My name is Al Goetze and I’m the chief spice buyer at McCormick®. In this chapter of the Spice Buyer’s Journal, my team is bringing you to India, the world’s largest grower of spices. India boasts many fascinating spice markets that capture the excitement and color of the spice trade.
Unjha spice seed market. Indian spice seeds are revered for their superior quality, and the Unjha market is world-famous.
Unjha is located well off the beaten path in Northwest India. Getting here is no small feat. It requires an incredible 36-48-hour journey – first on a series of three flights just to get to Ahmadabad, the closest major city – and then a three-hour drive along dusty, dry rural farm roads.
The primary crops sold at the Unjha market are cumin, fenugreek, mustard, and fennel seeds. Spice seeds are the aromatic dried small whole fruit of plants, usually grown in temperate climates. Cumin, fenugreek and mustard are small plants that seldom exceed three feet in height. Fennel, on the other hand, is a beautiful plant that grows as high as six feet, and houses its seeds on the top. Walking through a field of fennel is a magnificent, fragrant experience, filled with a licorice-sweet aroma.
The plants that yield these seeds are annuals and are propagated by sowing the previous year’s seeds. Because of this cultivation process, there can be great fluctuations in crop production, depending on price, supply and weather. Typically, the crops are planted on small farms, in the fall, and harvested during the months of February and March. Initial reports indicate that this year’s harvest is expected to be healthy, due to favorable monsoon conditions during the past year.
At harvest time, seeds are removed from the plant by hand, then sun-dried and brought to market. Most of the seeds sold at Unjha are grown on farms within 600 kilometers (360 miles) of the market, in the Gujarat and Rajasthan states.
When seeds arrive at the market, they are entrusted to an agent who oversees their sale. The market buzzes with the excitement of an open-air auction. Seeds are piled high, side-by-side, for buyers to visually inspect their quality. At set times each day, an auctioneer works his way from one end of the block to the other, surrounded by 15-20 buyers. He auctions each pile – one at a time. This intense process goes on for hours and covers many blocks of seeds. Since temperatures in Unjha grow very hot, the market shuts down for several hours each day, giving everyone an opportunity to eat and rest in preparation for the afternoon auction.
It’s interesting to note that of the 80,000 MTS (176,000,000 pounds) of cumin grown in India each year, only 10 percent is actually exported. In India, cumin and fenugreek are used extensively in curries and masala recipes. Fennel is often eaten after dinner as a breath freshener and digestive aid. Mustard has a pungent flavor and is primarily used to make pastes or condiments.
Since cumin consistently ranks among the top 15 selling spices in the United States, we pay particular attention to the cumin crop. Americans first became acquainted with cumin’s earthy, nutty flavor through Southwestern and Mexican recipes. Now, they’re enjoying cumin in many world cuisines, including Latin, Middle Eastern and North African. Here are two easy recipes that showcase cumin’s distinctive flavor in unexpected ways.