The first time I’d heard of a “hill station” was when I was on The Chai Box website, and the founder had created a blend of cardamom and rose chai that she named after memories she had at the Shimla Hill Station in Himachal, India, located at the foothills of the Himalayas. I later learned that hill stations were common in India, known as towns in the low mountains of the Indian subcontinent, often popular as destinations for holidays and honeymoons, especially during the hot seasons when it would be a bit cooler there. When I was researching Kerala and where to go given we would be flying in and out of Kochi, it was really overwhelming to narrow down where to go given our short amount of time here. Munnar seemed like a logical choice given it is about 4 hours by car and was known for its rolling hills, scenic valleys, and endless tea plantations and spice gardens.
We’d visited tea plantations before. We’d seen them while walking and hiking in Hangzhou, China, known for the famous Longjing or Dragon Well green tea. We’d seen them in Taipei after taking the Maokong Gondola up into the mountains overlooking the city; a number of tea plantations are up there. But this was the first time we had walked through a tea plantation and literally been in the hills with them. When you see these endless hills, with row after row of tea bushes (actually trees, but cut short to make it easier to pluck the leaves – still not sure how I never knew this before…), it almost seems like it’s fake, like something out of a postcard that wouldn’t really look this gorgeous in real life. But it really is just as stunning as the photos online. We also got lucky with the weather, as when we walked through the plantation, the rain temporarily stayed away.
Another notable part of our day trip to Munnar today was the spice garden we visited. The state of Kerala is very famous for its spices; it’s considered the land of spices, even within India. It is listed as being one of the top 15 states in India for spice export, with its top spices being pepper, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon (of course, some of my faves!). We got a straight taste of the freshness of these spices today when I got to eat fresh cardamom seeds from a not yet ripe pod off the plant (it was so strong, almost like I had multiple cardamom pods’ worth of seeds in my mouth!), and also got to squeeze a nearly fresh clove and see its juices seeping out of it. That was evidence of exactly how fresh the spices were, how very recently, these spices were dried and prepped for purchase.
Everyone always says how key it is to cook with fresh spices, but the reality is that most of us do not have the freshest spices and keep the same jars or containers of spices for years, if not decades. Plus, until relatively recently, most of us living in the west had no visibility into how our spices, whether whole or ground, even got to our local supermarket or grocery store; we didn’t know what country they came from, when they were processed, or exactly how “fresh” they were; the spice trade was essentially a black hole. I myself have tried to be better about not keeping old, stale spices, but it’s hard because it’s not like spices are cheap, and it’s hard just to throw things away for me, especially with food that hasn’t actually gone “bad.” But when you smell and taste these extremely fresh, bright, and vibrant spices, it almost makes you feel more alive, as trite as that sounds. Because here, you actually are tasting and smelling what these babies are intended to taste and smell like, with a pungency that is very much in your face, pure and natural. I picked up some cardamom, cinnamon sticks, and mace, which I’ve actually never purchased before, but I have seen it in some Indian recipes but just omitted it since I never had it. Now, I don’t have to! Seeing and tasting the plants and spices today was a really exciting and invigorating experience. I’d love to see more spices and their plants and how they are cultivated.