Nepali Spices: Too Hot to Handle

Features Issue 96 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

These headlines trumpeted the success stories for two small countries in opposite corners of the world. The common source of the two nations’ pride was cardamom, a name used for herbs within two genera of the ginger family Zingiberaceae, namely Elettaria and Amomum. Elettaria pods are light green in color, while Amomum pods  are larger and dark brown. According to the headlines, Nepal had become the global leader producing 6,647 tons of large cardamom (alainchi) while India lagged behind in second place. In 2008-09, India imported about 5,000 tons of large cardamom from Nepal while its own production was 4,450 tons, according to in their India Exports 2008-09 report. They also stated that, “the production of small cardamom (sukmel) was 11,000 tonnes; higher than last year’s production of 9450 tonnes. The low availability from Guatemala, the major competitor of small cardamom, has resulted in the increase of our exports during 2008-2009.” In 2007, Guatemala’s export of green cardamom had reached an historic high with revenues of US$137.2 million.

India, however, still continues to be the superpower of spices. V. J. Kurien, Chairman of the Kerala-based Spices Board, has reportedly said, “We control about 44 percent of the world trade”. In 2007-08, India exported US$1.102 billion worth of spices. Indian farmers produce nearly 100 different varieties of spices with an annual output of over three million metric tons, which are exported to more than 150 countries, the leaders among them being USA (21%), Malaysia (7%), UAE (6%), China (6%) and UK (5%). Chili is the largest spice item exported from India.

Spice Wars – Part II (the 21st Century)
Superpower India is being challenged today by countries far smaller in size; and more significantly, they are succeeding. Consider this headline: “Vietnam Pepper Too Hot for Indian Traders” from the July 17 2008 edition of Vietnam Business Finance News. The report states, “Black pepper originating from India once again starts feeling the heat of competition in the global market from its arch rival, Vietnamese pepper.” India Exports 2008-09 admits that “Vietnam, with an annual production of almost double that of India, has now become one of the major suppliers of pepper.” Another small country, another success story.

The major markets for Vietnamese pepper include the UAE, Germany, India, Egypt, Pakistan and Spain. The USA, the world’s leading pepper importer, is conspicuously absent from the list. Pepper accounts for a quarter of the world’s spice trade.

India currently leads in global production of ginger, with over 30% of the global share, replacing China, which has slipped to second position. In 2005, however, China was the leader, with a global share of almost 25%, followed by India, Nepal and Indonesia. The battle continues. Et tu China? India might well be tempted to say.

The India Export report goes on to say that “During 2008-2009, India exported 52,550 tonnes of cumin seed and that this high volume was due to less than normal production of cumin in Syria and Turkey in 2008. India is the largest supplier of turmeric in the world market while the other major suppliers are Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar.” So, in addition to Nepal, Guatemala, China and Vietnam, India has now also to contend with Syria, Turkey, Indonesia and Myanmar. And, of course, these countries have to battle it out among themselves as well, because success in one arena can only whet the appetite for victory in another. For instance, Nepal might well start thinking, “Alainchi today, sukmel tomorrow?” The war is on and the battle cry is certainly not “For Christ and Spices!” as uttered by Vasco de Gama and his crew when they first set foot in Calicut of South India in 1498.

Spice Wars – Part I (15th and 16th Centuries)
Calicut was then, as it is now, the gateway to the world’s greatest pepper growing region. The discovery of pepper, and subsequently, other spices by the Europeans led to great trade rivalry between the powers of the times, chiefly, Portugal and Spain. For much of the 15th and 16th centuries these two countries engaged in a continual war to gain control of the world’s spice trade. The battle for the world wide control of the spice market led to the formation of the world’s first business cartel, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), literally meaning Dutch East India Company, in 1602, an association meant to reduce competition, share risk and realize economics of scale. By 1670, VOC was the richest corporation in the world with over 40 warships and a 10,000 soldier army besides 150 merchant ships and 50,000 employees.

The lure of spices led to a worldwide colonization spree and the VOC used its muscle power to conquer the Banda archipelago (Indonesia), the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace. Conquest of many other Indian Ocean islands, called the ‘Spice Islands’, followed. But by the 1730s, spices were being cultivated globally and monopolies gave way to markets that still retain their romanticism due to the inter-cultural mix of Western enterprise and eastern exoticism. The spice bazaars of Kerala, Ambon, Rotterdam, London and New York have a fascinating charm. The world’s largest spice firm, McCormick in Baltimore, USA, and the world’s biggest and most influential spice trading firm, Man Producten in Rotterdam, are the new movers and shakers in the spice world today.

