A visit to a working spice plantation was high up on our list when we planned our recent trip to Kerala. A lot of these plantations are centered around Thekkady, a few hours drive from Kochi. We stayed in a luxury plantation house called Aanavilasam, high up in the cardamom hills of Thekkady.
This lovely plantation is set amidst groves of cardamom bushes, pepper vines, fruit trees and lovely flowers lining it's paths. Seeing the spices grown so close around us, while nibbling on fresh cardamom and green peppercorn plucked straight from the bushes, was an eye opening, unforgettable experience. The burst of flavour in my mouth was unlike any other.
It was interesting to see that cardamom grows in clusters on stems that trail on the ground, while pepper grows on vines that wind themselves around trees. We also dug up fresh ginger from the ground, crushed a leaf from an allspice plant to inhale it's lovely aroma and peeled off a bit of cinnamon bark to freshen our breath!
Once the spices are picked, they are dried over intense heat before being sorted by size, to be packaged and sold. Most plantations outsource this process and sell their spices to wholesale merchants. A lot of spice merchants have their shops in the area.
Thekkady is liberally dotted with vast spice estates where some of the best spices in the world are grown. Nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, star anise, allspice, mace are all grown here, along with coffee, cocoa, papaya and cashews.
Driving around the steep, narrow mountainous roads, with hillsides covered with trees, vines and wild flowers, we marveled at the gorgeous scenery as we inhaled air perfumed with cardamom!
Indeed almost everything in Thekkady is scented with cardamom. From the local honey that we ate, to the curries, preserves, tea, and even beauty products like oil and soap had the distinct aroma of cardamom to them!
Kumily is the main little town in Thekkady, with a lot of spice shops lining it's short main street. Walking into one of these shops was like a doorway to heaven for me and I had to visit each one to make sure I had bought every spice imaginable! The spices are fresh, their flavour strong and intense, better than anything available in most grocery stores. I use mine sparingly so as not to overpower the flavour of the dish and also not to run out of them too quickly!
The food we ate at Aanavilasam plantation house was exquisite, subtly spiced and completely local. They used the spices, vegetables, honey and dairy products from the plantation, with a flavour so pure and fresh that we didn't want to stop eating! Chef Anish's creativity shone in dishes like decadent pumpkin halwa with plantation cardamom, melt in the mouth beet croquettes, fresh paneer korma and banana cardamom preserves slathered over home made breakfast toast.
Chef Anish gave us a cooking lesson in the plantation kitchens, showing us how to make Kerala's famous fish curry. It is one of my all time favourite dishes which I love to serve with coconut rice. Chef Anish uses kokum - a sour dried fruit used widely in Kerala to add tartness to curries. I have substituted tamarind here as it has a similar flavour and is easier to buy. This is his simple, delicious recipe, given step by step, just the way he showed us!
Kerala Fish Curry
2 tbsp coconut or olive oil
1/2 tsp each, whole seeds: fennel, black mustard, fenugreek
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 inch piece ginger, finely chopped
2 green chilies, slit or chopped up
30 fresh curry leaves
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp each: paprika, cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander
Small marble sized piece of tamarind, soaked in 1/4 cup hot water and strained OR use 1 tsp tamarind paste
1 cup light coconut milk
1 lb skinless halibut or any other firm fish, cut into bite sized pieces
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 tbsp each, chopped fresh: coriander, curry leaves, green chilies
Warm oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add fennel, black mustard and fenugreek seeds. Let them sizzle for 30 sec, then add chopped onions.
Saute for 5 min, then add garlic, ginger, green chilies and curry leaves. Saute for another 2 min.
Add salt and all the spices, saute 1 min. Add tamarind extract or paste and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer 10 min on medium low heat.
Add fish pieces and coconut milk. Mix gently, cook for 10 min or until fish is done. Do not overcook fish. Mix in the whipping cream, chopped herbs and green chilies. Cook 5 min.