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India's 'pepper country', Kerala, keeps things spicy

Spices pervade all aspects of life in India's 'pepper country' Kerala, writes Graeme Green

 

THE TABLE'S FULL. On one plate is a local Pearl Spot freshwater fish, pan-fried. There are bowls and dishes of yogurt with coconut, pineapple and a little spicy heat; spinach with coconut and cumin seed; carrot and potato with cashew nut, cardamom and raw banana; nutty large-grain local rice; long beans chopped with chilli.

"Everything here comes from Kerala," says Prakash, the chef. "It's good to be a chef in Kerala."

We're floating down the Alleppey backwaters of the southern Indian region of Kerala on a thatched Ketavellum houseboat, eating lunch with a view of the river and surrounding countryside. Kerala is a vivid and green state in India that is fertile and abundant with spices, coconut and fish. Locals call it "God's own country" and the Lord, as the saying goes, provides.

He provides so much here that the region has been visited and fought over for more than 3,000 years by traders and colonial powers, including the Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. They came mainly for the spices, especially pepper.

In the historic town of Fort Kochi, where I start out, there are signs everywhere - in street names, people's names, food, buildings - of the region's mixed heritage. I stay at the Brunton Boatyard, on the edge of Lake Vembanad, just down from where fishermen work on large fishing contraptions - a system of weights (rocks on ropes) to haul up a large net. It's a traditional technique introduced here either by the Portuguese or the Chinese, depending on who you talk to.

Walking around the old town and Mattancherry, I pass a Dutch cemetery, a Syrian Christian church, a synagogue, a mosque and old colonial houses. I stop in at Saint Francis Church, the first European church built in India, which houses the body of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who discovered the route from Africa to India, opening up India's precious spices to European traders.

Pepper was known as "black gold" and this was a black gold rush. "Kerala was pepper country," says Rishi, who shows me around the town. "Pepper and cardamom are both native to Kerala. A lot of other spices were introduced by colonial powers. It's the perfect terrain and climate."

Goats amble around the streets as we walk through the old Jewish section of Mattancherry. The spice warehouses that used to fill Bazar Road are mostly gone. But now there are plenty of tourist shops to stock up on spices, which fill the streets with scents.

In the morning, I head inland to Puthanangady and climb onboard a houseboat for the night. We glide peacefully down Lake Vembanad - the longest lake in India at 96.5 kilometres - which stretches to Fort Kochi on the coast to meet the Arabian Sea.

"In old times, these boats were for cargo, to transport rice and spices," Jose, the captain tells me. Mine feels pretty stylish, with a cool breezy lounge area that looks out onto the lake and coconut-tree-lined waterways, plus a spacious bedroom and bathroom.

We chug gently through large canals with flat stretches of rice fields on either side, then narrow corridors walled in by tall coconut trees. If India's major cities are hot, manic and crowded, this is the opposite - cool, quiet, calm.

Giant fruit bats fly out from the jungle and over the water as we moor for the night at a small resort called Coconut Lagoon, and in the morning, the lake is glassy and still.

I take a smaller boat and explore the waters around Ayemenem. Arundhati Roy set her Booker-winning novel The God of Small Things here in her hometown. But the village may not be as the book or Roy remember it - with hotels, lodges and tourist houseboats, although there are still people living along the banks in colourful houses. Many of them are by the river, bathing, washing clothes and collecting water for cooking. There are a few fishermen on flat, disc-shaped boats.

From the lake, we drive into the spice-rich Western Ghats mountains, greener still than the coast, with hills covered in tea plantations and jungle. I stay at the Spice Village on Kumily Road, close to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. There are 200 species of plants in the grounds around the hotel.

Prateesh, a naturalist and spice expert, shows me around. "Our main spices are pepper and cardamom and cinnamon," Prateesh tells me. "Pepper is called the 'king of spices'. Cardamom is the 'queen of spices'. We grow both of them here.

"The Western Ghats in Kerala is best for growing pepper. It was expensive and valuable for the traders. It was a preservative for food and also good for health and stimulating taste. Later, the traders learned it was good for cooking too, for flavour."

I persuade the executive chef at Brunton Boatyard, Jerry Mathew, to let me loose on his urli (bronze cooking pot). He teaches me how to cook a traditional Kerala fish curry - with all local ingredients. "So, you have coconut, fish from the river or the sea, and all the spices," says Mathew.

Fenugreek seeds, ginger, garlic, green chilli, turmeric, coriander, curry leaves and many other flavours go into the pan with the fish, then coconut milk. "The coconut tree is the state tree of Kerala. We use a lot of coconut in our food in the south," he says.

The curry tastes great. Despite being the land of spices, Kerala's dishes are not always hot.

An auto-rickshaw ride out of town is Abraham's Spice Garden. The owner, Abraham, shows me around his 101-hectare plantation where he grows 250 plant species including pepper, ginger, turmeric, varieties of basil and chilli, jackfruit, coffee and cocoa.

"We eat well," he smiles, adding that Keralans are also well-educated in the health properties of plants. "Father to son, the nature of every plant is passed on," he says.

Back at the Spice Village, noisy guinea fowls wander the lawns. A Nilgiri langur monkey thrashes through the branches of a flamboyant tree (it has bright pink flowers), away from a family of Bonnet macaques.

The gardens are popular with monkeys who come to eat leaves, fruit, flowers and seeds. Kerala provides pretty well for them, too.

48hours@scmp.com

 

Getting there
Jet Airways (jetairways.com) flies from Hong Kong to Cochin in India, via Mumbai or Delhi, starting from HK$4,755 for a two-way trip, inclusive of taxes.

Staying there
Designer Holidays (designerincentives.net) runs tailor-made trips to India. Brunton Boatyard rooms cost from £136 (HK$1,640) in Fort Kochi, while rooms at the Spice Village in Kumily cost from £123, and a Spice Coast Cruise thatched houseboat costs from £137 per night - all booked with CGH Earth Experience Hotels (cghearth.com).

 

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