Spices in Nepal
In Kathmandu, Bhai Ratna Bajracharya is perhaps Nepal’s ‘Marco Polo’ of the spice trade. Established 30 years ago, his shop Shankha Pasal in Kothunani, Asan, is still is a major dealer of condiments as well as dry fruit. ‘Shankha Pasal’ translates as ‘Conch Shop’ and is so named because they also deal in conches. The conches were imported from the southern Indian shores, a region famous for its spices, and possibly, the business of condiments must have followed as a natural adjunct.  Raju Tuladhar also sells spices in the same bazaar. He discloses, “Almost 90% of our spices come from India.” His father, Pushpa Ratna Tuladhar, was also a spice merchant and Raju is only continuing the family tradition. Their small shop near the center of the ancient bazaar is crammed with a comprehensive variety of spices and dry fruits. But, although the season of festivities and social functions, like marriage, bel bibah (coming of age ceremony for Newari girls), bratabandh (the same for boys) and so on, is on in full swing

  • a time during which his business should be really flourishing, Raju is not happy this year. “Maybe it’s because of the bad economic conditions, business is pretty slow nowadays. People just don’t have the money.”
  • 1984 Japanese study entitled The Study of Spices in Nepal has something intriguing to report under the heading: ‘Utilizations of spices by the Nepalese tribe people’:
  • The Chhetri people usually use methi, besar, jeera, jwano, tejpat, lahsun, aduwa,  khursani and rayo.
  • The Newars use methi, besar, jeera, dhaniya, jwano, lahsun, aduwa, khursani, Nepali sunp, and tejpat.
  • The Tamangs use methi, besar, jeera, dhaniya, jwano, lahsun, aduwa, and khursani.
  • The Sherpas use lahsun, aduwa, khrusani, dhaniya, jeera, and methi, and also the wild spices ermarg, koma, and zimbu.

The study points out that while all Nepalese used the same kinds of spices; different castes and ethnic groups used them in different ways. Whatever the differences, it is clear that spices are indispensable to the Nepalese way of life. Among the many seasoning varieties at hand, one of the perennial favorites is the popular garam masala, a mixture of a dozen spices used to flavor many dishes, especially meat. As the name implies, it imparts heat (garam) and is therefore particularly beneficial in the cold months. Garam Masala contains equal quantities of jeera (cumin seeds), dhania (coriander), marich (black pepper), methi (fenugreek), besar (turmeric), sukmel (cardamom), alainchi (black cardamom), dal chini (cinnamon), tejpat (bay leaf), luang (clove), jaifal (nutmeg), and saipatri (mace).

Whole garam masala costs about 700 rupees per kilogram, while the ground version will cost around 900 rupees. Among its ingredients, mace is probably the most expensive costing about 1600 rupees per kilogram, while nutmeg and cloves cost about 700 to 800 rupees per kilogram. The [rice of green cardamom is around 1400 rupees, black cardamom costs 500 rupees, and fenugreek costs 100 rupees per kilogram. Coriander costs 200 rupees and the rest are also priced between 100 and 200 rupees per kilogram. According to Raju, it is advisable to buy whole spices individually and have them ground separately.  The various mixtures available in the market do not always guarantee quality, as more of the economical spices could have been added and less of the more expensive ones.

According to another shop owner, “Indian spices are among the best, and so they are more expensive; but cheaper spices are also imported from places like Singapore and it is likely that these cheaper spices are added in mixtures.” Whole spices can be ground in a coffee grinder, food processor, pepper grinder, or mortar and pestle. Cleaning the grinder after use is easy enough. All one needs to do is add some sugar or uncooked rice and process. One can also dry roast spices by toasting spices for 2 to 5 minutes or until the spices are lightly browned; or they can be heated on a heavy skillet, stirring constantly to prevent burning. This can accentuate the aroma of spices like cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, poppy seeds and sesame seeds.

