Sunday, February 1, 2015

Botanical Walk in India

As I hear the plow once again in the neighbors driveway I am craving green. Looking back at pictures from our trip to India last year, I can smell the spice in the air. In the heat, the plants give off a fragrance that permeates the whole atmosphere. So many commonly seen trees and shrubs are used every day in cooking. Here are some pictures from a botanical walk with some new friends from the SITA (South India Term Abroad) center we were with for a few days.
The incredible staff at the SITA Center on our arrival.
Once they knew I was interested in plants, the staff pointed out all the trees, bushes and plants we passed that were used in some way. It seemed that almost every plant had some folklore and medicinal application. At first I thought that it was only our knowledgeable hosts that knew so much. But then after days of even cab drivers talking about "how my grandmother would give us this for headaches" and tour guides talking about plants at historic sites, I realized that every person had quite a working knowledge of the plants around them and their uses. It was an oral history being passed down in the family.

Here in the US we can usually get most spices we want for any type of cooking, but rarely do we see how they grow.  In Indian cooking they use a lot of spice. By that I mean so much that it becomes the paste and base for all sauces. There are so many spices to choose from, that the combinations are almost infinite. Here is a link to a list of many of these herbs. So many dishes are vegetarian too! Here are a few pictures I took of the ways things look on the vine so to speak.

Curry Tree

Curry is common in Indian cooking, but does not come from one plant. Curry powder is a Western notion that originated in the 18th century and usually a mix of coriander, tumeric and cumin. This young tree above is called a Curry Tree and the leaves are used in many curry dishes along with many other ingredients (although many "curries" do not use these leaves.) These leaves are fried along with onions in the first step in a good curry. They have a very distinctive flavor. It is spices and plants like this that make it very hard to recreate Indian food as eaten in India here in the US.

Jack Fruit
Like other fruits in the hotter parts of the world, the smell of the Jack Fruit is initially repugnant to our western senses. But like other smelly fruit it has a tasty interior flesh that is  mellow and delicious. It always amazed me on the tree!

Ms. Nirmala Christina looking at the Tumeric
One of the most interesting things I learned was how most Indian spices have medicinal qualities that have guaranteed them a spot in traditional cooking. Tumeric is a great example of this. A bitter herb with not much flavor, Tumeric has anti-parasitic properties. We were told that they use it a lot on fish because traditionally people put tumeric on fish to keep parasites away. They also knew that if the Tumeric turned red, the fish had already been infected. Making so much sense in a hot country where food goes bad fast, to use a plant that kills parasites and changes color in their presence, brilliant! The bright yellow powder is made from the dried ground tubers. Read more about all the medicinal qualities of Indian plants here.

Star Fruit
These Star Fruit can be missed as they look so much like the leaves!

Here is a stand of cumin, looking much they way coriander grows. The seeds are ground to make the spice. Cumin, coriander (cilantro seed), fennel, black and white cardamon, fenugreek and different colored peppers are some of the staples.

I wish I could remember what this beautiful pink flower and bush was. Any guesses? It is obvious from the picture that this was important- oh well. I will try and use a plant ID website to find out.


One of the most common trees is the Tamarind. Here in Madurai they are everywhere. Tamarind is a an essential part of south asian cuisine and comes from the bean inside a pod from this tree.

Cinnamon: Dinodia Photos via Getty Images
 Here is what Cinnamon looks like before they peel the bark. The inner bark is then extracted and dried.

So much to take in, I realized I should always bring a notebook in situations like botanical walks in India! I learned so much and have a broader sense of what India is like, but know it is only the surface deep. Once outside the huge cities, tradition, family, good food made by hand, and a deep connection to their environment was what I saw.  Many take-aways for this American novice.

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