Desi Entrepreneurs in the Gourmet Food Market

Khabar Magazine. December 2022 print.

During the holiday season in India, I remember shopping at the local halwai shops for colorful boxes of freshly made sweets and gold foil-wrapped hampers filled with dried fruits. We would purchase dozens of these to give to colleagues, friends, and hosts. Over the years, these gift baskets became more and more elaborate, incorporating imported chocolates, premium spices, and gourmet teas. Many India-based websites such as The Gourmet Box, Provenance, and Angroos now offer luxurious gift baskets incorporating curated epicurean products and small-batch artisanal foods.


In the U.S., a handful of South Asian entrepreneurs have also started brands of Indian-inspired gourmet foods for sale online and in retail stores; and are catering to a wide variety of palates. Backed by inspirational stories, these small businesses have received much-deserved awards and accolades, as well as inclusions in must-gift lists for the holidays.

Meet some of the founders and learn about their unique offerings.

Elevated small-batch condiments

Chitra Agrawal is the author of the cookbook, Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn. In 2014, she founded Brooklyn Delhi focusing on the Indian pantry staple—achaar. She discovered that the only achaar available for sale in the grocery stores in New York was heavily salted, oily, and full of preservatives.​

Agrawal shares fun creative recipes of how to incorporate these Indian-inspired flavors to any dish on her Instagram page. I tried a penne pasta sautéed in Roasted Garlic Achaar sauce and a turkey burger topped with cheddar, avocado, and Tomato Achaar. They hit the spot, satisfying my need for a little spice with everyday American meals.


When Agrawal heard that the socially impactful spice supply chain company, Burlap and Barrel, had sourced a single-origin, heirloom Kashmiri chili from a family farm in Pampore, Kashmir, she approached them for a collaboration. Using a North Indian recipe inspired by her grandmother, she created Brooklyn Delhi’s Mango Chutney. The chutney is different from others I have seen at Indian grocery stores. Made with tangy, juicy, ripe mangoes, sweet brown sugar, golden raisins, fresh ginger, lemon juice, and fiery spices, it has layers of flavors and the freshness of a homemade condiment. Served with fried papad, samosa, or crackers on a cheese board, it makes for a palatable starter before any meal.

After receiving positive feedback for her pickles, she added an array of new products—Curry Ketchup, Curry Mustard, and Golden Coconut Curry—to the roster.​

Homemade chai anytime

Atlanta-native Farah Jesani founded One Stripe Chai Co. to bring attention to the South Asian beverage at par with the beloved coffee. She realized that the craft of chai-making isn’t possible to execute at mainstream coffee shops as they don’t have kitchen stovetops. So, she created chai blends and pre-mixed haldi doodh based on her mother’s recipes, sourcing tea leaves from ethnic and biodynamic farms like Chota Tingrai in Assam.


During the pandemic, Jesani expanded the company beyond the concentrates to introduce at-home do-it-yourself blends that retain the robust flavors of spiced chai with the added benefits of customization.

I enjoyed the smooth and nutty flavor of Chai After Five which has lower caffeine as it is made with Indian ho¯ jicha instead of black tea. It gives you a pick-me-up after the workday with organic masala spices and pairs well with the chai-spiced stroopwafels. During cooler weather, you can use the chai concentrate to infuse granola and serve it with Greek yogurt or incorporate it into a spiced apple pie.

Warming Indian soups

On winter nights, there is nothing more satisfying than a bowl of homemade soup. But you may not have all the ingredients at hand or the time to stew and simmer. New York-based Maya Kaimal recently introduced a new line of ready-to-eat Indian-inspired soups that simply need to be heated on the stovetop or in a microwave-safe container. The Tomato & Warm Spices Inspired Soup is thick and comforting, seasoned with cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and a hint of coconut milk. The Creamy Spiced Butternut Inspired Soup reminds me of the pumpkin curries of Kerala, brightened by curry leaves and coconut cream.