In Nepali, the word ‘masala’ can refer to both spices and dry fruits. A mixture of both is a nutritious supplement for new mothers. Known as sutkeri masala, it consists of gund (edible gum), dry fruits, batisa (mixture of 32 herbs), jwano (carom seed), methi (fenugreek) and sounf (dill). It is taken dissolved in milk or water, and imparts almost all the essential nutrients in concentrated amounts. For infants, a mixture of dates, almonds, cashew nuts, pistachio and nutmegs makes for a traditional diet supplement. Traditionally, the serving of supari (betel nut), sukmel (cardamom) and luang (cloves) are obligatory after any feast. The coconut is considered to be an auspicious offering. During social events, dry fruits are an essential component of the rituals and among them, kaju (cashew nuts), kagaje badam (almonds) and pista (pistachio) are the most expensive. Kismis (raisins), okhar (walnut), chahara (dry dates), aaru (apricot), anjir (fig), and sultana (raisins with seeds) are other important dry fruits.

Unlike spices which are not viewed nutritionally, dry fruits are obviously highly nutritious. For instance, raisins enrich blood and cure anemia and are useful in cases of debility, for relief of constipation and regularizing bowel movement. Cashew nuts, besides being a rich source of vitamins and minerals, are also rich in mono unsaturated fat. Dates relieve hangovers and constipation and build up the heart. Almonds have plenty of vitamins and minerals and are credited with a host of health benefit including creation of blood cells and hemoglobin; strengthening of muscles, nerves, bones, heart and liver; preventing anemia and constipation; relieving bronchial diseases and hoarseness and cough. This is why Raju Tuladhar says, “Yes, almonds are certainly the most in demand among dry fruits.” But almonds, like other dry fruits, are quite expensive. As Raju says, “Nowadays, if one is eating a handful of cashew nuts; you could well find somebody or the other who will exclaim, ‘Wow, you are having cashew nuts!’” He laments, “The situation is such that people just can’t afford all this anymore. No wonder we are just having a hand to mouth business.”

Spices Abroad
That may be the case here, but Indian exports are doing a roaring business, possibly explained by the fact that more people in more countries are getting hooked on spices. Spices have always been a big thing in Britain where it is often said that Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish and, as everybody knows, the very word ‘masala’ means spice.  Restaurants tagged with the word, ‘Masala’ are sure to draw in the crowds in places like London and there are plenty, rest assured. In Arab cultures, cardamom coffee (kahwe hal), is considered an essential symbol of hospitality. The spice revolution has taken over America as well, and it is usual now to see online advertisements like this one: “The ‘ Holiday Spice Kit’!”, including  turmeric powder (200 gm), chili powder (200 gm), hing (asafetida) (50 gm), coriander powder (200 gm), mustard seeds (200 gm), cinnamon sticks (50 gm), cumin seeds (200 gm), garam masala (200 gm), curry powder (200 gm), amchoor/mango powder (200 gm), panch puran a five spice blend (100 gm)... all for only $49.99 at One will nowadays find plenty of groceries selling spices all over the country, and the world.

Many importers (mostly non-resident Indian businessmen) are all too willing to fulfill the surging demand. One of which is House of Spices located in Flushing of New York. Established in 1970 with just one store in Jackson Heights, it has today nine distribution centers in major cities around the USA. Obviously, House of Spices is not the only player in the spice business in America, but it certainly is one of the largest. A walk inside their huge warehouse in Orlando is an eye opener. Long shelves hold a host of spices in various weights and packings and a listing of these should be enough to make knowledgeable even the most ignorant about the fascinating world of spices. And, if we are to add those available at the Shankha Pasal in Kathmandu, then perhaps the picture of the spice world will be almost complete. (See the box for a veritable almanac of spices.)

Besides all the spices in the almanac, there are many different variations of the same spice in different parts of the world. And although today they are mainly flavorings of food, different uses have also been found throughout history for spices. In early Egypt (where burial was perhaps the most important tradition of all), anise, marjoram and cumin were used to rinse off the insides of the important dead, and cassia and cinnamon were essential for embalming. In ancient times spices were considered especially valuable because they preserved and made the ‘less well preserved’, palatable; masking the stench of decay and staleness (understandable in the absence of refrigerators). And of course, spices have always been treasured and found necessary because, besides imparting dark husky aromas, they enhance the taste of food.

Having said all this, and seeing the high demand all over the world for spices, it is no wonder that nations, both big and small, are vying with each other for the hugely lucrative market, a market that seems to be expanding all the time, global recession notwithstanding. The prize is huge: the wealthy markets of the USA, the EU, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. The challengers are many: India, China, Madagascar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, Spain, Guatemala and Sri Lanka. And now, Nepal too is a worthy contender. The war is on and the new battle cry here is no more “Aayo Gorkhali!’. It is rather, “Aayo Nepali Alainchi!”