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The Road to Kandy: Spice Gardens

There are many things to see and do on the Road to Kandy in order to discover the secrets of beautiful Sri Lanka. One thing that immediately tempted me when I began reading about Sri Lanka, were the Spice Gardens. I stayed in Colombo in a neighbourhood called Cinnamon Gardens, so I wanted to look into the “spice connection” of Sri Lanka… I am a keen cook and I have an impressive collection of little spice jars in my pantry, but I don’t really know where they come from or how they look just off the tree or shrub…

Photo Thierry Mignon

The Spice Trade

Sri Lanka is considered by some as the cradle of the ancient spice trade. Indeed, its climate is especially suitable for growing spices. Sri Lanka has diverse micro-climates and soil types, making some spices endemic, hence its importance in the spice trade. For a long time, the cinnamon trade was monopolised by Arabs and North African traders, who arrived in Galle, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, in the 7th Century. At the time, a pound of cinnamon was more valuable than a pound of gold !

Photo Thierry Mignon

Vasco de Gama discovered the route to Asia in 1498 and enabled the expansion of Sri Lanka as a spice trading destination. The spice trade became the biggest trade in the world.

Today, spices are still a major export for Sri Lanka. A Spice Council has been established to promote cultivation and trade.

Spices feature prominently in Ayurveda, an ancient form of medicine, along with herbs and oils, in massage oils, remedies and cosmetics.

Photo Thierry Mignon

The Spices of Sri Lanka

Cinnamon – Kurundu

Also called Cassia, cinnamon is endemic to Sri Lanka. You obtain this unique spice by making shavings (or quills) of the inner bark of the cinnamon plant. Cinnamon has a very long history and was traded in Egypt as early as 2000BC. The Dutch exploited cinnamon in Sri Lanka and made a very successful trade. Today, 90% of the true cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka. Cinnamon has a delicate sweet scent and flavour, and you can also find it in sweets and cosmetics.

Pepper – Gam Miris

This is one of the most famous spices. Interestingly, all the varieties of pepper, black, white and green come from the same plant. Black pepper is the unripe fruit of the pepper plant, piper nigrum, cooked and dried. Green pepper is the dried, unripe fruit, but uncooked. Finally, white pepper is the ripe pepper fruit. Pepper is said to aid digestion.

Photo Thierry Mignon

Cloves – Karabu Nati

Cloves are the bud of an evergreen tree, originally from the Maluku Islands, Indonesia. They are known to help with tooth ache and feature in Ayurveda medicine in the shape of a toothpaste.

Cardamom – Enasal

Also known as the “seeds of paradise”, cardamom is mentioned in sacred texts in India 4000 years ago, and was cultivated as an aromatic plant in the gardens of Babylonian Kings. Cardamom is the third most prize spice, after saffron and vanilla.

Coriander  – Kottawalli

You can give flavour to curries but roasting and grinding coriander seeds.

Turmeric – Kaha

You can use turmeric in powder form, as a condiment in curries and to colour food. Also, turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Fenugreek – Uluhal

This spice has a rather unpleasant scent and a bitter taste and is used to flavour and give the necessary binding or thickening effect to curries.

Sweet Cumin – Maduru

You can use this spice in the preparation of curry powder together with coriander and cumin.

Cumin – Suduru

Cumin is one of the ingredients of curry powder together with sweet cumin and coriander.

Curry Leaves – Karapincha

Curry leaves come from a tropical tree, native to Sri Lanka and India.

Lemongrass – Sera

Lemongrass has medicinal, pesticide and preservative properties. You can use lemongrass in cooking and cosmetics.

Gamboge – Goraka

You can use gamboge as a souring and thickening agent in white curries, fish and meat preparations, and certain vegetable curries.

Nutmeg and Mace – Sadikka and Wasawasi

Nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree, myristica fragrant, and the mace is the reddish netlike covering around the seed. This spice made for a lucrative trade, mainly exploited by the British in Sri Lanka.

Vanilla

Vanilla is a word of Spanish origin, “vaina”, meaning “little pod”. The pods are extracted from the orchids of the Vanilla Genus. The only natural pollinator of this plant is a type of Mexican bee. Therefore, hand pollination is required in Sri Lanka, making it a very labour-intensive cultivation. Which is why vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. The type of vanilla present in Sri Lanka is Bourbon Vanilla.

The Spice Gardens

There are spice gardens all over Sri Lanka and the jury is very much out as to whether they are a “rip off”. I only visited one, Paramount. In all honesty, I found it a little bit run-down. The guide was very knowledgeable and very welcoming, and there was a great variety of plants. However, the shop was a little basic and the prices were high. I found some nicer spices in Galle, so I wouldn’t rely on the spice gardens for my spice shopping. Either way, it was worth seeing how those fragrant berries and powders start out.

Photo Thierry Mignon

Have you visited any Sri Lankan spice gardens? Is there one really worth visiting?

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10 Comments

  1. Nadia @ City Mum ~ Rural Life

    April 13, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    I had never heard of Gamboge! One day I’d love to go along the Spice route. Sri Lanka sounds like an amazing place.

    1. Delphine

      April 13, 2017 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks Nadia, there are some mysterious spices indeed… My favourite is cinnamon!

    1. Delphine

      April 13, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      Thanks Anup, I have more content coming up about Sri Lanka!

  2. circleskirtsandpetticoats

    April 13, 2017 at 11:30 pm

    I had no idea that most of the spices I use came from Sri Lanka! How interesting!

    xo, Helene

    1. Delphine

      April 14, 2017 at 8:08 am

      Hi Helene, it’s interesting to see that all those powders in little jars come from somewhere! I highly recommend taking a trip to a spice garden when in Sri Lanka!

  3. Vibeke Johannessen

    April 14, 2017 at 5:45 am

    This is amazing. I didnt know about all this. I would love to see that, as I love spices , especially turmeric, cumin and cardamom. It must be so fascinating to see this 😀

    1. Delphine

      April 14, 2017 at 8:09 am

      Hi Vibeke, thank you for your comment. It’s always nice to see where your food comes from, and this includes spices!

    1. Delphine

      May 17, 2017 at 9:08 pm

      Thanks Sruthi, I’m very pleased you like it!

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