Kaimal grew up in a multicultural household in New York; and as a teenager, she learned to cook South Indian specialties from her Indian father and aunt. It wasn’t until she was laid off from her dream job as a photo editor for Saveur magazine that she launched the food company, Maya Kaimal Foods, out of her Brooklyn apartment. She wanted to offer quality, homemade Indian foods such as Everyday Dal, Everyday Chana, Basmati, and Surekha Rice that could be bought at grocery stores. Kaimal won the Julia Child Award for her cookbook, Curried Favors, and her third cookbook, Indian Flavor Every Day, is releasing in the spring of 2023.

Fair trade spices

At 23 years of age, Sana Javeri Kadri founded Diaspora Co. to build a radically new and truly equitable spice trade, championing climate resilience and more delicious food systems. The Mumbai-immigrant had come to California for college but returned home for seven months of market research and founded the company in 2017 with just Pragati Turmeric.

Diaspora Co. pays farmers six times more than the average commodity prices, zero-interest loans, as well as healthcare to farm laborers. Now, at 27, the young queer Kadri works with around 200 farmers in India. She recently closed a financial round-up of $2.1 million to fuel growth and has been named in the “Forbes 30 under 30 – Food and Drink” twice.


 Besides working towards the betterment of the community, Diaspora Co.’s masalas are fresh and flavorful. And the new blends elevate every dish from chaat to tandoori. Kadri and her partner, Asha, also offer virtual cooking classes each month, proceeds of which are donated to worthy causes.

Curated “Flower” boxes

Indian immigrant husband and wife duo, Lavanya Krishnan and Sandeep Bethanabhotla, founded Boxwalla in 2015 as a way to share their own discoveries. It was a one-stop shop for the best things that the sensory, creative, and intellectual world had to offer. Both were working professionals in the fields of neuroscience and academia, but were drawn to plant-based and indie brands. They wanted consumers to understand the context in order to enjoy a product fully.

Boxwalla offers unique subscription boxes with beauty, books, film, and food-themed artisanal products from all over the world, delivered to the door every two months.

The new food box is themed “Flowers – to eat, drink, and even smoke.” Exquisite, pressed flower cookies from Loria Stern in LA, Aesthete Love Potion’s Assam looseleaf black tea, Brooklyn- made Raaka unroasted rose and cardamom dark chocolate bar, smokable herbs and flowers from Anima Mundi, Grist & Toll’s Sonora Flour from indigenouslyowned Ramona Farm, are a few of the items that are inside. It is the perfect gift for curious minds wanting to explore extraordinary brands that are otherwise not easy to find at big-box retailers.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

Instant Ready-To-Eat Indian Meals

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2022 print.

With Indian cuisine becoming mainstream in the U.S., kitchens, grocery markets, and online stores are stocking up on new varieties of instant frozen, canned, and boxed Indian dishes. Over the years, I have tried many of these and have been disappointed with the cardboard stale aromas and chalky flavors. Also, they often contain high amounts of sodium and preservatives, necessary for the shelf life of packaged foods.

But recently, I came across The Cumin Club, a Chicago- based company that offers ready-to-eat Indian food meal plans that arrive at the doorstep in lightweight, room-temperature stored packages. The meals are inspired by different regions and the recipes created by home chefs in India. You can choose to order a quantity of five, 10, or 20 meals to be delivered weekly, every fortnightly, or monthly.

The meals arrive in separate packages that contain liquid, vegetables, and cheese, and require about five minutes of preparation time. You don’t need to chop, grind, or do anything else other than boil water in a microwave, kettle, Instant Pot, or on the stovetop. Simply empty the dehydrated vegetables and curry contents, stir it, and serve.

Like most self-proclaimed chefs, I am always skeptical of Indian fare that is not prepared from scratch after using two dozen ingredients and spending hours laboring in the kitchen. But the dishes I tried from The Cumin Club did not compromise on taste. The paneer butter masala had a nice flavor of tangy tomatoes with the appropriate ratio of sweetness and spice, and the sauce was not too creamy. The paneer pieces were packed separately and tasted soft and fresh once I put the meal together. Malabar veg kurma from Kerala was also a light and appetizing vegetarian dish. The masala poha, with flattened rice, lentils, roasted peanuts, and spices, took only eight inactive minutes to prepare, which is very convenient for a quick and nutritious breakfast before a busy workday. Even a dish I would otherwise consider perishable, the yogurt-based Punjabi kadhi, was available through the meal program and tasted just like homemade.

