Spice Farming in India

In recent years I’ve become a little obsessed with how the food we eat is produced.  The Food Network’s “Unwrapped” and “Food Factory” were staples in our house before we left Canada.  There’s just something incredibly interesting about how raw ingredients are transformed into the types of food products that we find in the supermarket.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just me?

Well, on our recent visit to India, my wife and I had an opportunity to visit and tour the Tanshikar Organic Spice Farm.  I must admit it was one of the highlights of our trip.

Tanshikar is located about 35 km from Palolem in the jungle of southern Goa.  When we arrived it was explained that the Spice Farm tour package included lunch and an optional guided hike to a local 75 m waterfall.  That sounded great to us.

We started with the waterfall hike so we’d be back before it got too hot.  The guide spoke no English and set a brisk pace (especially through the boulders of the mostly dried up river bed!), but after about an hour we eventually emerged at the waterfall.  It was pretty awesome.

Mainapi Waterfall

Mainapi Waterfall

Upon our return we sat down to our traditional Goan lunch.  It consisted of rice, chapati bread and several vegetarian curries and salads.

Lunch at Tanshikar

Lunch at Tanshikar

Finally, after lunch, the spice farm tour began.

Tanshikar practices “mixed farming” and grows no fewer than 15 crops at any given time.  You won’t find rows of one type of plant in a specific plot here.  Rather, all of the trees are mixed together.  The owner describes that this idea of mixed farming helps to protect against crop loss.  Also, having varied crops means that if weather/market conditions aren’t favorable for one type of crop, the farm has other crops to buffer its income.  Of course he’s sacrificing some profits in doing so, but he argues that his farm is more sustainable this way.

On our tour we seemed to just amble through the jungle.  To the untrained eye it was difficult to even identify the different spice trees.  At each new plant or tree we would stop and the owner would first get us to try to guess which spice tree we were standing in front of.  Sometimes he would even let us taste the leaves or seeds.  This was a lot harder than you think.  I only got about half of them right.  I was able to identify cardamom, vanilla, cocoa, pepper and coffee (only because we had seen it in Guatemala a few years back), but whiffed on nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.  It’s so strange seeing these spices in an entirely different form than we do back home.

After trying to guess the spice, we would get a brief description of the process of pollination, harvest and processing of each spice.  I couldn’t get over how labour intensive some of these were.  For example, the vanilla bean, requires pollination by hand or the fruit won’t grow.  The crazy part is that the flower only lives for one day before falling off, so workers need to be extremely diligent to make sure they don’t miss this crucial window.  And then after pollination it takes the bean just under 1 year to mature!  After which it is picked and requires another 2 months of processing, just to get the vanilla bean you can buy in the supermarket.  Unbelievable!

Vanilla beans - almost ready to be harvested

Vanilla beans – almost ready to be harvested

Very spicy chilies.  They are full grown size - about the length of my thumbnail

Very spicy chilies. They are full grown size – about the length of my thumbnail

Nutmeg fruit.  Nutmeg and Mace is obtained from the pit of the fruit.

Nutmeg fruit. Nutmeg and Mace is obtained from the pit of the fruit.

With this being an organic spice farm, no pesticides are used on site.  As we passed the cocoa tree, the owner pointed out some red ants which he described help to naturally protect the plants by eating harmful bacteria and fungi.  He mentioned that locals also eat these ants and that they have a lemon-like flavour.  I was skeptical, so he asked if I wanted to try one.  After a moment’s hesitation, I said I would.  How many times in life will I have the opportunity to eat lemon flavoured ants!  He told me to pinch the head and chomp down on the backside.  Lo and behold they did taste like lemon.  Apparently it’s due to the acidic venom stored in their bodies.

Tasting an ant - mmm....

Tasting an ant – mmm….

We finished our tour at one of the farm’s bee colonies.  In the past few years the farm has started raising bees primarily to help with the pollination of their plants and trees, but a second benefit is that they make several commercial products including beeswax and honey, which they sell mostly just at the farm.

Honey bees

Honey bees

The only small downside on the tour, especially from a dietitian’s perspective, was the owner’s non-science based claims of the health benefits for the spices he grew.  For example, he claimed that cinnamon was effective for controlling diabetes, yet this idea was dismissed in a recent systematic review1.  As I’ve described before, the perpetuation of nutrition myths, particularly by people with zero nutrition background, isn’t a good thing.

All in all though, it was a fantastic experience.  If you happen to find yourself in Goa, be sure to check Tanshikar out!

_________________________

References

  1. Leach MJ, Kumar S.  Cinnamon for diabetes mellitus.  Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Sep 12;9:CD007170. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007170.pub2.
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