The Spices of South India

Posted on February 15, 2010

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A Tea Plantation

I just had the tremendous good fortune of being able to spend over two weeks traveling with a friend in the South Indian state of Kerala.  Among the many extraordinary experiences we had, I was particularly enthralled with the tea and spice growing mountainous region around the town of Kumily, that borders Tamil Nadu.  The steeply rolling hills are lush with enormous spreading clumps of tea bushes, with trees scattered here and there to provide shade and a prop for the black pepper plants that climb their trunks, producing delicate clusters of peppercorns that were harvested and laid out by the side of the road to dry.

Cardamom Plant - see pods at its base

Encountering tea and pepper in their natural environs was exciting enough, yet the real surprise was seeing how cardamom grows.  Cardamom is one of the main ingredients in the “masala” or spice mixture used to make the fragrant and sweet milky chai we enjoyed so much.  Here in the Galilee it is also used to give a special aroma and flavor to Arab black coffee.

That's what they look like before they get dry and shriveled

The plant is enormous – almost shoulder-height – compared to the demure green pods that are gathered on short little stems at its base.  Of course I had to pop one into my mouth and the flavor seemed to encapsulate everything that was delightful, exotic, and sensually in your face about India.  This is what the explorers of old set out to find on their voyages, and I can understand why. 

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Posted in: spices