All the meals came with dehydrated coconut chutney, microwavable papad, as well as fresh leavened rotis that needed to be warmed for only 30 seconds.

I rarely cook Indian sweets at home because they require considerable time and effort. But the moong dal sheera took less than ten minutes to prepare and tasted like I had ground the soaked lentils and simmered them in milk for hours. With chopped cashews and almonds, it made for a delicious and impromptu dessert.


Though the flavors were just like homemade, I thought the portion sizes were small, even for one person. In order to make it a filling meal, you may need two entrées, along with a side of roti or puttu. The best part about the meals was they were protein-rich, preservative- free, and pure vegetarian. Some of them were also labeled vegan, gluten-free, and nut-free to accommodate most diets.

The Cumin Club offers over 40 dishes to choose from including dal chawal, pongal, kichdi, pav bhaji, bisibelebath, bhindi masala, dal makhni, and halwa. Each meal costs less than $5, takes 5-10 minutes to prepare, and has a shelf life of 5-20 weeks (except the rotis that last up to 15 days).

When Coimbatore resident, Ragoth Bala, was studying at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, he got tired of eating American fast food and wanted flavorful, fresh, and comforting Indian dishes. He co-founded the startup, The Cumin Club, in 2019 along with Harish Visweswaran and Kirubhanandan Rajagopal. The idea was to bring the convenience of meal plans to busy Indian-American households and vegetarians. Unlike other pre-packaged Indian foods in the market, his scientific formula incorporates extracting moisture from high-quality ingredients using a unique food dehydration method, perfecting the proportions and preparations, and packaging in a vacuum seal for freshness. All the dishes have cumin, the ubiquitous spice across Indian cuisines, which was the inspiration behind the name, The Cumin Club.

Now the idea of dehydrating gourmet dishes is not novel. Colorado-based Backpacker’s Pantry offers chana masala packets and Kathmandu curry (with a 10-year shelf life), and Maine-based Good To-Go (created by American chef Jennifer Scism) sells Indian korma packets along with several other international cuisines.

Though most Indian immigrants, who are purist cooks like me, may not turn to packaged foods for their weeknight dinners, the affordability and convenience offered by The Cumin Club and other such ready-to-go meal plans is often utilized by students, singles, and busy professionals. As an avid traveler, I would also prefer to pack a few of these when I go hiking or camping in remote areas where I need to cook my own meal with limited ingredients and utensils. And there have been a few times during my travels, such as when I was on an African safari in Kenya or was quarantined due to the pandemic at a hotel room in Curacao, when I could have used the instant homestyle Indian food.

The parent company of The Cumin Club has also started a chain of virtual restaurants called The Cumin Bowl which offers soulful and healthy Indian street foods delivered through apps like DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats, and Seamless. They are located in Chicago, New York, Texas, and closer home at UPop, the upscale convenience store by Savi Provisions in Atlanta.

~ Written for and printed by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

Festival Food Favorites

Khabar Magazine. Oct 2022 print cover story.

This collection of cherished memories and recipes from food enthusiasts is sure to put you in the mood for the holidays.

Kheer: Nothing beats my late Grandma’s Punjabi recipe!

Growing up in northern India in a multi-religious household meant that I had the rare opportunity to celebrate many festivals with equal enthusiasm.

Each year, during Christmas, I dressed up in my finest and attended midnight mass with my grandma at the Catholic church where we ate decadent rum-flavored fruit cake and sipped on hot chai on freezing evenings in Chandigarh. On Shivratri, I offered milk at the Hindu temple and took home bright orange drops of boondi prasad. On Gurupurab, we gathered with friends at a community langar at our neighborhood Gurudwara for a simple yet heartwarming meal of puffed thin pooris, spice-smothered chana masala, and moist-rich sooji halwa. On Eid, our Muslim friends would gift us a portion of their sacrificed goat which my grandma would turn into flavorful mutton shami kebabs that made me hover around the kitchen for several hours in anticipation.

