“What’s Life Without Cumin?”

Cumin Globe at 51

Cumin Globe at 51

My friends and family might roll their eyes at the frequency they’ve heard me state the title of this post, but given cumin’s importance in the cuisines of the world, it bears repeating. The spice’s ubiquitous place around the globe dates back to the Old Testament. Seeds excavated in India have been dated to the second millennium BC. Egyptians used it as a spice as well as one of the many ingredients required for mummification. Its heavy use in Greek, Roman and Assyrian cuisines help earn its place in the pantheon of spices.

“Once it has been introduced into a new land and culture, cumin has a way of insinuating itself deeply into the local cuisine, which is why it has become one of the most commonly used spices in the world,” writes Gary Nabhan, author and social science researcher at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, in his recent book, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans.

Nabhan’s book is really a much broader look at the spice trade and its relationship to history and culture. But cumin earned a spot in the title “because it is so demonstrative of culinary globalization,” Nabhan writes.

Cumin has also literally been popular since the dawn of written history.

In English, at least, cumin has a singular distinction – it is the only word that can be traced directly back to Sumerian, the first written language. So when we talk about cumin, we are harkening back to the Sumerian word gamun, first written in the cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago. Continue reading

The New Grand Tour

Trevor Ward on a cycle tour in the Sahara. Photograph: Trevor Ward

Trevor Ward on a cycle tour in the Sahara. Photograph: Trevor Ward

In the summer of 1988 Crist and I boarded a flight to Missoula, Montana, watching nervously through the window as the luggage that included our bikes and gear was loaded on the plane. We’d been “training” for several months, riding our bikes around New York City, our panniers filled with heavy phone books. Our 900 kilometer journey through the Canadian Rockies from Missoula to Jasper, Alberta – carrying all the requisite gear – was exhilarating, “impossible” and crazy, especially for biking novices such as ourselves. Reading about Trevor Ward’s experiences strikes a chord.

Back in the mid-1980s, I did something that members of my local cycling club found hilarious – I cycled to the Sahara Desert and back.

In their Lycra shorts and replica Peugeot and La Vie Claire racing jerseys, they laughed at my bike which, laden with panniers, tent, cooking stove, sleeping bag, spare tyres and even a small folding deckchair, had been transformed from a sleek blade of steel to something resembling the aftermath of a gas explosion.

My humiliation continued in the remotest parts of Tunisia and Algeria where groups of children would greet my arrival at their villages by throwing lumps of rock at my head. Continue reading

Lighting Up Language

Malayalam Project at Kochi Biennale

Malayalam Project at Kochi Biennale

As a language, Malayalam is a perfect example of form as function: its “loopy” forms seem to roll off the speaker’s tongue. The word itself is even a palindrome, reading forward and backward in a never-ending loop. The high literacy rate in Kerala is evident in the newspapers found in tea stalls at every corner, not to mention the ubiquitous walls painted with verbal signage in both urban and rural settings, and those signs often feel more like murals due to the graphic nature of the language itself. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale ’14 is the perfect platform to express this concept:

Among the various internationally-acclaimed installations at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale ’14 is Malayalam Project that strives to draw the world’s attention towards the regional language and script.

A partner project at the Biennale, Malayalam Project is a collaborative forum that experiments with Malayalam letterform and typography. Kochi-based firms Thought Factory Design and Viakerala have put together this typography cum graphic design exhibition in collaboration with Riyas Komu, secretary of the Kochi Biennale.

“In the digital era, where imagery is used to communicate ideas, words become canvas of graphic. We are looking at how Malayalam, which is either a sound or a text enters the visual age we live in,” said the creative director Theresa Joseph George.

Pointing out that her firms have done lot of research into the field of Malayalam typography, Theresa, who is also a graphic designer, says, “Malayalam script with its loopy curves provides immense scope for experimentation.” Continue reading

Systematically Distributing Holiday Cheer

The holiday season is about giving and the classic song quantifies the largess. The American Museum of Natural History is home to many happy childhood memories and I embrace their scientific form of expressing holiday cheer. Not everyone can claim their “True Love” is a “Science Geek” – but kudos to AMNHNYC for helping us all be Science Lovers!




Seed to Cup Tea Experience

Roasted Assam Tea "nibble" with cane sugar

Roasted Assam Tea “nibble” with cane sugar

Our time in Thailand included a range of sensory experiences, one of which was tea. One might think that living in India, we have little more to learn about tea, but that is far from the truth. Our experience with tea in our adopted home has been more visual than experiential; drives through the beautiful, sculpted tea landscapes of Munnar, or the tea tours near Thekkady, for example.

In the northern Thailand we visited a 60-hectare tea plantation near the Lisu Hilltribe village in Chaing Mai Province. One of the oldest plantations in the country, the owners are working on expanding the quantity of tea produced while offering the full range of tea experience for visitors, from planting a seed that will be lovingly cared for over a 2-year period before being transplanted, to hand plucking the tender green “silver tips” of the tea, Continue reading

Water Hyacinth EcoDevelopment Projects

Water hyacinths choke the Poorna river at Tripunithura. Photo: Vipin Chandran; The Hindu

Water hyacinths choke the Poorna river at Tripunithura. Photo: Vipin Chandran; The Hindu

There are many similarities between Indian and Thai river life; watching villagers and people on barges going about their daily lives on the water is one, and the flora and fauna of river life is another. While traveling on the Chao Phraya River it only took a moment to see how the water hyacinths have the potential to choke river traffic. My excitement was piqued when Chananya from Asian Oasis told me that there was an established industry to use the plant for decorative, household and furniture purposes. Continue reading

Pathum Thani River Market

Climbing Wattle (sometimes called Acacia) with a charming banana stalk wrapping. In Thai it’s call “Cha- om ” and it’s mostly eaten fried in egg batter to accompany chili dip. (Thanks to Chananya from Asian Oasis for the wonderful explanation!)

