Spices have been integral to Kerala's history. For centuries they have lured people from all parts of the globe. As natural preservatives of food, they have helped prevent starvation and disease. As a trade commodity, they have generated prosperity and conflict. They have imbued cultural customs, provide cures for the sick and offerings to the deities.
spice include turmeric, chilli, ginger and coriander. Many other spices and flavorings,
including nutmeg, poppy seed, caraway seeds, basil, fenugreek, mace, garlic,
cloves, bay leaves and curry leaves are freshly ground and may be blended in
certain combinations to produce masalas, thus creating some distinctly Keralan
Basil (Ocimum sanctum; Pudina) In Kerala basil
comes in three varieties- wild; Krishna, with a purpulish colour; and Rama,
which is green and the most pungent. basil is considered to be the plant of
Vishnu and is often presented to the deity in temples.
(Elettaria cardamomum; Elathari) Kerala is home to the small cardamom,
considered to be superior in flavour, oil content and aroma. Known as the queen
of spices, the native stands in the Western Ghats were supplemented by
plantations by the British. Cardamom, with its tall strap-like leaves, produce
its bounty 100 to 300 pods. Aromatic cardamom is used in desserts and in rich
meat dishes and is employed medicinally to treat stomach ailments.
(Capsicum frutescens/Capsicum annuum; Mulaka) Chillies are ground, dried or
added whole to supply the heat in the cuisine. They come in red and green
varieties but the red ones are the hottest. Chilli is almost indispensable to
Keralan cooking; dishes that include it sometimes render a fiery result, at
other times the outcome is more subtle. Whatever the mix, chilli enhances the
flavour of the other ingredients.
(Syzyguim aromaticum, Eugenia caryophyllus, Karambu) Cloves are latecomers to kerala,
being introduced by the British East India Company in the early 19th century.
From within the tall, glossy foliage, small flower buds form, but are picked
before the devlop, and are dried in the sun to produce the tiny woody florets.
Often used in meat dishes and dhal, they are also used to subdue toothache.
Leaves (Murraya Koenigii; Karivepilla) curry leaves add a subtle yet
tangible zest to a dish, but are generally discarded before serving. mostly they
are used at the start of the cooking process by being tossed into hot oil;
sometimes they flavour a sauce that is added to the meal towards the end of the
cooking. almost every home has a curry leaf tree. Fresh leaves are plucked, just
as they are required.
(Myristica fragrans, Jathikka) The nutmeg tree grows from 4m to 20m high. Its leaves resemble lemon
leaves. In April the small rounded fruits ripens. Within is the nut, encased by
a hard kernel, which in turn is enclosed in a mesh-like sheath. When dried the
sheath becomes mace and the nut is released from its shell as nutmeg.
(Piper nigrum, Piper longum; Kurumalagu) Known as 'black gold' to European
who sought its preservative qualities, pepper is actually a vine. It it doesn't
create its own attachments, it's supported by coir.
(Tamarindus indica; Puli) Tamarind provides the tangy fruity in a diah. Keralans are proud
of their black tamarind which is usually reserved for fish dishes. The black
variety common around Kottayam is believed to be superior, providing the rich
sour flavours that form the basis of many dishes. Medicinally it's useful for
Turmeric (Curcuma longa; Manjal) Turmeric has
a yellow colouring and acts as a preservative. It is highly regarded for its
cleansing and curative properties. Similar to the ginger plant, it is believed
to kill bacteria and is therefore an important ingredient in most dishes. It's
used as an antiseptic and applied to skin to counteract allergies and acne.
(Vanilla planifolia) In April the Vanilla plant is pollinated manually.
Flowers only open for one day so work is done quickly and with precision; one
person might pollinate over 250 flowers in a day. When the beans mature eight
months later they are processed by alternate curing and sun drying.