In Search Of.Spices in Kerala ; Southern India's Pungent Ingredients Helped to Build and Destroy Empires. Juliet Clough Savours the History

By Clough, Juliet | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), April 13, 2003 | Go to article overview
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In Search Of.Spices in Kerala ; Southern India's Pungent Ingredients Helped to Build and Destroy Empires. Juliet Clough Savours the History


Clough, Juliet, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


What's the big deal?

Spices are the very breath of Keralan life. You smell them on the breeze: hot gusts of drying pepper, spread along the roadsides leading up to the Cardamom Hills; fresh ginger wafting its seductive warmth from open warehouse doorways in Cochin (now called Kochi); the pungent tang of tamarind and mustard seeds beckoning from every food stall and restaurant kitchen.

Prosaically, that's the smell of money. It was the spice trade that, in 1498, brought Vasco da Gama's caravels to Calicut, trailing in their wake five long and often bloody centuries of European influence in India. After the Portuguese came the Dutch and the British, all of them johnny- come-latelies in a cut-throat business that had flourished along the Malabar coast for millennia. Phoenicians, Syrians, Egyptians, Greeks Arabs and Chinese had all battled their way across the Arabian Sea, in pursuit of an inflammatory luxury which, in its time, has started wars and helped to build and topple empires.

Phew! Where do I start?

In Kumily, high in the Cardamom Hills on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Spice plantation heartland, the village doubles as a dormitory for visitors to the nearby Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Little shops piled high with spices line the Thekkady Road, their wares feasting nearly every sense in the book: fragrant cloves and nutmeg; brilliant yellow turmeric and scarlet chillis; knobbly sackloads of ginger and cinnamon quills. In the middle of the bazaar, near the noisy Cardamom Auction Centre, women sit cleaning the aromatic green pods, tossing them lightly in leaf-shaped baskets.

Every hotel and tourist agency in Kumily offers tours to different plantations where pepper vines rampage up trees, cardamom thrusts its long green spears at the sun and the fat rhizomes of ginger and turmeric plunge deep into the rich earth. Rates vary: a reliable, two-hour tour including guide and Jeep hire costs $15-$20 (pounds 10-pounds 13). Try the Idduki District Tourist Office (00 91 486 322620) for an all-day Spice Valley tour.

Very educational. How about something on my plate?

Hard to escape. Keralan food - from snacks to soups to sweetmeats - majors on spices. Master classes in local cookery are held daily for guests at Kumily's Spice Village hotel (00 91 486 322315). At the Taj Garden Retreat in Kumarakom (00 91 481 525711), I found chef Sunil Nayar presiding over a battery of antique grinding stones, pestles and pickle jars. Pressed for details of his fiery art, he conjured up samples of dried tamarind fruit, curry leaves and fenugreek to explain the rudiments of a good fish curry; also cardamom for paysams - the rice- or sago-based puds that are universal Keralan favourites. Brunton's Boatyard restaurant in Kochi (00 91 484 215461) offers an intriguing menu, highlighting the ingredients introduced by successive incomers: fenugreek, cumin and mustard from the Arabs, chilli from the Portuguese Caribbean. Main courses cost around 250 rupees (pounds 4).

Lead me to Kochi's Spice Age unmissables

The Dutch Palace in Matancherri - in fact, built by the Portuguese - would be a good place to start. Maharajas' ceremonial garlands, displayed in the palace museum, include compartments for spices, the jewels of Kochi's fabulous wealth.

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