A treasure chest of spices

Fort Kochi, India. Though it seems its importance is fading, the spice market business in Mattanchery, across the canal which separates it from Fort Kochi, is something to behold.

It was only thanks to our great guide Saleem that we even saw one of the ancient spice centers for which this area is famous. Spices have been prepared here for several hundred years, and not much seems to have changed in the process. Surrounded by a number of warehouses, the central courtyard of the complex is where the drying process takes place. At one time this area was packed with all types of drying spices. Today, we only saw a pile of ginger being dried. The fresh ginger is covered with a fine powder of sea shells that help speed up the drying process.

In one of the warehouses we watched three women sort a huge pile of the dried ginger.

Once sorted, it is then packed for shipping to all parts of the world. We couldn’t tell exactly what standards were being used to sort out the pieces of dried ginger. Ultimately, however, it would all be ground into the powdered ginger we get in jars.

We very carefully climbed some ancient steps to the second floor, where women operate a cooperative that sells neatly packaged quantities of every spice one could imagine. Despite shrinking space in our luggage, there were some regional spice-blend specialties that we just had to grab.

The riches of India, all in individually sealed plastic bags.

Don’s Food Corner

Today was another cooking class, this time with Maria at her home across the street from the Cathedral. Unlike Nimi’s class in Munnar which lasted nearly six hours, Maria kept her instruction moving along including eating the meal to under three hours. This was not a hands-on cooking class. It was instruction. All the chopping, slicing, grinding, shredding and spice selection had already been completed by the time we showed up. The “we” was me and a couple from the U.K. They were very knowledgeable about Indian cooking. You had to be. This was a class about nuances of Kerala cooking, not the basics.

She prepared four classic Kerala dishes: chicken masala,  fish curry, erisseri (kidney beans and pumpkin) and green beans and potato stir fry. Then all was served with basmati rice.

Maria has highly specific about when to fry the garlic paste, when the ginger paste should be added (not together with the garlic, she claims) and when the onions go in, along with the order of the spices and the length of time each should (or should not) be cooked and at varying temperatures. It all made sense at the time and I picked up some great tips. Again, however, like Nimi’s class, it would be hard to replicate in an American kitchen — especially if cooking on electric and absolutely impossible to do in an electric skillet outdoor (like I do). But now I know why some dishes taste bitter — you have to make sure that all the black mustard seeds have completely popped in the oil — and why many dishes taste too garlicky — you have to cook the garlic first by itself completely before adding anything else.

There were no pressure cookers in evidence here, although I think the kidney beans, which actually were the small size of peas, might have been cooked ahead of time before we arrived. Maria didn’t actually push us out the door, but she did keep mentioning that she was preparing the materials for her evening class. She does this twice a day. Nimi does it once a day, but she charges three times as much as Maria. (I didn’t tell Maria that.) When I told her that I had taken a class with Nimi, her spine stiffened and she was able to sneak in a little trash talk about Nimi as she went along. Apparently there is a bit of competition in the Kerala cooking instruction world.

A worthwhile class and the last one I will be able to take before moving out of the Kerala region. And then on to master the cuisine of Goa!



2 thoughts on “A treasure chest of spices

  1. Great visual treat! Now only if I can smell everything.
    Don, should I start calling you Don Jaffrey? Soooo happy you are experiencing and learning all kinds of different cooking.

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