We can readily buy our herbs, in their fresh form, from our local supermarket or grow them just as easily in the garden or a pot. Of course the same applies to some spices – we can readily buy chilli plants, and fresh ginger, garlic and turmeric are available in our local supermarkets these days.
But so many of the spices we buy, we would never have seen them grow. Have you ever seen a vanilla plant … a cinnamon tree … or a cardamom bush?
On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I was fascinated to visit one of the many ‘spice gardens’ situated in Matale (about 25km from Kandy), where I got to see a wide variety of spice plants and learn their use in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
Now let me say from the outset that these are a bit of tourist trap – charging nothing for entry and the ‘free tour’ and ends up with a consultation by a supposed Ayurvedic doctor who tries to sell you all manner of snake oil at vastly inflated prices. Buyer beware.. bargain hard !
We got to smell, sniff and taste all manner of spice plants! We saw them as plants, to dried (or cooking form) and in some cases, shown how they are used in Ayurvedic medicine.
We tried tasting the cocoa beans straight from the plant – which had a slimy coating that was almost passionfruit in taste. We then got to try inside the beans when they had been dried…which tasted just like dark chocolate without sugar! It was quite amazing.
Sri Lanka is one of the countries on the historial spice route for traders travelling the high seas on their way to the Spice Islands (Indonesia). Cinnamon was one of the main items purchased in Sri Lanka by the traders who, amongst others, included the Dutch and Portuguese.
To this day, Sri Lanka is home to the best cinnamon in the entire world. Pepper, clove, cardamom, nutmeg and mace comprise the other main spices exported.
Whilst spices play a major role in flavouring Sri Lankan cooking, they are also seen to assist with preserving the food in the days before refrigeration. Turmeric especially is used as an antiseptic and is known to kill bacteria.
Ayurvedic principles also apply when cooking. To ensure a balance is achieved, some foods or spices are used for cooling, others for warming, some are detoxifying.
Sri Lankan’s apply medicinal uses with all herbs and spices…. for example, curry leaves (karapincha) have many uses including as a digestive. Cnnamon is believed to assist in the treatment of diabetes. Ginger is said to be a universal medicine because it is so widely used (just like in cooking).
It was a totally fascinating tour. Before you rush out to your local garden store and consider planting your own cocoa plant – unlike herbs, most spices require hot, humid tropical conditions to flourish
Surathura Spice & Herbal Garden
• Address: 3, Thotagamuwa, Palapathwala, Matale, Srilanka