breathing deeply at some sites in South Island of New Zealand) and the aromatic scent of the vegetation is wonderful - perhaps due to the regular, soft rain, which agitates the soil and plants and encourages rapid plant growth - no wonder the frogs and insects sing all night.

This morning we toured a spice plantation, so I thought I'd share my pictures of the plants and provide a little information about them. I am writing in the order they were seen:

1.   Cardamom – the third most expensive spice in the world (after Saffron and Vanilla).

Fat Cardamom berries and flowers near the ground
The area we drove through is known as the Cardamom Hills and, en route to our hotel, we passed wonderfully named establishments, such as the Cardamom Growers’ Secondary School and Workers’ Mess.
Cardamom flowers (they are small, white tinged with pink and almost pansy shaped) and the seeds are produced close to the ground, underneath tall standing leaves. The plants rely on certain types of bee for pollination – they are smaller than UK honeybees and noticeably stripy.
I was surprised to see that the pods on the plants are plump and cylindrical (rather like green rosehips). It is only after a complex drying process that they assume the familiar, three-sided shape that most Western Europeans recognise. As well as being great in curries, adding an exotic flavour to desserts such as Crème Brulee and being a key ingredient in the Scandinavian drink “Glogg”, Cardamom is considered a remedy for kidney diseases, bacterial infections, sore throats and digestive problems. Some people swear by a concoction of Black Pepper and Cardamom to settle an upset stomach.

Cardamom plant with berries at base

2.    Pepper - sometimes called the king of spice. It was the main spice that drove explorers towards India. Highly valued for millennia, pepper has been used to pay dowries, keeps well (for many years without deteriorating. Black, green and red pepper all come from the same plant and are simply the berries at varying stages of development/ripeness combined with the manner in which they are prepared. Traditionally, Pepper is used for medicinal purposes in aiding digestion, ceasing flatulence and bloating and aiding with toothache. Scientific studies have shown that pepper is an excellent antibiotic and anti-inflammatory agent.

Pepper berries, hanging like catkins off the vine
 3.    Cinnamon - after simply scratching a piece off the trunk and smelling and tasting it, it was clear that the tree we stood beside was cinnamon.

    Straight off the tree it is surprisingly sweet. No wonder it was prized in the 16th century, when sugar was rare and honey hard to procure. It is great in cakes and biscuits (where the rolled, inner bark should be used) or in curries and mulled wine or cider (where the outer bark is best).
It is an astringent that has proven beneficial when treating fungal infections and can help reduce perspiration.

4.    Clove - I had not appreciated that the hard black cloves that we can buy in Western Europe appear as they do due to having much of their oil extracted. Fresh cloves (which are the buds of a flower) are reddish pink.

Clove flower buds
For centuries (and across continents) cloves have been used to treat tooth ache, skin irritations, vermifuge, analgesic and to help reduce morning sickness. I like cloves, especially when I have a cold or sore throat - a mixture of honey, lemon and cloves in hot water (perhaps with a dash of Scotch) always makes me feel better.

Clove tree leaves
5.    Turmeric – a plump rhizome to be found underneath some lush leaves of a plant related to ginger.

Turmeric leaves
The leaves are close to the ground but is shape they resemble Cardamom. Ground turmeric is a key ingredient in Hindi Tilaks (more commonly called Bindis - from the Sanskrit bindu, meaning drop or dot). Initially the powder from ground turmeric was used, but it came off too easily. Mixing turmeric with lemon juice to create a paste became the preferred approach, this also changed the powder red though a reaction with the citric acid. Turmeric is supposed to be helpful for treating stress and tension, intestinal worms, sleep disorders and cleansing.

Turmeric rhizomes
It is an exceedingly effective natural antiseptic and, by reputation, excellent at warding off the evil eye (not just when worn).

6.    Ginger – the few palm like fronds, low to the ground, smell almost like Lemon Balm when crushed in the hand. The root is a common ingredient in curries, drinks and desserts.

