From Thailand I flew halfway to Africa, landing in Kerala, on the southwestern tip of India. If Africa is the dark continent, India is just a few shades behind in its myriad shades of brown: brown skin, brown dirt, plenty of both.
Dragging my bags through the streets of Cochin I found my first Indian dining experience at the worker-run Indian Coffee House. I ordered “cold coffee,” which came pre-mixed in a pre-smudged glass. The waiter, dressed like a stained white rooster, used a brown rag to rearrange the film on the marble tabletop. Briefly, while the table was wet, it seemed clean.
The coffee helped me past the hot afternoon doldrums and into a $4 hotel room. In the lobby, skinny brown men lounged in sarongs and wife-beaters. Exhausted, I lay in my first bed in days, my first bed in India, ever. On the wall next to my head was a mysterious collection of brown smears.
That night, with the ceiling fan blasting down on my body, I woke up disturbed, with creepy-crawly feelings. I clawed my belly, my shoulders, and then the light switch. The florescent light revealed red smears on my sheets and a battalion of mosquitoes on the wall among the brown smears. They looked like planes on an aircraft carrier, ready to run 18-inch sorties to my face. My hand smashed several into red smears before they could take off. By morning, the smears had turned brown, and my face looked something like Baghdad.
India doesn’t let you forget you’re part of a cycle that begins and ends with dirt. This dirt is a currency we share, like blood, money and food.
Kerala, one of India’s smallest states, is home to a great mix of people, including Portuguese Catholics, Gulf State Arabs, Jews, Syrian Christians and Chinese, as well as a native majority of Indian and Tamil descent. Even more astounding than the diversity is the fact that they all seem to get along, with ethnic and religious tension practically unheard of. In 1957 Kerala became the first state in the world to democratically elect a communist majority government, and the communists have held sway, off and on, ever since, presiding over the most literate state in India.
One hot morning in the Arabian Sea-side village of Varkala, I waited for my mocha frappe. “I moved here in September,” the coffee shack’s owner explained while he prepared it. “Opened shop in November, got married in January, local girl, now it’s February…”
Made from all Kerala-grown ingredients—coffee, chocolate, palm sugar and milk—it was a truly orgasmic combination of top-notch fresh, local ingredients, most of which were brown. I wandered to the nearest hammock and fell asleep.
When I woke I walked to a restaurant, where I stared at a picture on the wall of a Keralan star, a local guru named Amma who’s world-famous for her spiritually rejuvenating hugs, which people wait days in line to receive. A boy brought me a menu and I ordered a “butterfish” cooked with coconut curry in a banana leaf.
This fabulous fish was my farewell to the sea. I traded my hammock for a car and driver and drove into the Cardamom Hills, a mountainous region of teak jungle and plantations of spice and tea.
We reached the town at the end of the road at dusk, and the only hotel was full, crawling with brown guys in sarongs and wife-beaters.
The hotel guy was giving the cabbie directions to the faraway possibility of a room. I asked the hotel guy about an ashram I’d seen in my guidebook, right here in town. Would they have beds?
The hotel guy studied me. “Yes, they have beds,” he said, “but they are selective about who they let in.”
When we got to the ashram, the guard pointed a finger at me. “Vacation or Training?” he demanded.
“I, uh, I, uh,” I said.
The guard pointed to some Sanskrit writing on the wall.
“Yoga!” he said.
I nodded my head rather spastically and exclaimed, “Yoga!”
I was taken to a dormitory, given a bed, sheets, a pillow and mosquito netting.
After an early morning of meditation, yoga and tea, we ate brunch cross-legged on the floor. Servers brought food in stainless steel buckets: coconut potatoes, string beans, dahl, salad and a mixture of rice, yogurt, cashews, cardamom and coconut. We drank savory yogurt lassis and ate with our hands in silence.
I was on cleanup crew, and I let an old lady with a cute British accent boss me around. We swept the floor with grass brooms.
“Well, I’m not sure I even want to stand on my head,” said my boss, of the morning’s yoga class. “I wasn’t standing on my head when I was 9 years old. I think it’s a little late in the day to start.”
We then used mops to smear around what was left of the dirt on the floor.
“It’s the Indian way,” explained my boss. “We’ll just wipe it around to erase the footprints.”
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Mapping the spice trade
Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,
I am curious about cilantro and cumin. It seems to me that like ambassadors they get along well in dishes from around the globe. I am thinking specifically about the use of cumin seeds in Indian dishes, Mexican food and mouth-watering American chili contests. I know that fresh cilantro shows up in Thai, Mexican and Indian dishes, and ground coriander seed from the same plant also is fairly promiscuous. So the question is, are they remnants of cultural cooking collaboration or trading that once occurred, or do you think that the forces that drive human taste satisfaction have whittled down the available options over time in an almost Darwinian model of cooperation such that these flavors have been included among different cultures independently? I am guessing that a combination of availability and taste preference (in whichever order) has been responsible for these and other examples of spice ambassadorship, like salt and black pepper even. Thoughts?
A: Dear Spicetracker,
Spices have been traded around the world for thousands of years, especially between the Mediterranean and Asia, the region that spawned both cilantro and cumin. Both plants are in the Apiaceae family, along with parsley and carrots. Like other plants and animals that get around, they usually originate in one place and are then transplanted.
As for the Darwinian model of flavor evolution theory…I, uh, I, uh, I think that cilantro and cumin, like many other spices, get around the world because they make food taste good. The same forces that brought the chili to Asia from South America, and brought pepper to America from Asia (they grow it here in the Cardamom Hills) have brought old-world spices to new-world countries like Mexico.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.