Last winter, I visited ‘God’s Own Country’, as the state of Kerala in India proudly and rightfully proclaims itself. A chili-shaped state on the west coast of peninsular India, it is blessed with salubrious tropical climate and an abundance of natural beauty – hills, beaches, forests, backwaters. All this bounty has led to a region that’s known around the world for its spices, coconut oil and Ayurvedic herbal remedies, and also for coffee, tea and cocoa.
I visited one of the many Ayurvedic herb and spice gardens dotting the hills of Munnar. I saw the plants on which grow chilies, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bay leaves – the components of the Indian ‘garam masala’, used to boost the heat and aroma of many Indian dishes. Pepper grows on an attractive vine in long clusters of green berries. I learned, interestingly, that black, white, red and green peppercorns all originate from the same vine; it is the processing, not the species, that gives them their color and nuances of flavor. All around Kerala, pepper vines grow abundantly, almost as an ornamental. Sadly, they wouldn’t survive the winter in most parts of the US.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree. It takes 20 years for the tree to mature to harvest age. Bay leaves come from the tree of a close relative of cinnamon. Cardamom are the dry seed pods of a plant that’s a tall relative of ginger and turmeric. These are lush beautiful plants, although again not hardy outside the tropics. Nutmeg and mace both come from the fruit of the same tree, somewhat resembling a gooseberry in its raw form. Nutmeg is the seed and mace its outer, lacy covering. Brewed into an Ayurvedic tea or ‘kashayam’, these are wonderful for curing colds and coughs.
Here’s the recipe: Boil a quart of water with small quantities, about a teaspoon each, of ground turmeric, pieces of fresh ginger, black peppercorns, whole cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, and 2-3 bay leaves along with a some holy basil or Tulsi until the brew is reduced to half its original volume; strain and drink a quarter cup of the fragrant spicy brew with a spoonful of raw honey – an elixir that can dispel the winter chills as quickly, and more healthfully, than a finger of good scotch.
Kerala is synonymous with coconut; there are coconut trees everywhere. I treated myself to an Ayurvedic massage, which included a vigorous scalp massage with oil. In a coconut oil base, the essences of several herbs were extracted to create a pretty strong-smelling oil that’s supposed to boost hair growth and stop hair fall and dandruff. I came home with a bottle of this amazing stuff; report on results in a few months. Coconut oil is pure saturated fat, and there are highly debated theories that a spoonful of virgin coconut oil consumed daily actually helps in weight loss!
Famously, Kerala was the place where Saint Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, landed in the first century and many centuries later, it was a prominent stop on the Spice Route from Europe. My trip to Kerala was an unforgettable one. Along with the tranquil beauty, the Ayurvedic traditions and spicy, delicious food, all the people I met were warm, friendly and gently curious. I would back in a heartbeat.