Ginger leaves hiding in the undergrowth
Useful for reducing nausea, sore throats, and travel sickness. Both the Indians and Chinese believe that it can ease the pain and stiffness of Arthritis and hypertension. 
Ginger root
7.    Allspice – Christopher Columbus found Allspice in 1492 (and mistook the berries for pepper, having never seen fresh black pepper), when he journeyed around the Caribbean, thinking it was Asia. He was seeking an easier spice trade route.
Allspice berries

          Allspice is supposedly good for Bruises, inflammation, gastro-and tooth infections. The leaves make a delicious tea.

Allspice leaves
8.   Chilli – we saw Piri Piri (also known as the African Red Devil, because it is so hot). Chillies were first discovered in Latin America and brought to India by European traders in the sixteenth century.

Piri-piri chillies

    Unlike most chillies, the pods point upwards, rather than hanging down. It is grown for food and pharmaceutical use (for preventing vomiting and nausea) pain relief, digestive aid, asthma, diabetes and back pain.
A talisman made of chillies and lime
often hung near prize possessions (home, car, shop front)
to ward off envious and evil eyes
in Southern India

   Chillies contain about 4 times more Vitamin C, gram for gram, than oranges. Ingesting chillies stimulates the creation of mucosae, the protective lining of the stomach, they (like garlic and onions).


9.    Vanilla – the second most expensive spice. 
Vanilla orchid grown up a host tree.
    The pods are the fruit of an orchid that is usually grown up a supportive tree such as the Coral tree. Flowers have to be pollinated by hand and the drying process is complicated. A good Vanilla pod that will last wll should be flexible when bent by hand. Vanilla is fantastic for infusing in milk or cream for custards and ice cream.
Dried Vanilla pods
10. Nutmeg – the hard centre of the fruit of a tree.
    Nutmeg is usually consumed in a grated form. In small quantities it is a delicious addition to both sweet and savoury additions. Eaten in larger quantities it can be hallucinogenic and more than four ground nutmegs consumed in a single sitting can prove fatal.

Nutmeg fruit
11.  Mace – the bright coloured, lacy inside of the nutmeg fruit,

    which encases the actual nutmeg – often red or yellow in colour. It is usually dried. Reputedly good for sweetening breath.

We also saw:

1.     Rubber - first discovered in the Amazon by the British explorer, Goodyear, who exported the trees to Asia and later founded the well-known tyre and rubber business.
    Later on our journey we drove past acres of rubber plantations – the clear plastic sheets in most appearing like the Willis in Giselle vanishing into the woods.
    This photo is of trees with blue shields for the cups as they are easier to see – given the amount of rain I can understand why the improvised umbrellas are required.
2.    Coffee – Robusta – not the large number of berries. This is the type of coffee used for cheap, mass production, although its flavour needs to be enhanced through blending with Arabica beans.

3.    Coffee – Arabica – legend has it that a goat herder noticed that his flock, after nibbling the berries from the Arabica coffee tree, became more frisky and alert. He tried them and discovered that, after roasting and grinding, a delicious drink could be made which was as effective for people as goats.
    As you can see, the more flavoursome Arabica produces fewer cherries per branch than the Robusta plants.
4.    Cocoa – I was delighted to see cocoa pods, they remind me of some of my friends in the UK who are exceptional chocolatiers.

    The late Mott Green would have approved of the cooperative cocoa farms and artisanal chocolate producers in this area. The chocolate is rustic but delicious, often made with local cashew nuts or raisins added for extra texture/flavour.

The ones that got away (in other words spices that are commonly used in India, and which we have eaten, but did not feature amongst the horticultural species seen on our trek). The health usage is what I have been told whilst here and not a recommendation based on science or personal experience:

