by Kaveri Ponnapa
From the shores of the Arabian Sea and the coast of Malabar, vibrant with a spice trade that lured Greeks, Romans and Arabs to navigate uncharted seas over the millennia, it’s an uphill trek into the forests of Coorg. In the days when the caravans described in our folk songs rolled out of the grand old houses and wound their way down to the coast to trade rice for oil, salt and more, pepper was already growing wild in the (then) dense forests; cardamom, warm, sweet, aromatic, grown on hills leased by the kings of Coorg was a familiar and much-loved spice. Coriander, nutty and citrusy, had made its journey from the eastern Mediterranean, and fenugreek, sharp, bitter, but capable of sweetness, another traveller, was long established. Wild Cinnamon, with its strikingly coloured pink leaves, grew on the hillsides. Along with just a few other ingredients, they formed part of a spare palette of roasted and ground spices that went into Coorg cuisine. Black peppercorns, known as ‘kartha paun’, meaning black gold –the same name by which it was referred to in medieval Europe –was always a precious spice in Coorg. It dominates our spice mixes, used in innumerable ways in almost every dish, valued for its slow, smoldering heat. We would have to wait several centuries for Portuguese explorers and conquerors to land on these same shores, in search of pepper, to bring us the fire of the tiny chillies we still refer to as paringe, or ‘firangi’, acknowledging its unfamiliar origins.
The turbulent spice trade, in the wake of which, John Keay wrote, “… atrocities would be freely committed, wars fitfully fought, states toppled, peoples uprooted, hundreds of ships lost, thousands of lives squandered –and all for…various desiccated barks, shrivelled berries, knobbly roots, dead buds…” that shaped the lives of our nearest Malabar neighbours, Kannur and Kozhikode, “the great country of the Western Ocean”, largely passed our tiny, landlocked country by.
Over the exuberant cosmopolitanism of open cities at the ocean’s edge, we chose tangled paths of forest that keep their secrets, where hills divided and demarcated a small land made vast by its geography and, in small pockets, local cuisine and spice blends developed at their own pace, individual character stamped upon them.
Boji lives in a particularly tranquil and isolated part of Coorg. For generations, it was practically another world, known for the generosity of its rice fields, wide meadows, an abundance of rainfall which often left people marooned in their homes during the monsoons. The same waters often cut off villages from the rest of Coorg, making the area seem even more remote in the imagination than it was. Homes here are set far apart; the expanses of sky and space seems endless, even some of the vocabulary and the inflexions of language are different. And yet, it is Coorg, and as the crow flies, not far from the teeming ports of the Malabar Coast that once commanded the spice trade.
Boji cooks and gardens, spending most of her time in the kitchen, devoting herself to traditional Coorg fare. Her particular spice blend has her family –and now us –in its thrall. The mixture is deceptively simple. Just one ingredient in minuscule quantities differentiates it from the other combinations gathered from many home cooks I have scribbled down on scraps of paper – Marathi moggu: Indian capers, or kapok buds. The quantity used is so small, the change in flavour seems a sleight of hand. The results, though, are extraordinary. The first time I roasted and powdered a quantity of Boji’s masala, my husband, who was passing by the kitchen, stopped to ask what I was making, and breathed in the aromas wafting out of the jar I had just filled. I used it to make a slow cooked gravy of tomatoes finished with quantities of fresh coriander leaves. The pepper suffused tomato kanni was swiftly consumed between just the two of us, my husband and I, and we scraped our plates clean. I mulled over the intriguing flavours, trying to understand them –a slight, tantalizingly unfamiliar pungency that transformed the dish.
The lovely young woman who gave me the recipe for her mother’s spice mix and tomato curry tells me how her father feels a meal is never complete until he has eaten a little bit of this refreshing curry. And also, how it was such a part of their childhood that her brother and she would make wicked jokes about the frequency with which it turned up on their table! But now they crave it. Boji makes her special masala in enormous quantities and stores it. It forms the bedrock of most of her cooking, adding its particular flavour to every dish. Sometime soon I’ll be trying out her recipe for a fish curry, using this masala, it has nuances that still elude me, but it awakens and seduces the senses in a way that spices have always done. I think I’m just one step nearer to understanding what drove men to risk their lives for those scraps of bark, berries and buds. Why black pepper from Malabar was the main import for the Roman Empire for centuries, and voyages of discovery that mapped the world were launched in search of spices. How the subtleties of combining spices, roasting and pounding them can create new harmonies. A part of the answer, surely, lies in Boji’s masala, and the yearnings it awakens in all of us that have tasted it.
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
Photo Credits: A.G.P. Sathyaprakash
Do look out for the recipes of all the food featured here in my upcoming cookbook.
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This post on Boji’s Spice Mix was scheduled for November, a month that flew by, along with most of December in travel, so it had to wait. It turned out to be a fortuitous delay. When I returned, my friend and fellow food writer, Marryam Reshii’s book on spice –one that I had personally been looking forward to for a long time –was out in bookstores.
The Flavour of Spice is a personal and engaging account of Marryam’s love affair with spices that incorporates her many years as a food writer seamlessly. It is shot through with anecdotes, historical references to the antiquity of the use of spice in food, and just enough scientific knowledge to pique our interest to delve deeper into the secret life of spices, and how they respond under different conditions. Her journeys are extensive: from the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk and Mumbai’s Mirchi Galli in Lalbaug, to the saffron fields of Kashmir, from where she follows the fragrant strands to Mashhad in Iran. Kerala, with the oldest, most famous coast associated with spices since antiquity demands multiple visits, while curiosity about black cardamom takes the author all the way to Sikkim. She pursues spice dealers, wholesalers, five-star chefs, home cooks –anyone, and any place –that might answer the many questions that she has about spices. One of the most endearing images is of the author crisscrossing the world with small samples of spices stashed away in her handbag so that she can easily explain what it is she is searching for!
What I enjoyed most in Marryam’s narrative is the uniquely Indian perspective and voice that she brings to the blending, use and appreciation of spices. She pursues branded masalas like Sakthi, which are household names, as well as those nameless packets of blends we hear of only by word of mouth: “Their packaging is invariably plastic, with either a sticker on it or a piece of paper with a name, address and telephone number”, she writes. This is instantly recognizable, since we all have our favourite powders stashed away in our kitchens –inevitably, they are superb family recipes created by the particular genius of a home cook, available only to those who know where to find them. Kalpasi –dagad phool –eludes her for a while, but she catches up with it in the Department of Botany, Madurai Kamaraj University, pins it down, then unravels its character in kitchens across the country.
The book is interspersed with recipes that explore the use of specific spices, gathered from well-known chefs and home cooks, (I’m delighted to say that The Coorg Table is featured too), which brings the narrative alive.
There’s a certain poetic resonance in the fact that Marryam and I met, years ago, quite by chance, in Kozhikode, the most famous city in the world for the spice trade, described in the 15th century as “…abounding in pepper, lac, ginger, cinnamon, myrobalans and zedoary…”. We were both guests at a Mappila wedding hosted by one of the doyennes of the cuisine, Abida Rashid, whose ancestors descended from the fabulously wealthy Arab traders who had controlled the Spice Trade for centuries, before the coming of the Europeans. At the magnificent wedding feast, I could not help but notice Marryam’s careful tasting of each dish, and the innumerable questions she asked as the meal progressed, unmindful whether she was trying someone’s patience or not –the reader of The Flavour of Spice is the lucky beneficiary of her long journey into the world of spice. It’s a book for anyone with even a passing interest in spices, certainly one that I will be reading many times over.