What spices are good for

I decided to get lost in the city, and walked off. The narrow streets were amazing, and I just love the life with open doors, out in the street. Animals were everywhere, eating the garbage that people threw out everywhere. If you don’t need something, you throw it out of the window. The smells, again, where mesmerizing. Every meter has its own strong smell, and not always bad. In the main streets, the traffic was crazy, but the sideways where nice and quiet. The way they move around the streets reminds me of bees entering their hive. They all want to be the first, and there is a lot of pushing, but it all goes fairly peaceful. Sometimes all comes to a honking stop. Because a riksja got stuck against another one, a motorbike is turning, or people try to get of a tuktuk. This time it felt different, with a different urgency. People where trying to get out of the way. It soon turned out why. From the lower street, an enormous elephant came up, carrying two little boys on his back.


On the way back I decided to buy some peanuts, almonds and raisins in the spice market. The view was beautiful, bright in colours and again, so rich in smells. This experience really applied to all the senses. The piles of red peppers smelled so strong that they made me tear up and sneeze. After a few laps past stalls and shops, I found a tiny shop that sold the cheapest almonds. Not bigger than a closet, full of shelves, drawers and doors. The guy behind the desk looked as old as me, and had a funny smirk on his face. It was hard for me to tell if he was trustworthy. He looked self confident, and there was something too smooth about him. He wanted me to look at a book he showed me, with “all his friends of the most of the part of the world”, as he kept repeating. I was hesitant. Was he trying to lure me in to buy something?

The book was full of pictures of him, posing with tourists in front of his little shop, accompanied by written, very positive recommendations about spices. When I asked him where it was all about, he told me to sit down and wait, because he first wanted to help his local customers. His uncommon reaction seemed uneagerness, was in fact priority, and gave me a special sense of trust. I waited on a plastic stool, as he took his time to help his customers who sat down next to me while he was weighing all kinds of unrecognizable spices. In between two clients he looked at me and pointed at a pile of dusty Tupperware boxes, telling me I was to find out all about the spices which were inside. He did a good job making me curious, but I was still holding back a little, afraid it would be just another sales pitch.


OK, he said when the locals went and he opened the first of the boxes.

In there, six small cans with different curries, red, green and yellow. He taught me the basics of Indian spices in cooking. The colors are different states of riping, giving the curries different tastes, with the different spices mixed in. He let me taste them all, carefully, with the tip of my pinkie, but they weren’t too hot. For every curry he gave me a tiny recipe card, in different languages, describing how to make these curries. The English spelling on the cards made me laugh, being almost phonetic*.

Then came the massalas, the mixes of spices they use as a base for a lot Indian food. I recognized most of the tastes, from sweet to even sour, but so much richer and pure. He interrupted his lecture a few times, to help local curious customers, staring at the foreigner, sitting in the shop. Then came the separate spices, the main five that formed the backbone of the Indian kitchen. Ginger, lime, Cumin, Asafoetida, Carom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Fennel, Cardamom and Turmeric. After all this, I prepared for the catch. How much would it cost, or what do I have buy after this full hour of education. Instead, he asked me if I would like a cup of tea, real Chai Tea, with massala, as it was supposed to be. Most touristic cafes sell Chai tea as hot milk with mixed with English tea, but as he told me, a good chai comes with a ginger cloves massala. He made a phonecall and two minutes later a boy came running from the street, with two cups of chai on a small plate. And yes, it tasted great. He asked me to write a recommendation in his book, and if he could add me on Facebook. I bought a mix of cashews, coconut and almonds, thanked him for my regained trust and took off, smiling.

*Ronak, if you read this, I will happily help you correct and design the next batch of cards!