Spice up your life – the plantations of India

At home, when I lived with a friend we had a cupboard literally filled with spices, it was the largest cupboard in the kitchen and probably the most used.

Our friendship thrived around the pure object of food, the two of us both enthusiastic cooks and bakers we were never hungry, often unhealthy and always generous when it came to portion sizes. This isn’t to say that the local take-outs didn’t receive their fair share of orders. We are nothing if not fair and supportive of local businesses after all.

Travelling has meant I have sacrificed that part of my lifestyle , save for the occasional cooking class I am without cooker and this. is. tragic.

It has however made me more aware of where the food comes from in the first place, the indian subcontinent isn’t exactly boasting the wealthiest fridge to household ratio and I’m finding myself checking for cooling facilities before ordering the meat option. It’s not a ‘biggy’ for me, at home I’m happy to go veggie but more through cost than concern of it’s salmonella content, and after my nepalese hospital incident (which my veins have not yet recovered from) I tend to ere on the side of caution.

Luckily for me, and for you, for us all in fact, they really love their spices over here, not only do they love them, they know how to use them. On a regular basis an indian woman can put my spice knowledge to shame and make me feel as though I’m stood in front of Gordon Ramsey telling him I can only make burnt toast!

The wonderful thing that comes from this is that not only do people like to share recipes but also  spice plantations are available to visit (literally everywhere), that are not only educational but the good ones come with lunch… that’s a lesson I can get on board with!!

Oh yes, rainbow lunch served at the plantation

Oh yes, rainbow lunch served at the plantation

A spice in Asia, it seems, is never just a spice but a remedy to anything from dry hair to a cancer treatment, as well as obviously making the amazing curries we know and love. The following contains just some of the things I’ve learnt on my tours around the plantations. It’s hard work but you’re welcome:

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Nutmeg – this subtle little dream does more than just flavour your eggnog and top your custard tarts, although carry on regardless, mixed with water before a meal it aids with healthy digestion or mixed with warm milk before bed can cure insomnia. (Be careful though only use a small pinch as this people who have taken larger doses can experience nausea, dry mouth, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, agitation and hallucinations)

Fresh nutmeg

Fresh nutmeg

Aloe Vera- First and foremost sunburn, not because this is it’s best use but because I honestly could not be coping without it right now.

It has more vitamins and amino acids than you can shake a stick at, so drinking this in juices is great and also effective in fighting against stress levels. As a gel the obvious aforementioned sunburn relief but it’s also great for removing make-up, preventing wrinkles and shaving gel. This stuff is so cheap though you should check yours isn’t watered down, a good one I’ve been told isn’t sticky.

Cloves – Cloves should be bought light brown, not dark and should produce oil when the bulb is squeezed, if it doesn’t the oil has already been extracted and you’re not getting the best produce. This is great as an anti-oxident  and as an aid to relieve indigestion and constipation.

Cardamon – There are 2 types (who knew) green – good for sweeter or subtler flavours with roasts, in tea or cake mixture etc, this grows from bottom mild but is more aromatic. Black – A lot more pungent and spicy and is used for curries, this one grows from top of the plant and is dried.

Lemongrass – if you suffer from migraines (Mum here’s one for you) have this with lukewarm water, same applies for travel sickness except add some cardamon and ginger too.

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Basil – Great for respiratory problems due to its high iron levels which in turn assist our haemoglobin to carry oxygen around our bodies, it’s high levels of Vitamin A are also said to protect against oral and lung cancers. A strong source of vitamin K also which is great for blood clotting factors and bone strengthening. Also a blood pressure stabiliser. Italian food anyone?

Saffron- The King of all spices as the most expensive of them all, it’s price mainly due to the difficulty in growing it in mass production. Subsequently this is sold everywhere in India and Nepal by little street vendors approaching you from dark alleys, as though with an illicit narcotic.

This spice has one of the largest amount of vitamins and minerals available in one spice and is said to enhance any dish it is used in (although indian women do not eat this when pregnant as it is said to cause miscarriages in big enough doses). The medicinal uses are extensive though and it is said to help in treatment of cancer, depression and inflammatory diseases.

Cinnamon – Tastes of cocoa when fresh, indian cinnamon is flat whereas rolled cinnamon comes from china is more mass produced and not as tasty ( although I think the person telling me this could have been a little bias).

It's true it's like a woody version of chocolate!

It’s true it’s like a woody version of chocolate!

Turmeric – Known as the common mans saffron this spice seems to me like it’s gotten a raw deal, it seems like a bloody super spice if I’m honest. It won’t be long before we’ll be adding it to our food like salt if all these benefits are founded. A good quality should stain your fingers yellow even after washing, a lot of it now is diluted with flour.

Among it’s many talents it works as an antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-oxident, anti-inflammatory, a cancer deterrent and is good with weight loss.

The curcumin which makes it so great is not so easily digested though so best to take with pepper which aids it’s absorption. Sounds like a good excuse for a fish curry to me!

Curry leaf – good insulin stabilisation for diabetics. I swear if this is true then diabetes must be at an international low in Sri Lanka because they have branches of this is everything.

See and you all just thought I was travelling for a party and a good view! Which I suppose is partly true…

Walking into the plantation

Walking into the plantation

The truth is tucked away in our cupboards at home. The little glass bottles of their hard work and pride are produce we take for granted, that sit there for months or that we no longer use at all. The past few months have made me realise I don’t appreciate how easy it is for me to walk into a supermarket back home and pick up whatever I want at whatever time of year.

We live in a supply and demand world where we demand the produce and are lucky enough to have someone else do the running to supply it. In India/Nepal/Sri Lanka it’s not like that, they still live seasonally and within their means. I feel a childish irrationality rise in myself when I’m told I can’t have an avocado milkshake or that theirs no fresh mango, I am the product of a westernised ego.

In some ways it is enviable that they take so much pride in the produce they have and the processes that go into it. They still know what it is to be grateful for different foods, as I used to be when I was younger looking forward to strawberry picking with my family when it came to the season, now it seems Strawberries are always in season somewhere and so always available for my scones and clotted cream.

The magic of the seasons are still apparent here, just the other week a guy actually climbed a 12m tree right in front of me to retrieve a coconut, literally the freshest coconut I’ll ever have and the look of satisfaction as he exclaimed ‘coconut season’ was pure brilliant. This seasonal satisfaction of a varied diet slowly floating away from us with the rain that now permeates through our entire calendar year.

I know this envy is simple naivety though, but come to think of it if they really knew would they swap their satisfied pride for our spoilt convenience?

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