I have an obsession with cardamom. The sweet aromatic flavours that burst from those little pods are heavenly. It’s no wonder then that it’s known as the Queen of Spices. So when I visited Kerala recently, I looked forward to seeing just how this wonder spice is grown, along with other spices that India has blessed the culinary world with.
The highlands of Kerala are covered in spice plantations, but none more famous than the Cardamom Hills around Periyar. Underneath shady canopies of forest giants, tall green blades spurt from the ground, feeling at home in the tropical environment. At the base of each plant, and hidden beneath the foliage, delicate white flowers eventually give way to fleshy green pods. Breaking into the pod, there were no intense wafts. Instead, these pods need to be harvested and carefully dried, becoming shrivelled pods packed with black seeds loaded with flavour and aroma.
It’s not just cardamom that grows in Kerala. Ambling through a spice plantation, we got to see other commonly used spices that thrive there – green peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, tamarind and more, all in their natural, unadulterated forms. And these spices are used generously in Keralan cuisine, along with another local speciality – coconut.
Some of the dishes I had in Kerala were so flavourful and very different to the rich dishes of North India that I am accustomed to. In Munnar, I had a comforting bowl of payasam (known as kheer in the North) – a sweet, milky, rice pudding – the flavour of which was enhanced by delicate notes of cardamom. The pudding was part of a tasting plate that also had a smooth crème caramel infused with cardamom. I savoured every morsel. Later on the trip, I gouged on a pumpkin halwa, also beautifully spiced with cardamom, and topped with crunchy cashews. Even a rice pancake, known locally as appum, had hints of cardamom.
The Keralans have found endless uses for the spices. When we arrived at our hotel in Periyar, instead of the customary welcome juice, we were served a cup of Keralan coffee – infused with ginger and cardamom, and sweetened with palm jaggery. It was the perfect anti-dote for the woozy feeling brought about by the twisting and curvy roads from Munnar to Periyar.
If you are interested in food, then visiting a spice plantation will be like a culinary adventure. And if it’s just the eating that you love, be prepared for meals bursting with flavour in Kerala.