Climbing Wattle (sometimes called Acacia) with a charming banana stalk wrapping. In Thai it’s call “Cha- om ” and it’s mostly eaten fried in egg batter to accompany chili dip. (Thanks to Chananya from Asian Oasis for the wonderful explanation!)

With the opening of Spice Harbour and Marari Pearl, life at RAXA Collective frequently is filled with a flurry of activities. But a current visit to meet colleagues in Thailand has reminded me of my love of markets. The first leg of our trip took place on the lovely Mekhala Rice Boat cruising up the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok toward the Bang Pa In Summer Palace. The overnight was lovely, but one of the highlights was a stop at the riverside market at Pathum Thani.

Although similar to markets I’ve experience in India, this one seemed to have a distinctive Thai flare, with more prepared items than I’ve seen in India.

Salted Edamame - I'm guessing steamed.

Bundles of Salted Edamame – I’m guessing steamed.

Continue reading

Thanksgiving: Art History on a Plate

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As we continue to work on plating and food trials for 51 at Spice Harbour, the concept of deconstructing a typical Kerala dish often makes it into the conversation. During these conversations with Indian colleagues the subject of “typical American food” frequently comes up. Like India, there’s no one “American cuisine” (don’t get me started on the horrors of our fast food exports), but a Thanksgiving meal comes close.

In the collaborative spirit of preparing and plating a meal that’s meant to be shared, multi-media artist Hannah Rothstein deconstructed the classic Thanksgiving meal of turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce and “sides” with a nod to 10 artists with the most distinctive of painting styles, with the acception of Cindy Sherman, a photographer best known for her conceptual portraits. Continue reading

Throwback Thursday: October Olives Redux

One aspect of the reconnaisance for projects in Greece included embracing and honoring past experiences. The place of foodways and cuisine in the narrative of lives can never be underestimated. The taste and aroma of a specific food brings back floods of memories, crossing the bounderies of time and space.

Visiting Laconia, the region in the Greek Peloponnesus that year after year receives accolades for both it’s olives and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) was in many ways like coming home. Coming home to family heritage, coming home to living in other olive producing countries and how we embraced those cyclical events that humans have engaged in from time immemorial.

In the village of Soustiani in Laconia we met Nikos Papadakos and his wife, after a 6 year hiatus, to again talk about their company, Lithos. In this region of olive excellence they form a cooperative of organic farmers, collecting the harvest into one source and both pressing the fruit into EVOO and packaging the olives in both jars and vacuum packed sachets for easy transport. Continue reading

Throwback Thursday: Community, Collaboration & Conservation Exemplified

When Horace Greely (well, actually John B. L. Soule) said “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country!” he was speaking from the perspective of limitless possibilities. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had helped map out the west and many young men, and later women, answered the call.

With wilderness in peril, that same entrepreneurial spirit has opened up a new world of empowerment and possibilities for later generations.  The California Conservation Corps and Southwest Conservation Corps have teamed with the non-profit Veterans Green Jobs in a win-win program to support both the country’s military veterans and the country’s national parks. Continue reading

River Blossoms

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India’s famous flower markets are testiment to the people and culture’s strong identification with flowers in all aspects of their daily lives, both sacred and secular. Flowers are found in food and drinks, and as part of all the rights of passage of daily life, from birth to death and everything in between.

Although I’ve never been to Calcutta, I’ve read about the flamboyantly colorful Mallick Ghat Flower Market along the banks of the Hooghly River. Danish photographer Ken Hermann captures the proud men who make their living as Calcutta’s flower sellers.

‘I first went to the flower market during a visit to Calcutta three or four years ago and have wanted to do something on it ever since,’ explains Copenhagen-based Hermann.

‘It’s a beautiful and, at the same time, very stressful place but I was fascinated with it – and the flower sellers in particular. I really like the way they carry their flowers,’ he continues.

‘Sometimes it almost looks like they are wearing big flower dresses. I like that you see these strong and masculine men handling the flowers with so much care as if they were precious jewels.’

Hermann, whose work usually takes him into the grimier side of Indian life, was also enchanted by the flowers themselves, even if there were a few that he wasn’t allowed to photograph.

‘There are a lot of superstitions and religious belief in flowers in India,’ he explains. ‘I wasn’t allowed to photograph some of them because they were considered to be holy flowers and they would lose their power if I had.’ Continue reading

Throwback Thursday: A Fruit Most Treasured


Pomegranate tree at Harvest Fresh Farm. Photo credit: Kayleigh Levitt

Pomegranate tree at Harvest Fresh Farm. Photo credit: Kayleigh Levitt

With Kayleigh stationed at Cardamom County we’re currently exploring ways to make our organic garden more productive, despite the challenges posed by local wildlife. With that goal in mind we visited a colleague’s farm in Tamil Nadu, in an area where they don’t face monkey challenges, but some of their produce requires special netting to protect against birds and bats.

While there we enjoyed a farm tour that included harvesting a few different species of pomegranate, which happens to be part of my daily menu for many years. (Frequent guests at 51 will notice the healthy and delicious seeds making an appearance in many ways.) Continue reading