Food is an integral part of our memories, especially the ones that center around family, friends, and celebrations. The family matriarchs often hold the responsibility to carry on traditions and pass down recipes. It is no surprise then that each one of the contributors below credits a mother or a grandmother for their recipes.

However, with time and place, rituals and traditions often go through transformations. When I moved to the U.S., I no longer welcomed unannounced guests with a tray of hot and cold beverages, and homemade sweet and savory snacks. For Diwali, potluck dinners became necessary to share cooking responsibilities. We postponed celebrations to weekends and modified recipes for faster cooking times.

Still, there are some dishes that most of us feel nostalgic about—so much so that we are willing to exert the time and labor for them. For me, it is kheer, a dessert that my grandmother always made at birthdays and festivals. It is a simple dish with only a few ingredients, but my grandma purchased each of them in the highest quality, especially for the occasion.

“The family matriarchs often hold the responsibility to follow rituals, carry on traditions, and pass down recipes. It is no surprise that each one of the contributors below credits a mother or a grandmother for their recipes,” says Sucheta Rawal, seen here with her late grandmother.

Over the years, I have traveled around the world and discovered that the versatility of rice and milk makes for a universal dessert. It may be known as kheer in India, arroz con leche in Central and South America, rizogalo in Greece, and rice pudding in the U.S., but the essential idea is the same—to use leftover rice and turn it into something luscious. Some recipes include cinnamon, others leave out the raisins, and the consistency may vary.

But the best version, for me, is this—my late grandma’s Punjabi recipe modified with Italian arborio rice. My kheer thickens within an hour, offering a rich smooth texture without having to add any cream or condensed milk. The updated version reflects my own universal palate.

Kheer with Arborio Rice

(Serves 8–10)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 1.5 hours


  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup arborio risotto rice
  • 8 cups whole milk
  • 5-6 pods of cardamom
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • 2 tablespoons sliced or slivered almonds


  1. In a large microwave-safe bowl, add the rice and water. Cover with plastic cling wrap and poke holes with a knife so the steam can evaporate. Microwave on high for 6-8 minutes until the liquid is completely absorbed. Remove the cover and let it cool to room temperature before proceeding.
  2. In a heavy-bottom large pot, bring the milk to a boil. Add the cardamom. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently using a rubber spatula. Add the cooked rice and continue to simmer for another 45 to 50 minutes, stirring frequently and mixing in the cream that collects on the top.
  3. Add the sugar and continue to simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the consistency is thick.
  4. Add the raisins and mix again.
  5. Chill the kheer for at least 4 hours or overnight, and garnish with almonds before serving.

~ Continue reading on Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved.

Myths and Tips About Spices

Khabar Magazine. June 2022 print.

How to source, store, and cook the most important ingredients in your Indian pantry. 

Spices are an integral part of the Indian kitchen, and most of our knowledge about them has come naturally through tasting and observing. Most of us never went to a formal cooking class or read the encyclopedia of spices and, yet, seem to have somehow discovered our way around cooking with—and enjoying—a variety of spices.

Still, we may not know all there is to know about spices after all! So, here is a refresher about common facts and tips about spices.

Spices are good for you

Doctors and nutritionists are already touting the health benefits of spices, which has led to the availability of spices and spice supplements at mainstream grocery stores. If you happen to be one of those people who get acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or ulcers after eating “spicy food,” spices may not be entirely to be blamed.

Red chili and its active compound capsaicin (responsible for the heat) actually help prevent and alleviate stomach ulcers. Some believe it also helps lower blood pressure and weight loss.

Turmeric and cumin aid digestion. In fact, turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve an upset stomach. It also contains antioxidants that counteract free radicals and prevent cancer. Similarly, piperine and curcumin found in pepper prevent cancer. Cloves are also extremely high in antioxidants and hinder bacterial activity. Ginger and cinnamon aid in digestion; and have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Spicy is not always hot

A spice is defined as a root, bark, seed, or plant substance used for coloring or flavoring food. The term “spicy,” often misconstrued as “hot”—as in chili or peppery—in the western world, simply means incorporating the quality and aroma of spices. Not all spices are hot. Some spices are mild, others sweet, and most tend to play a distinctive role in flavoring and elevating a dish.

