Half a kilometer above Mumbai, I crouched to look at a strange flower hidden under a tree. The Family had led me to a hidden wilderness in Khandala. It was raining hard. As we walked through ankle-high grasses and herbs, insects mobbed us. The place was dotted with trees, and it was below one that I had found a flower which was completely new to me. I took a photo and stood up to look for The Family. She was behind me, looking satisfied with a photo of me with ass in the air, head below my ankles. Her photo was already on its way to the clan.
I pointed at the flower. She said wild ginger. This is her patch of Khandala; she knows it well. I shifted and crouched again. Sure enough, there was a rhizome, visible in the mud where the bract had stemmed out. So I could accept family Zingiberaceae, a ginger. It is more commonly called the hill ginger (Curcuma pseudomontana). Like many members of the ginger family, C. pseudomontana seems to be a source of interesting chemicals which could lead to drugs for treatment of several diseases.The pink leaves I was seeing on the flower spike is not the flower. The small yellow flower is what I should have looked at first.
The rain was letting off, and I was tired of crouching over a hollow full of insects, several of which had begun to pierce my face in search of food. We walked on. Close to the edge of a cliff I found another little pink stem. Here more of the plant was visible, including the enormous ribbed leaves. The flowering spike poked out from between them. I took a photo of the plant, growing tangled among other things. Then I bent for another close up of the pink spike. In this photo you can see more clearly that the pink parts are modified leaves. The plant is endemic to the Sahyadris, and other hilly parts of the Deccan plateau, both east and west. Its narrow range is now under “development” stress, and the plant has gone from vulnerable to near threatened in recent years. I was lucky to have permission to visit a stretch which botanists are trying to preserve.
Later, when we went back to the villa where we had parked our car, I noticed that someone had planted a bed of hill ginger. That’s not surprising. It has many uses, apart from the new pharmaceutical possibilities. Traditionally the leaves could be used as a plate instead of banana leaves. The potato-shaped buds on the rhizome could be eaten, or powdered for arrowroot. Getting a photo of the yellow flower was easier here.
Many years ago, on a trip to Jaipur, I’d walked into a restaurant which seemed very popular. I asked the waiter for their specialty, which turned out to be mutton made in ghee. I’d forgotten this until I looked at some very good mutton for the first time after the strict phase of the lockdown. After that first experiment in recreating that experience a few months ago, I had a very good idea of what to do when I tried it again yesterday.
Ghee and aromatic spices go well together. So I rubbed tiny quantities of powdered turmeric, dhania, and jeera on the mutton, and let it stand for a while with whole garam masala. For me that is a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and star aniseed: the ancient treasures of India, which trickled across the world on caravans and dhows which passed east and west in medieval times, and which drew a newly expansionist Europe to Asia at the beginning of the modern era. I let the ingredients marinate in a mixture of history and personal memory for a half hour, while I peeled and chopped an inch of young ginger.
I chose a thick flat bottomed pot for the cook, and threw the ginger and a bay leaf into the hot ghee. I’d decided to layer the mutton along the bottom, and let it stand for about three minuted before flipping each piece over. I realize that I need a pair of small tongs for such manoeuvres (note: remember to order them today). I flipped the pieces, and let the other side brown for an equal amount of time.
The browned meat has a thin glazing of ghee over it, and turns intensely aromatic. I love it, and I was happy that The Family pronounced herself quite satisfied with the result. A little extra that happens when you cook anything in ghee is its transformation into a lovely dark mass at the bottom of the pan. I used to love that khurchan with a bit of rice when I was a child. The unfortunate problem with this cook is that it is at its best when fresh off the fire; so I’ll have to make small portions every time I want it. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing when you have such a calorie-dense dish.
The Family and I eventually ended the meal with spiced figs and ice cream. I’ve grown averse to ice cream in recent years, but the wait staff was flexible enough to get the ice cream in a separate bowl. The Family puts up with this quirk, especially since she does not consider having to finish my share of the ice cream to be a tiresome chore. The dried figs in molasses was the wonderful deep dark brown that you see in the featured photo. In the few days that we spent in Kochi I grew to love this dark brown taste of sweet molasses. I’m sure it is bad for me, so maybe I’ll eat it only in Kochi.
The route to this bit of sweetness was long. The last bit involved fish. I love the thick coconutty sauce that this always comes in. But this sauce was somewhat special. The slivers of deep fried onions was not something I’d ever seen in this curry before. I wonder why. It goes so well with this that you would expect it to become a regular way to do it. Perhaps it will. Until it does, you’ll have to seek out this harbour-side restaurant in Fort Kochi, or reconstruct it from the photo that you see above.
But wait, that wasn’t all. Before that was the Malabar biryani. Like the dried figs, the idea of a biryani probably came eastweards over the Indian ocean, but here the delicate herbs of the middle east were replaced by the aromatic spices of Kerala. When people talk of biryani these days it is the offspring of the court dishes, the Lucknowi and Hyderabadi versions, which get all the press. I find them a little on the heavy side, and the Hyderabadi, at least in today’s version, is far too full of chilis to suit me. The Malabar biryani retains its charming authenticity, perhaps because it was never a royal dish. In my book it rivals the home-cooked charm of Bohra biryani.
But before we started in on the highlands of Malabari food, we’d sat down in a breezy arbor next to the waterway that separates Kochi from Willingdon island. The day was sunny, and the thought of a cooler was attractive. Scanning the menu, I saw that the place had its own ginger ale. Having just passed a warehouse full of dried ginger, I figured this might be interesting. The Family ordered a lime and ginger combination. They turned out to be just the right things to ease us on the long and winding road to the figs.
I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.
They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.
Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.
I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.
Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.
The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.