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Spices

The story of Kerala's spices dates back to many thousands of years into the past. Kerala's claim to fame in the ancient world rested mainly with her fabulous riches brought about due to total monopoly over spices.

The ancient port of Musiris was the centre of the world trade many aeons ago - the spice trade being central to its legendary fame. It can be said that the Western colonisation itself a fallout of the race to control the spice trade from Kerala. Vasco Da Gama's arrival was just the culmination of the western world's rush to find the sea route to the Indies and its spices trade.

Within the last decade the international trade in spices has grown to an estimated 500,000 tonnes of spices and herbs valued at more than 1500 million US dollars. It is a matter of pride for the tiny state of Kerala that the bulk of this trade is still from Kerala. Some spices that have made Kerala a household word in the spices world are listed below.

PEPPER (Piper nigrum)

This is rightly known as the 'King Of Spices' and is one of the best-known spices in the world. Kerala has always reigned supreme in the production and export of this most exotic and sought-after spice. One of the earliest spices known, pepper is probably the most widely used spice in the world today.Kerala's pepper reached Europe through Arab traders who held a monopoly over its trade. Europe in the middle ages saw the enormous potential of pepper as a food preservative and eagerly sought to control its trade. The potential profits by trading in pepper was to lead to the earliest colonial conquests and wars . Easily the finest in quality anywhere, Kerala's pepper is grown in along the low lands and high ranges of Kerala.A combination of natural advantages and organic techniques produces bigger, better-shaped, more aromatic and flavored pepper, better than anywhere else in the world. The 'Malabar Garbled' and 'Tellichery Extra Bold' are some of the more famous varieties of pepper. Pepper is a perennial climber requiring the support of live or dead trees.

It has a limited usage in medicine as a carminative and as a stimulant of gastric secretions. Propagation is by stem cutting. Important varieties are: Panniyur -1, Karimunda, Kuthiravally, Arakkulam Munda, Balankotta and Kalluvally

CARDAMOM (small)

Elettaria cardamomum Maton, one of the most highly prized spices, cardamom has a history as old as human civilization. The dried fruit of a herbaceous perennial, cardamom is grown mainly in Kerala, Tamilnadu and Karnataka, on the slopes of the Western Ghats. Warm humid climate, loamy soil rich in organic matter, distributed rainfall and special cultivation and processing methods all combine to make Indian cardamom truly unique in aroma, flavour, size and colour. Indian cardamom like 'Alleppey Green Extra Bold' (AGEB), 'Alleppey Green Bold' (AGB) and 'Alleppey Green Superior' (AGS) are names that register instant appeal worldwide.

Cardamom oil is a precious ingredient in food preparations, perfumery, health foods, medicines and beverages. Cardamom is exported to the Middle East, Russia and Japan, where it is prized for its flavour.


CARDAMOM (large)

Amomum subulatum Roxb, the large cardamom is the dried fruit of a perennial herbaceous plant. It is different from the small cardamom in that its fruit is 4 to 6 times size of small cardamom. Valued for its acceptable taste, flavour and aroma, large cardamom is used in rice preparations and meat dishes, besides a wide range of beverages and sweets.

As the largest producer and exporter of large cardamom, India enjoys near monopoly in this spice. The main production centres are the sub-Himalayan ranges spread across Sikkim and Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The popular varieties are 'Ramsey', Golsey', and 'Sawany'. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Singapore and UK are the major importers of large cardamom.

CLOVE

Eugenia caryophyllus, the Clove trees begin to bear flowers 7-8 years after planting. Unopened flower buds are carefully picked when they turn from green to pink.
The buds are then allowed to dry for 4-5 days till they become crisp and dark brown in colour. Cloves are an essential ingredient of Kerala cuisine.

CINNAMON

Cinnamon zeylanicum , the Cinnamon plants are ready for harvest about 3 years after planting. Harvesting is done twice year - in May and November. The bark of the cut down shoots is split on the day of harvest itself and dried in the sun for 2 - 5 days.
The dry quills or bark are packed in bundles for trade. Leaves and tender twigs are used for extraction of oil by distillation. Again, cinnamon is an essential ingredient of the very different and spicy Kerala cooking.

GINGER

One of the earliest Oriental spices known in Europe, ginger has been cultivated in India both as a fresh vegetable and marketed as a dried spice . The fresh, dried or powdered rhizome of a slender, perennial herb, Indian ginger has been acclaimed worldwide for its characteristic taste, flavour & texture. Ginger is an appetizer, a flavouring agent and a drug. Though grown all over India, the finest quality ginger comes from Kerala endowed as it is with a congenial climate and a rich earthy soil. Indian dry ginger is known in the world market as 'Cochin Ginger' (NUGC) & 'Calicut Ginger' (NUGK).

Ginger is exported in a variety of forms - oils, oleoresins, fresh ginger in brine, pickles, candies and syrups. It also comes in garbled or ungarbled, bleached or unbleached and powder forms. India has a predominant position in ginger production and export. The principal buyers are the Middle East, USA, the UK and the Netherlands.

TURMERIC

The dried rhizome of a herbaceous plant, turmeric is closely related to ginger. The spice is also sometimes called 'Indian saffron' thanks to its brilliant yellow colour. Several unique properties of Indian turmeric make it the ideal choice as a food flavour, an effective ingredient in medicines and cosmetics, and as a natural colourant.
With its rich curcumin content, which imparts the distinctive yellow colour, and other inherent qualities, Indian turmeric is considered the best in the world. One of the most popular types of turmeric is the 'Alleppey Finger'. India also exports turmeric in powder form and as oleoresin.

TAMARIND

Tamarind, the fruit of a tropical tree, is an indispensable ingredient spice in most South Indian kitchens. Today, India is the only producer of tamarind on a commercial scale.

A large part of India's production of tamarind is exported to West Asia, Europe and America, where it is used in such food specialities like Worcestershire sauce. This spice also comes in the forms of pulp and juice concentrates which mainly go into the preparation of cool drinks, sea food and a range of cuisine.

NUTMEG

Nutmeg is a fruit grown almost throughout the length and breadth of Kerala. The moist tropical weather is ideally suited to its growth.

The tree has to be pollinated by a male tree in the vicinity and fruits appear by the 5th or 6th year, though it takes about 10 years for a tree to be commercially viable. The kernel of the nutmeg along with its reddish fibre surrounding it , is in great demand for medicinal uses.


CURRY LEAF

Perhaps the most common and humble of all spices, the curry leaves add that extra zing to the Kerala cuisine. Grown as a domestic plant, the curry leaf is commonly considered as everyone's plant socially and everyone is allowed to freely pluck the leaves especially in the rural areas. The pressure of urbanistion has made this leaf also a commercial item.

VANILLA
A tropical orchid requires a warm climate with frequent rains, Vanilla grows best in uncleared jungle areas where it can get filtered sunlight. A creeper, the plant requires support up to height of about 135 cm. The plant usually begins to flower by the third year. The bean takes 10 to 12 months to reach full maturity. The rostellum of the flower is pushed back with a pointed bamboo splinter and the overhanging anther is pressed against the stigma with the thumb, thus smearing pollen over it. The ideal time for pollination is 0600 to 1300 hrs.

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