Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna discovers a hidden gem in the Western Ghats.
Staying in a hotel, in mountains surrounded by acres and acres of tea, it’s hard to believe that tea isn’t native to India. The notion of Indian teapickers, probably reinforced by Typhoo tea adverts from my childhood, is so strong, it was extremely odd to discover that tea wasn’t grown here until the mid-19th century. In fact, nothing at all was really cultivated on these hillsides, at least not on any scale.
Travellers more entrepreneurial than I were the ones who realised that the land, far from being worthless for crops, was actually incredibly valuable. They took advantage of cheap land prices to establish plantations, and by experimenting with different plants, discovered that these slopes were perfect for three crops: tea, coffee, and cardamom.
It’s an efficient way of using the land – tea needs absolutely no shade to be able to grow, which is why tea is the most obvious crop to see in the Western Ghats. The shady parts of the hillside are perfect for cardamom, and the land with a mix of both sun and shade are ideal for coffee. The roots of the tea plants go deep, preventing soil erosion.
What’s remarkable is that all three plants aren’t native to Kerala, but have become an integral part of both Keralan food and the economy here – there’s no place you stop where you won’t be offered masala chai – sweet tea with milk and a mix of spices including cardamom. Cardamom appears in puddings and in curries, and is used as a medicine.
And coffee. Well you can’t live in London, like I do, and not know the value of a caffeine kick first thing in the morning. Tea, coffee, and cardamom: a Keralan holy trinity.