Ajwain (also called Thymol o
r Carom) - both the leaves and the ovoid, light brown coloured seeds are used in Indian cookery. They come from a small flowering shrub of the same family as carrots and parsley– good for stomach pains, common colds, bronchitis and kidney problems
Aniseed – often provided, encased in a sugar crust, along with toothpicks at the end of a meal in an Indian restaurant
Basil – usually Holy Basil is found in Indian dishes and is called Tulsi, it is also hung for good luck over door lintels. The nicest soap on our trip had finely ground dried Holy Basil leaves included and the scent when you washed your hands was wonderful. Other types of aromatic Basil are available and used in cooking or as a herbal infusion. Basil is good for sore throats.
Bay – Indian Bay is related to the Bay used in Western Europe. The leaves are the most common part of the tree to be used and are usually dried and added to a sauce midway through cooking.
Capers – the immature flower buds and at times the berries of the Capparis Spinoza, a small bush. The dried leaves can be used as an alternative to rennet for cheese making.
Celery – the seeds are added to food (and are not simply one of the extra "secret" ingredients for an exceptional Bloody Mary or, mixed with salt, excellent with hard boiled eggs).
Charoli – small yellow granules that look a bit like pebbles.
Coriander – both the fresh green leaves and the dried seeds are used in a wide range of dishes. digestive disorders, anxiety and insomnia, hay fever and loss of appetite
Cubeb – also called Kebab Cheeni – green leaves. Cumin – Digestive disorders, cardiovascular issues, ulcers
Curry Tee (or Sweet Neem) leaves.
Fennel – traditionally given at the end of a meal in India to sweeten people’s breath and to aid digestion.
Fenugreek – both the leaf and the seeds are used. traditionally used for arthritis,, sinus problems, hernias and Tuberculosis.
Garlic – perhaps not strictly speaking a spice. Popular ingredient in many cultures, not just for frightening away vampires but also for cleansing the blood and helping with heart disease and ulcers. In addition it is claimed to help with memory loss and soothe colic pain.
Garcinia Gummi-guttagreen gourd-like pods that are dried and turn black - sometimes referred to as the Malabar Tamarind or Kodampuli. A key ingredient in Kerala fish curries. The fruit is sun-dried and then smoked and adds a wonderful sourness to curries. The flavour is almost like a cross between a pickled walnut and a smoked oyster. I have heard it referred to as Kokum

Ink Nut (Terminalia Chebula) – called Harad or Harr – looks like a small black fig. It tastes like a combination of an olive and a pickled walnut. A common addition to hot Kerala fish curries where it adds depth and astringent complexity (probably similar to the Roman seasoning Garum, although this is a natural plant in its raw form, rather than a sauce created out of fermented fish)
Kalonji – (Nigella seeds- the absolute favourite of Goldfinches in my garden at home). Reputedly good for migraines and coughs.
Liquorice – the root is ground into a powder
Long Pepper – originating from Indonesia, this is more fragrant and complex than the plain black pepper and I mix it in with corns in my grinder at home. The seeds look like little elongated fir cones about 2.5 cm long.
Mint – many varieties are used both in cooking and  as a herbal tea or infusion. We were greeted with a choice of 4 types of mint tea  on arrival at our first hotel in Kerala
Mustard – supposedly a good treatment for scorpion stings, respiratory illnesses, muscular aches and rheumatism
Panch Phoron – small green seeds resembling fennel
Pomegranite – the fresh seeds are a common addition to dishes
Poppy – the tiny, round black seeds are added to dishes. Pleasant, nutty flavour and a slight crunch. Rumour has it that if you eat sufficient seeds you test positive in drug tests for opium usage – I have not put this to the test
Saffron – the most expensive spice in the world – the best is grown in Turkey, Iran, India and Mexico. It adds a natural sweetness and vibrant yellow colour to both sweet and savoury dishes
Salt – we saw saltpans and piles of sea salt as we drove along the coast
Sesame – usually the seeds are eaten, although the pressed oil is also an ingredient in Chinese influenced recipes – the Chinese were regular traders off the southern coast of India for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
Star Anise – good for Rheumatism, indigestion, and analgesic and a treatment to aid the symptoms of viral flu.
Tamarind – the pods add a sharpness that cuts through rich foods. Believed to be useful for aiding weight loss, constipation and removing intestinal parasites and constipation

The spice trek and the fabulous meals we have enjoyed act as a reminder that it is often the little things in life (like the spices in the curries) that make things special and memorable. 

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