However, if you do need to soothe a burn after eating something “hot and spicy,” water is not the answer. Instead, reach for milk, yogurt, bread, or even chocolate.

You only need a little

Like most foods, spices have a limited shelf life. They may not spoil and rot like your milk does, but they do lose much of their flavor and potency over time. The general rule of thumb is to purchase each spice in small quantities (100-500 grams) and replace them every six months. If a spice has been sitting on your shelf for a year, it is time to replace it with new stock.

Also, keep into account that certain spices have longer shelf life than others. Spices that have a powerful smell, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom, age faster because they release their essence, while others with a less pungent aroma, like cumin and coriander, remain on the shelf longer. The best way to determine if the spice is still good to use is by simply smelling it.

Ever wonder why Indian kitchens have round, stainless steel spice boxes filled with colorful seeds and powders? Spices should always be stored in airtight bags or boxes located in a dark pantry or drawer. Spices contain volatile oils which, when exposed to light and air, start to deteriorate. Tin jars are best because they are airtight and block out the light.

Whole is better

Spices that come in seed form, such as black pepper, cumin, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom, have a more robust flavor when purchased whole rather than ground. “Think about purchasing coffee beans whole vs. ground. Some people prefer roasting and grinding their own coffee because it is more flavorful,” says chef, restauranter, and founder of Spicewalla brand, Meherwan Irani. However, spices that come in a pod or root form, such as chili, ginger, and turmeric, are ok to purchase in powdered form.

And when it comes to the best place to purchase the spices, Indian stores and Asian markets that have high volume and quick turnover will likely have better quality products. They are also more likely to sell spices whole.

Irani advises that you roast whole spices in a warm pan and grind them fresh just before cooking. Doing so activates the ingredients and releases the oils, imparting better flavor and aroma to the dish. But Indian cuisine requires you to use both whole and ground spices at different stages of cooking. When making his butter chicken recipe, Irani may use whole cumin seeds in the beginning, a coriander and cumin powder mix half way through, and finish off with freshly roasted cumin powder at the end. They all have different roles to play in the final taste of the dish.

Grind before cooking

While growing up in India, Irani’s entire family spent an entire week making blends and masalas at his grandmother’s home. After roasting and cooling the spices, they would blend and grind them in an old, large hand grinder. Today, you can use a spice mill, mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder for finer consistency.

Blends have their place

“Blended masalas like garam masala, tandoori masala, chaat masala exist for a reason. They are combinations that work together to help you get to the flavor profile you want,” adds Irani, though he strongly encourages home chefs to create their own recipes for blended spices. Just buy whole spices in small portions and make enough mix for one batch of the dish.

Without good quality spices, any chef will lack the proper tool to lay a foundation for a dish.

And if you feel all this is a lot of time and effort, think of how expensive spices were when we first discovered them, how far sailors and merchants went to buy them, and how they transformed food across cultures. So, brighten your palate and inspire your own culinary adventures.

Appeared in the June 2002 print issue of Khabar Magazine in the Food and Dining section. All rights reserved.

Where to Find The Best Indian Food on an American Road Trip

AAA The Extra Mile. July 2021.

As you embark on a road trip across the U.S., your choices to eat are no longer limited to fast food and gas station snacks. With the rise of South Asian truck drivers on American roadways, a demand for Indian cuisine has also surmounted. As a result, Indian fast-food restaurants have popped up along the country’s interstates from Oregon to Alabama!


dhaba (dh-aa-baa) is an Indian pit stop that is synonymous to highway restaurants across India and Pakistan. These family-run budget eateries specialize in Punjabi cuisine (region of northern India). They also offer basic travel amenities such as clean restrooms, indoor and outdoor seating, rest area, and a gift shop. Dhabas mainly cater to truckers and road trippers looking for a taste of India on the interstate, though they have recently gained popularity among college students and late-night diners too. Some travelers even plan their road trip centered around a meal at their favorite dhaba.

~ Continue reading on AAA The Extra Mile.

Travel: Here’s Why KERALA Continues to Be One of the Top Tourist Destinations of India

For Khabar Magazine print edition. February 2018.

