Spices are as old as time. What can one write that hasn't been written about them? And yet there's always a story. Raised eyebrows and a look of disbelief were my reactions when I was first introduced to Malabar Secrets, a spice brand founded and chaired by Delhi-based entrepreneur Bina Ramani. “It' s all about reinvention,” she said. “You have to re-educate your palate.” This sounded good, but wasn't very convincing. The experimental collaboration between single malt and spices was hosted jointly by her and Glenfiddich. Reluctantly, I had to admit they were refreshing and different from the regular juice combinations offered by bartenders, something I had always considered sacrilegious, a cringe-worthy waste of good malt.
Then I met Bharat Singhal, the Delhi-based founder of Bili Hu, a brand that sources coffees from estates and curing works in and around Chikmagalur, Karnataka, Arvind Chawla, founder of Darima, a cheese brand manufactured in Mukhteshwar, Uttarakhand, and Snigdha Manchanda, Goa-based founder of Tea Trunk; and Bina made me taste spiced honey and chocolates. They were indeed new flavours. And with the benefits of enhanced health. A few drops of blended spices in liquid form, that Bina calls elixirs, can turn your essential H2O alkaline (to what your body needs as opposed to acidic that your body doesn't need) with a dash of flavour.
Truly, it is about introducing the palate to new flavours. The trick is to combine ingredients with the dexterity of a mixologist, or a chef or an artist. What was common to all of them was an attempt to move towards a chemical-free, more organic produce, which automatically takes the prices up and reaches out to the conscious consumer.
The world of coffee is moving to single estates where a master blender, much as in the business of whisky, wine and perfume, is an important (if not the most important) person in the process. “Getting consistency from a single plantation is difficult due to many reasons, but this is where coffee production is moving,” explained Singhal. Unlike for tea, adding spices to coffee is not done at the blending or packaging stage. “Intercropping is where coffee gets its flavours,” Singhal revealed.
Coffee might get planted and grow alongside nutmeg or cacao (or some other spice). This is from where it gets its flavours, a fairly new idea. Earlier there would be only one crop planted. With intercropping, there's an intermingling which results in a new flavour profile. Resting the coffee beans in an old cask that has been used to mature whisky is an experiment that lends a hint of fiery spirit to the beans.
Awareness of the health and the therapeutic properties of coffee amongst consumers has increased. Herbs and spices are driving the surge in demand for different flavours such as cinnamon, paprika, cumin, Spanish saffron, and coconut. Mr Beans, a coffee chain owned by Abhimanyu and Neha Singh, has also stepped up its brew game with the concept of big, bold, and fast coffee which has seen major traction at its coffee lounges. “What makes Mr Beans stand out are not just the beans, but the addition of different spices,” said Abhimanyu Singh.
Chawla agreed that using spices is not a new idea, particularly in a country that supplies spices to the world. “It's about bringing together East and West,” he said. “Cheese is not an Indian idea. We have used milk in other ways, not as a dried and cured product.” At best, cheese has had herb flavours like oregano and rosemary. Using spices such as coriander and chilli is purely an Indian construct.
His bestsellers are Zarai (spiced cream in the local language) and Chilli Bomb, both highly spiced. The latter, as the name suggests, is a powerhouse of pungency.
“It's for the Punjabi in me,” he joked. “And it goes very well with whisky.”
Manchanda said, “You can make your masala chai at home but getting masala tea from a tea blender ensures that you get a premium product that has been through months, even years of trials and tasting until the perfectly balanced blend is packaged and brought to your teapot.” She pointed out that it's not always about getting the best quality to blend. “The best sometimes overpowers the overall mix and disturbs the balance.”
Tisanes, commonly known as herbal teas, are made from various fruits, flowers, leaves, herbs and spices from plants other than the Tea Plant (Camellia Sinensis), said Ahmedabad-based Sandeep Kotecha, Founder and Director of The Kettlery, a tea brand. “More than 25 per cent of our collection consists of complex herbal mixes that have robust and varied tastes. We source and blend herbal blends from spiced kavas, fruity iced and wine teas to even herbal dessert blends by using rare ingredients that include South African rooibos, dandelion, roasted South American mate, mulberry leaves and marigold petals.”
Chocolates, too, came with nuts and largely fruity flavours until some years ago when Lindt decided to put in rock salt and chilli. Vikas Temani, Business Head of Paul and Mike, a chocolate brand of Kochi-based Synthite Industries, said the company is constantly experimenting and working on novel ways to use this age-old produce of India. The flavours of chocolate, he explained, depend a lot on fermentation and how frequently the mixture of pulp and bean is 'turned' for oxygenation.
Since there are so many connoisseurs out there, even in India, the processes too are changing to give more refined products to discerning palates. So, Amazonian pink pepper might be sourced from Brazil or vanilla from Madagascar for that perfect authentic taste in your bar of chocolate. The point of note here is that the entire process is being mimicked from the philosophy of the wine industry.