Mr. Abraham’s Spice Garden – cooking with coconut in the Cardamom Hills of Kerala

Mr. Abraham's cheery home - photo - Karen Anderson
Mr. Abraham’s cheery home – photo – Karen Anderson

Coconut is a great ingredient and though I love coconut, I think spices are perhaps the greatest ingredient ever given to a cook.

This post allows me to share another savoury coconut recipe but it also satisfies my longing to share my journey to a very special place in Kerala, South India.

When I planned my first trip to India, I planned it around two equally passionate quests; I wanted to meet India’s people and I wanted to go to where the spices grow.

Both of these desires were fulfilled when I found myself at Mr. Abraham’s Spice Garden in a quiet, lush corner in the Cardamom Hills near Periyar. I fell in love with the garden and of course with the garden’s caretakers.

Mr. Abraham’s garden was included in a BBC TV show and book by Monty Don called Around the World in 80 Gardens. I think it’s as close to the Garden of Eden as I’ll ever get. Read on, for the recipe and a virtual tour of the garden and you’ll see why I’ve been back and will keep going back as long as I’m able.

Let’s get the recipe out-of-the-way and then I’ll give you a virtual tour of the garden with Mr. Abraham (the healthiest looking septuagenarian I’ve ever seen).

Mrs. Abraham’s Vegetable Thoran
This is a dry stir-fried dish – quite like coleslaw – with cabbage and carrots. When I eat it while I’m traveling in India I feel like I’ve had a nice salad. I’ve learned the hard way that my foreigner’s digestive system can only eat cooked vegetables in India and so I love these freshly cooked versions of something we’d eat cool in Canada. The addition of coconut makes this truly Keralite local and delectable.
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
1 ½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
10 curry leaves
1 jalapeño chili, diced
4 cups chopped green cabbage
4 carrots, diced
1 cup grated coconut (fresh or frozen)
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon salt
Heat the oil in a wok and add the mustard seeds and curry leaves; fry till they begin to dance and pop in the pan.
Add the chill and fry till fragrant.
Add the rest of the ingredients, stir well to coat and then put a lid on the wok and cook on low heat until the vegetables are softened and cooked.

Good. Now, we get to the reason I’m so gaga about this place…SPICES!

Mr. Abraham planted all the plants in his garden in 1952 with his father. They planted the jackfruit tree first because in times of drought, when no other food would grow, the jackfruit trees kept the village from starving. They would produce a 45 pound fruit in the worst of times. Mr. Abraham has a soft spot for jackfruit. He’s watched each and every plant in his garden grow to the lush state that now surrounds him. He’s built water reservoirs, canals and irrigation ditches stone-by-stone and all by hand.

It’s funny. To call this two acre patch of grown up jungle a garden is a misnomer to my mind. Before I went, when I imagined a spice garden, I envisioned a cross between a vineyard and an orchard.

I had it all wrong. Spice grow in the jungle, and that is what a spice garden looks like too. And so, India teaches me again. Words don’t always work in explaining nature’s reality.

South India is lush. Things want to grow and grow and grow. Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country”. Not “God’s Country” as some places are known. No, Kerala has the distinction of being “God’s OWN country”. When you visit and see the riot of colours blossoming in flowers along the roadside, hills verdant with vegetation, hundreds of kilometres backwaters guarded by coconut trees, spices hanging from trees and pushing up from the earth and beautiful people with warm and welcoming smiles – it is easy to see why God would have claimed this place as his OWN.

Mr. Abraham has this two acres of “spice garden” surrounding his home and he has two more gardens near by.

The spice garden is open for tours and lunch can be booked. Shaded paths lead the visitor through cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg.

Pepper is the king of spices. We use black pepper daily to season our food and maybe through enjoyment of its pungency – our lives. The best pepper comes from here on what is known as the Malabar coast. The plant does not grow on its own. It is a vine that lives symbiotically with the tall trees it likes to climb. It needs the rains to pollinate its flowers so they will bear their green peppercorn fruits. When they start to turn red they are ripe and they are picked and dried to their black state or soaked in water and fermented to become white (barnyard-tasting) peppercorns.

Cardamom is known as the queen of spices. Mr. Abraham says it is the taste of India. It is the second most expensive spice in the world – next to saffron. It is finicky to grow as the environmental temperature must not go to high or it will die. The Cardamom Hills of Kerala manage to stay at the perfect temperature most of the time. When and if it gets too hot and the cardamom crop fails – the price skyrockets around the world. Green cardamom is the most sought after. It is used in chai tea masala, rice dishes, puddings, desserts and savoury dishes and in a variety of medicines. It is clean, crisp and bright to my palate. I’m not sure if it makes me feel more alive when I taste it or if I’m just happy to be alive because I taste it.

Mr. Abraham also grows vanilla and cocoa, gherkins, green beans, tomatoes, squash, eggplants, limes, jackfruit, pineapple, papaya, coffee and six kinds of banana trees. He keeps little black Asian bees. Orchids and astoundingly beautiful exotic species grow in pots, cracks, crevices and every nook and cranny you care to look in as you walk around the property.

Let’s go now and have a look at my photos below. Click on the first picture to enlarge the photos and scroll your way along with me and Mr. Abraham.

If you want to go to Kerala sometime yourself to meet Mr. Abraham and to visit “God’s OWN country”, I’m happy to recommend my business partners at Indus Travels to help you plan your trip. I’ve worked with them for three years now to help me realize my dream of taking small groups to explore the cuisine and culture of India and we’ve had great success together.

Here’s a nice way to finish this post.

Open the video below and scroll forward to the 34 minute mark. You will then get to spend four minutes with my friend Mr. Abraham. It won’t be the same as being there and meeting his family and sharing a meal with all their freshly grown ingredients but, it might just give you the appetite to take the journey in real time.

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