Warm humid air, the smell of roasting curry leaves, voices sounding singsong Malayalam, coconut trees as far as I can see—I had arrived in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country.

As soon as I landed at Kochi International Airport, I felt like I was no longer in the India I was so familiar with. Being raised in the north (Punjab), I could instantly see a drastic contrast in the environment and attitudes of the people. The two-lane highways in Cochin were lined with colorful shops selling everything from masala tea and banana chips, to 24K gold jewelry. But as thousands of vehicles drove past during rush hour, each gave way to the other in an orderly fashion with barely audible honking, a background sound I had been accustomed to until a few hours ago. In Kerala, traffic, people, nature—all hummed a similar tone of peace and harmony.

Kerala has been named India’s most advanced state (if not in the top two) in many respects. It is the safest, healthiest, most environment-friendly state with some of the best educational and agricultural prospects in the country. With high literacy (over 94%), equal opportunities for women, and very little poverty, Kerala has become the epitome of success for India’s development. It is no wonder that tourists from all over India and abroad who are seeking a calm and ecofriendly retreat head to Kerala.

My first stop in Kerala is Marari Beach, a 2-hour drive from Kochi, where I am greeted at my hotel by smiling staff members dressed in perfectly pleated saris and starched white mundus (a garment wrapped at the waist like a lungi). They offer me cold tender coconut water picked from their own front yard and usher me into a thatched-roof bungalow with a spacious bathroom that has a semi-open roof shower. I feel that I am at a luxurious fishing village, surrounded by nature, but equipped with modern amenities.

Set on 30 acres of beachfront covered with coconut groves, lily ponds, fruit trees, and a large organic farm, I feel instantly relaxed at Marari Beach Resort in Mararikulam. Many people come here for week-long wellness retreats indulging in daily yoga lessons, Ayurveda massages, and customized vegan meals to heal their bodies.


(Left) A mouthwatering destination for foodies. Seafood Thali.

While listening to melodious tabla and flute played by live performers, I feast on my first Kerala meal of fresh grilled seafood, fragrant meat stews, appam (fermented rice pancakes), and a dozen homemade pickles from vegetables picked at the resort’s organic gardens. Abundant with spices, the cuisine of Kerala includes a wide assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, coconut oil, curry leaves, and ghee. Most ingredients are grown locally, if not in people’s own backyard gardens. Even the spices and oils are harvested from neighboring villages, ensuring quality and freshness. The “50 Mile Diet” is a reality here as most meals are cooked with ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the resorts.

The next day, I wake up at the crack of dawn to stroll on a secluded beach, gazing at the power waves of the Arabian Sea, and to practice a few of my asanas with the very flexible resident yogi. Yoga is an essential part of the mind-body restoration and practically all resorts offer free yoga lessons.

After a breakfast of freshly made dosas, it is time to explore the neighboring town of Alleppey, popularly known as “Venice of the East” due to its intricate network of canals.


(Right) A Hindu temple in Alleppey.

Alleppey—or Alapuzha as it has been renamed—is a great place to see the harmonious religious diversity of Kerala. It is believed that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century. Kerala is now home to the largest population of Christians in India. At Christ the King Church, I see statues of Jesus decorated with money garlands just like you would at a Hindu temple. Just next door, one can hear the Muslim call to prayer. There are a few Hindu and Jain temples around Alleppey that are also worth visiting. Colorful painted wood, stone, and metals are used to create multiple-storeyed pyramid style structures and compound walls.

I walk through the grand entrance (rajagopuram) and go in barefoot to pay my respects to the Gods at the majestic Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneswari Temple. There is a feast, festival, or celebration taking place throughout the year, with processions and offerings at the temples and churches. Common to all religious communities is the harvest festival of Onam, which takes place for 10 days sometime in August-September.


(Left) Usually there is a clash between commerce and natural beauty, since development cuts into the latter. The lush green landscapes of tea plantations, however, translate to great commerce as well.

