It’s all Greek to me!

A colleague asked me recently, “Does your garden look like that?” This was like being asked, “Does your body look like Gisele Bundchen’s?” “Uh… no!” Not by a long shot.

Where I work, landscaping companies come over every few months and give our surroundings a complete facelift. Little hills of compost are raked over planting beds and arrays of perfect perennials are planted in precise rows by an army of professionals.

Recently they have started building these beautiful enclosed kitchen gardens in unused spaces – high raised beds of wood or tastefully rusted iron planters surrounding a gravel-laid courtyard, Adirondack chairs, canvas umbrellas, a gurgling fountain, and the most lush, delectable vegetable plants punctuated here and there with a flowering plant in full bloom. Not a single bug-ravaged leaf, snaking hose or seedling pot is ever in evidence. Sitting there is to lose oneself in a warm, languid summer day in a European country of your choice. “That” was one of these gardens.

I don’t know about you, but my gardens never have and likely never will look like that. Our resident snails are indestructible and although I never see them, I have a feeling if I stayed out too long in the evening, I would find pieces of my body missing. I plant seeds, eagerly wait for the seedlings to emerge and the very next day find them mowed down to a pitiful nub.

I work hard on the garden but the proofs are everywhere – our wrought iron chairs jostle bags of compost and poop of different animals that I am usually too tired to put away. Our fountain stayed dry all of last year because of the drought. Seedlings are slowly emerging in extremely uneven rows. Two brilliant green hosepipes proudly declare their existence. It’s not a picture-perfect garden, but its a happy one. Much like my body.

Now, there is one plant that would make any busy/tired/novice gardener look good. Sadly, most people have never heard of it, certainly never seen or tasted it. Still, it is super easy to grow, delicious and nutritious, with an impressive resume of health problems it can cure – from digestive issues to dandruff, and also good for nursing mothers.

So what is this plant? Fenugreek! Botanical name Trigonella foenum-graecum

Fenugreek seeds Image Source: Savory Spice Shop
Fenugreek seeds
Image Source: Savory Spice Shop

Bunches of fenugreek leaves, which look a lot like clover, and the seeds, which are used as a spice, can both be found in Indian grocery stores. The leaves are too pungent to be eaten raw as in a salad, but cooked they have a warm, hearty flavor which enhances anything you might add it to, much like truffles. It plays especially well with spinach; substituting a third of the normal quantity of spinach with fenugreek leaves in a soup or a casserole will kick its taste up several notches.

Fenugreek leaves Image Source:
Fenugreek leaves
Image Source: Come For What

I first grew it when a kindly relative sprinkled a handful of seeds over my spent tulip bed. Within weeks, I had a lovely green bed of fenugreek that I harvested for weeks, since it doesn’t bolt easily. I have been growing fenugreek in my garden every year since. Germination rate is very good, irrespective of weather, snails for the most part leave it alone, and especially important for us Californians, it is quite drought tolerant. An all-round super-plant.

In God’s Own Country

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.