Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. She looks at the story behind Kerala’s famous spices.
When the great adventurers of the 16th Century thought about the East, they thought about spices. For centuries, the aromatic smells of saffron, turmeric, jasmine, sandalwood, and plenty more, lured travellers towards the East, where traders and explorers gathered the exotic smells and flavours of the food they found there and sent them back along spice routes over mountains and sea to bring the exotic flavours of the Orient to Europe.
Trade with the East was so critical that competition between western nations for control of trade in places like India often became heated, with deals being brokered between local princes and whoever’s ships held sway in that port at that time. The Portuguese reached Kochi first, followed by the Dutch, and then ultimately East India Company, a British mercantile organisation, who took control of the trade route. The British, Dutch and Portuguese are long gone, but the demand for exotic flavours and spices remains and so, therefore, does the trade.
Kaycee Corporation are the only spice wholesalers in Fort Kochi, the part of Kochi city where we’re staying. The port is still a bustling hub, and every day we’ve been able to watch a whole host of small boats and large freight ships as they’ve sailed by into dock, some coming to collect the spices this part of the world has always been known for.
In some ways we’re following a spice route of our own. We paid a visit to a spice merchants in Kochi, a spacious warehouse off a street full of spice shops for tourists piled high with sacks of herbs, spices, and beans. This is where chef Ajeeth sources all the aromatics he uses in his cooking. Some are completely recognisable, but who knew that turmeric was a rhizome like ginger? Not me. Like the traders of the previous centuries, there’s a lot for me still to discover.