Hiden India: The Kerala Spicelands Sunset with Palm Trees
kerala & her spices
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 Kerala & Her Spices
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Human taste buds have changed world history. For at least 3,000 years, and really long before that, peoples of the Old World wanted spices for their food.
To get them, merchants and sailors had to cross the wide oceans to find the sources of these precious goods.



The most pungent spice of all, one that would keep in storage for a good long time, was piper nigrum, black pepper. That meant travel across the Arabian Sea from the west, across the Indian Ocean from the east, to south India, to Kerala where it grew. In fact, the name "Malabar Coast" really means "Pepper Coast."

Pepper grows on vines that use trees for support: pepper is the berry, or fruit. These are ready for picking in January when they are a reddish color. Once picked, the berries must be dried and when that happens the skin surrounding the seed wrinkles and becomes fully black. The seed itself is white and if the pepper berry is soaked and the skin removed, white pepper is the result. White and black pepper is exactly the same fruit. Today the peoples of the world use more pepper than all other spices combined. Yet in India another plant has taken its place as the main "hot" element in dishes such as curries. That plant is the chili pepper, a native of the Americas, which was brought to India in the 16th Century by Portuguese traders. Indian cuisine is unthinkable without these "hot peppers."


Ginger belongs to the Zingiberaceae family which takes its name from ancient Indian words meaning "horny body." That is probably because the spice comes from the plant's rhizome, the stem that runs underground. It was popular in Medieval Europe (and China) as medicine for the stomach: today ginger ale is often taken for an upset stomach and travel sickness. It also tastes good -- freshly grated it has a sharp "hot" flavor that is not at all sweet. Ginger was widely used in regular European cookery, especially baking, and so brought good incomes to those who traded in it. We still eat gingerbread cookies and cakes. In India and east Asian cuisines ginger has always been a key flavor ingredient in many dishes.

Mature cardamom with black seeds next to immature cardamon.
Mature cardamom with black seeds next to immature cardamon.

Another member of the Zingiberaceae family, cardamon (cardamom) is one of the world's most expensive spices (the other two are saffron and vanilla) and always has been. It is the dried fruit of a tall (up to 6 feet) perennial plant that is native to the Ghat Mountains of south India, also known as the "Cardamon Hills" and Sri Lanka. There are many kinds of cardamon and related species, but the best "true" cardamon comes from Kerala.


Cardamon prices are based on the deep green color and size of the capsule.
Cardamon prices are based on the deep green color and size of the capsule.

Ancient Greeks gave cardamon its common name and Romans used it heavily both for flavoring food and for medicinal purposes. Although used extensively in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, cardamon appears in western kitchens mainly as a flavoring in baked goods. Scandinavians use a lot of it and today half of Kerala's production goes to Sweden for various specialty breads and cakes.


It would be hard to imagine the taste of Christmas without another south Indian spice, cinnamon.
Found in every grocery store today, it was once a precious spice, mentioned in ancient Egyptian and Chinese documents. In their quest to make huge profits, both the Portuguese and Dutch controlled cinnamon plantations beginning in the 1500s, but they soon produced so much of it that it became common in everyday cooking and was used it in all kinds of dishes. Cinnamon is the bark from the young shoots of an evergreen tree (Lauracea). The thin bark is peeled and dried into rolls. There is another kind of "cinnamon" called Cassia. This is the bark of the same kind of tree, only thicker and less flavorful. Usually, we buy cinnamon already made into powder, but when freshly ground it has a wonderful aroma, just like the fresh leaves from the tree.


Dried Turmeric.
Dried Turmeric

A member of the Zingeberacea family, turmeric is a rhyzome that is used as a spice and for its yellow color. In fact, it is one of the very few spices that serves this dual purpose. Turmeric, called haldi in India, gives a distinctive yellow color to the curries of India and southeast Asia, and it is said to taste something like saffron, maybe the world’s most expensive spice. Turmeric is used for color in many other foods, especially ordinary yellow mustard. It’s bright color is also prized for dying clothing, especially in south and eastern Asia.