A WORLD OF THE EX­OTIC

The ori­gins of dif­fer­ent spices sea­son our un­der­stand­ing of their broader medic­i­nal use

The Weekend Australian - Life - - GARDENING - HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

Spices. The word con­jures up thoughts of mystery and magic, of ex­otic lo­ca­tions and great ad­ven­ture. Spices have been im­por­tant for cen­turies as medic­i­nal po­tions, in per­fumes, in cook­ing, and even as poi­sons. The history of the spice trade is long and evoca­tive, shrouded in drama and dan­ger. It is a tale of great dar­ing and ex­plo­ration to un­known, dis­tant places — and of great re­ward.

The spice trade dates back to the Mid­dle Ages (AD700-1000), when it was con­trolled by Mus­lim mer­chants.

By the 16th cen­tury it had be­come the most im­por­tant com­mer­cial en­ter­prise of the old world, equiv­a­lent per­haps to the gold rush in 19th-cen­tury Aus­tralia or the thirst for oil to­day.

The voy­ages of the Vene­tian Marco Polo to China in the 13th cen­tury, of Vasco da Gama to In­dia and Christopher Colum­bus in the 15th cen­tury, and of Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan in the early 16th cen­tury were quests for routes to fa­cil­i­tate the spice trade.

Trade along the spice route was dom­i­nated by the Por­tuguese in the 16th cen­tury, the Dutch in the 17th cen­tury and by the Bri­tish in the 18th and 19th cen­turies. Spices are pro­duced from the buds, seeds, berries and bark of a plant; the leafy parts be­come herbs. Cru­cial to­day as flavour­ing for a great range of cuisines from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, spices should be kept in air­tight jars, away from light and heat, to pre­serve their all-im­por­tant aroma and flavour.

Many of the spices we use to­day are de­rived from species na­tive to Sri Lanka, many of which are grown in the Sir­i­lak Spice and Herbal Gar­den at Matale in cen­tral Sri Lanka, 38km north of the an­cient cap­i­tal of Kandy. No chem­i­cals are used in the gar­den, we were as­sured.

All the plants are help­fully marked and a pam­phlet gives you in­struc­tions for grow­ing and use. Our guide, Kamil Jay­alth, ex­plains that the gar­den fol­lows the ayurvedic sys­tem of holis­tic medicine.

A San­skrit word mean­ing “science of life”, ayurveda is said to be the old­est sys­tem of holis­tic medicine in the world, dat­ing back more than 7000 years. “Ayurveda is a tra­di­tional sys­tem of heal­ing with plants and herbs to im­prove var­i­ous func­tions in­clud­ing res­pi­ra­tion, cir­cu­la­tions and di­ges­tion,” Jay­alth says.

Among sev­eral dozen dif­fer­ent species in the gar­den, the in­dige­nous cin­na­mon ( Cin­namo­mum zey­lani

cum), part of the lau­rel fam­ily, grows to about 10m in height. The bark from this tree is dried to pro­vide the spice. “Take bark off by tak­ing the branch; mas­sage the branch, then it rolls off like a ci­gar,” Jay­alth ex­plains.

Pure oil of cin­na­mon, which is ex­tracted from the aro­matic in­ner bark of the tree, is used to as­sist in the re­lief of tin­ni­tus. “Put two drops on a cot­ton bud,” advises Jay­alth. “Or put on pil­low.” Gar­gle with a few drops in a small amount of wa­ter for a sore throat.

Chocolate is pro­duced at Matale from two crops of co­coa an­nu­ally. The potas­sium-rich pods, pulled by hand, are opened and the nuts sun-dried, roasted and crushed to make chocolate and co­coa but­ter.

Turmeric ( Cur­cuma do­mes­tica), which grows wild in large clumps of bright green canna-like leaves along the sides of the road as you wind from the plains of In­dia to the high coun­try of Dar­jeel­ing in the Hi­malayan re­gion, is cul­ti­vated at Matale.

Many of the spices we use to­day are de­rived from species na­tive to Sri Lanka

A mem­ber of the gin­ger fam­ily, turmeric is im­por­tant in cur­ries: the bright or­ange rhi­zomes are har­vested once the fo­liage has died down.

Turmeric, I am told “is very good for anti-can­cer and joints”.

An­other mem­ber of the gin­ger fam­ily, car­damom ( Elet­taria car­damo­mum), is na­tive to re­gions in the East, in­clud­ing Sri Lanka, and is used in cur­ries.

Im­por­tant in a coun­try where mos­qui­toes thrive, cit­ronella oil is ex­tracted from the fo­liage of a Sri Lankan species of grass, Cym­bo­pogon spp., and is used world­wide as an in­sect re­pel­lent and dis­in­fec­tant. Ap­pli­ca­tion of the oil di­rectly on the skin can stop itch­ing af­ter an in­sect bite. The fra­grance of the curry plant, Helichry­sum itali

cum — a mem­ber of the Aster­aceae, or daisy, fam­ily — hangs in the air through­out Sri Lanka.

The oil ex­tracted from the yel­low blos­som is said to re­duce joint in­flam­ma­tion and skin rashes. De­spite its com­mon name, it is a mix­ture of spices, rather than this plant, that is used in preparing cur­ries.

The aloe, Alovera saponaria, is used to al­le­vi­ate sun-

burn. “Also, our beauty cream uses it with white rose, jas­mine, cu­cum­ber and av­o­cado,” ac­cord­ing to Jay­alth.

We take vanilla for granted, al­though it was un­known to the world un­til about 500 years ago. A green fleshy pod, with no flavour or aroma, is har­vested from the climb­ing orchid Vanilla plan­i­fo­lia and must be cured over a three-month pe­riod by heat­ing, which ac­ti­vates an en­zyme that pro­vides the flavour.

The black pods are then left to dry in the sun for a fur­ther month. Vanilla is na­tive to Mex­ico, al­though it is now cul­ti­vated in Sri Lanka, Mada­gas­car, Pa­pua New Guinea, In­done­sia and In­dia.

If you buy the richly scented vanilla as the pod rather than as the liq­uid ex­tract, split it open to re­veal the tiny seeds. Scrape the seeds and mix with a lit­tle sugar be­fore us­ing to flavour sweet treats. Then enjoy!

Co­coa pods grow­ing in the Sir­i­lak Spice and Herbal Gar­den at Matale in Sri Lanka; vanilla plants, far left; a gar­den walk­way, bot­tom left

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