I continue my journey, heading inland on a winding road through lush green cardamom hills and terraced tea plantations to the hill station of Thekkady. Many of the tea factories in the area offer tours and tastings, so I stop to pick up packets of green and black teas at wholesale prices. The small town of Thekkady is densely packed with spice shops selling freshly dried cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, and nuts. Nearby, there is a cardamom (elaichi) sorting factory and the largest cardamom auction house in the world. The aromatic seeds were first commercialized by the British who developed plantations, and India is now the biggest producer of cardamom in the world. It is hard not to stock up for the year on high quality spices sold at a fraction of store prices!



(Right) Spice Village, the author’s lodging in Thekkady.

My lodging in Thekkady is aptly named, Spice Village, and is the oldest mountain village-style resort in the area. Surrounded by hills and backed by forest, the cottages are spaced around spice trees. A naturalist takes me around the property to introduce me to the variety of flora, and the monkeys and birds that hang around the cottages. Keeping true to Kerala’s eco-friendly nature, the resort grows its own food, filters and bottles its own water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. Local culture is also intricately tied into the visitor experience. In the evening, guests gather in the community hall to watch live performances of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam before retiring to Woodhouse Bar for a nightcap. The former home of forest ranger Mr. A. W. Woods is converted into a British-style pub with old black and white photos, antiques, and a 150-year-old billiards table.


(Left) Crossing the river by old-fashioned rafts, to get to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

We watch an exciting slideshow at the Interpretation Center – Tiger Club located at Spice Village, thrilled at the prospect of encountering tigers and elephants in the wild. Dressed in camouflage, leech-proof socks, and walking boots, I make my way to Periyar Tiger Reserve on a bus, then cross the river on an old-fashioned bamboo raft, and finally set foot into the forest. After a few hours of trekking through the serene sanctuary set in the mountainous Western Ghats, my ranger and I only see some wild dogs, giant squirrels, deer, langur, macaque, and mongoose. “Chances of seeing a tiger are very rare!” he informs me, though evidence of sighting exists in pictures back at the Tiger Club.

One cannot come to Kerala and not experience the backwaters, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Kerala backwaters are made up of five lakes and 38 rivers, linked by canals. The backwaters are an important part of Kerala’s infrastructure as they provide water for irrigation, access for transporting rice, and environment for aquatic life. Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake is my next stop. Many people come here to rent a houseboat or ketuvallam and cruise on the waters for a night, enjoying the cool breeze and eating fresh catch. Watching the architecture and design of the traditional Kerala houseboats is charming as you see these floating homes (equipped with beds and restrooms) make their way through coconut groves, water hyacinth ponds, and rice paddies.

I decide to stay at Coconut Lagoon, a heritage hotel located by India’s longest lake. Accessible only by boat, a water taxi brings me to the reception of the hotel, which is intertwined by lagoons and bridges. Each of the buildings is made of wood salvaged from historic homes from all over Kerala and reassembled on the property. The inside of the room looks like an intricately carved wooden houseboat. With spectacular views of the lake, rice paddies, gardens, and a bird sanctuary, it is hard not to feel completely relaxed.

02_18_Travel_Ayurveda.jpg(Right) Kerala is a popular destination for Ayurvedic massages, and detox and rejuvenation retreats.

If the scenery and organic food is not enough to comfort the senses, two Ayurvedic doctors (known as vaids) are available at the spa to diagnose and treat common ailments. Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicinal practices in the world and widely followed in Kerala. It is believed that the wet temperate climate, abundance of medicinal plants, and an abundance of Ayurveda colleges and researchers make Kerala an ideal place to consistently experience the benefits of Ayurveda. After a brief conversation with my doctor and diagnosis of my vata, pitta, and kapha, I am advised to get a four hands massage to help with my stiff neck and shoulder aches. Using a mixture of essential oils and extracts, two ladies gently rub the liquid in circular motion to release tension and relax my muscles.

To end the day, a local lady known simply as “Amma” pulls in her canoe to serve chai and snacks to the guests staying at the resort. She skillfully ribbons her homemade masala tea from one steel cup to another offering a magical show of sorts that entertains kids and adults. We sit on the green lawn, sipping on hot tea and gaze out at the calm waters. Being in Kerala for a week has slowed me down and infused the sense of tranquility that every vacationer seeks.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine. February 2018.