The first time I heard about the mystery spice must have been about 10 years ago. I had just started writing about food when a young chef from Taj Coromandel, Chennai, came visiting Delhi for a Chettinad food festival.
He showed me the spices necessary to make the iconic Chettinad chicken, and there it was, nestled amid cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds. Kalpasi—for that is what the spice is called in Tamil—looked like lichen and that is exactly what it turned out to be, but it took me a decade to find out.
Back then, the chef admitted to unsuccessfully spending hours in the botany department library of the University of Madras to try and discover an English equivalent of the spice. To say that I was fascinated would be a gross understatement. I had never set eyes on kalpasi, had no idea what it tasted like, and was blown away by the concept of a mystery ingredient.
Since then, I’ve encountered kalpasi regularly, but I still think of it as the elusive spice. It is only a few people who knowingly use it; show the vast majority of people a sample, and they’ll rub their eyes in disbelief. Though spice sellers habitually add it to various spice mixes, those buying them are usually unaware that kalpasi is part of the blend. In Maharashtra, where it is called dagad phool, it is vital to Goda masala, the quintessentially Brahmin spice mix. In Uttar Pradesh, it is called patthar ka phool and is used by Lucknow’s chefs in potli masala. In an extremely well-known spice factory in western India, I came across a bag of dagad phool in the laboratory. Apparently, it went into their garam masala, but for some reason that I couldn’t quite figure out, they didn’t want word to get around: It certainly wasn’t in the photograph that is on the package of their garam masala.
Enhancer: Lichen or kalpasi adds that elusive edge to spice mixes
So, exactly what does this spice taste like? That’s the thing: It has no taste of its own, but adds a deep, dark, mysterious quotient to whatever food it flavours. Once you’ve identified it, you can pick out its flavour from a dozen different spices.
When I started to research the all-India uses of kalpasi, no spice dealer seemed to know where it came from. I’d heard that it was cultivated on a farm in Madurai by a friend of a friend, that it grows on the insides of wells in Lucknow, and that rocks partially submerged in the sea grow it over time. Then, a helpful friend introduced me to S.K. Subramanian of Madurai, who had done his doctoral thesis on lichens (or kalpasi in Tamil).
Through Subramanian, I discovered that lichens are an important indicator of atmospheric purity: They won’t grow when the air is polluted. They require a slight elevation above sea level, which is why Ooty and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu are important catchment areas for the spice.
Chicken Pepper Fry
200g chicken (boneless)
50g onion (large)
30ml refined oil
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 tsp coriander powder
½ tsp garam masala powder
½ tsp black pepper powder
10-12 fresh curry leaves
2 green chillies
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
5 tsp fresh coriander
Salt to taste
3 green cardamom
½ tsp kalpasi
1-inch cinnamon stick
½ tsp fennel (saunf)
Cut the chicken pieces into dices, wash with several changes of water. Wash the curry leaves. Chop the fresh coriander and onion finely. Heat oil in a pan and add the cloves, green cardamom, cinnamon and fennel. Saute and then add the kalpasi. Stir it for some time and add the ginger-garlic paste. Add the chopped onion and cook until evenly golden brown. Put in the chicken pieces and cook them until half-done. Add salt and turmeric and after a couple of minutes put in the red chilli powder, coriander powder and green chillies. When the masala is cooked, add the garam masala and black pepper powder. Finally, add the fresh curry leaves and cook until the chicken is done. Garnish with freshly chopped coriander.
Recipe courtesy Suddha Kukreja, Ignis restaurant, New Delhi.
Write to Marryam at firstname.lastname@example.org