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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.

Popular 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 Cuisine.

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.

Cardamom (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.

Chilli (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.

Cloves (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.

Curry 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.

Nutmeg (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.

Pepper (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.

Tamarind (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 digestion.

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 (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.

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