I love going to vegetable markets and spice shops. The sights and smells of both these places are quite my thing. Not the cows and dogs, of course. The vegetable market changes with the changing season, the fresh produce changes positions and placements, the colors and the smells change accordingly. The spice shop is a marvel of its own kind. It will make you sneeze but if you can hear what the spices say, it can be quite an adventure. Whole spices, powders, blends, and what not, all come together for people to take home and bring smiles to their families. With the rich traditions of spices India has, our palettes are acclimatized to having spices in everything we eat, spice-less food usually holds no appeal to us. Definitely not to me. I like spices and I cannot lie!
Quite sometime back, my mother, knowing my immense love for spices and spice shops, asked me to help her look for a spice called Dagad Phool. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of it before, leave alone seen it. Now, if you know me, you know well, you tell me something I don’t know, I will get to the end of it and find out everything I can about it. I can’t stand not knowing things, quite the curious cat I am. Dagad Phool, I would be lying if I said it didn’t remind me of the two other places I had heard the name ‘Dagad’ in – the infamous Dagadi Chawl in Mumbai and the Dagadu Sheth temple in Pune. But well, the spice has nothing to do with either.
Dagad Phool or Kalpasi, as I discovered, is quite the mystery spice. People don’t talk about it much and you’ll rarely see it on open display in most spice shops either. There’s hardly any standards for it. But what the world of a difference can it make to a dish it is added to. Kalpasi has a deep aroma and an earthy flavor. The first time I smelt it, it reminded me of truffles – those rare black and white things that is used to flavor food, but is so expensive that people mostly end up using olive oil flavored with those truffles, remember?
The Maharashtrian Goda Masala cannot be made without the Dagad Phool. But go to most spice shops in Mumbai, and you will likely get blank stares. Chettinad cuisine also has a very special place for the Kalpasi – it is indispensable in cooking the famous Chettinad Chicken. Yet, most people don’t even know about the existence of this spice and yet a large chunk of us have consumed it in some dish or other! The few who know of its existence have their unique theories of where it comes from, each story being as interesting as the other, but often, far, far away from the truth.
Kalpasi has many names (doesn’t everything in India, actually?). In English, it is stone flower or black stone flower. In Marathi, it is Dagad Phool. In Kannada, it is Kalahu. In Urdu, it is Raham Karmani. In Hindi, it is Patthar Phool. In Telugu, it is Kallupachi. In Sanskrit, it is Shaileyam. Interesting fact, Kalpasi is one of the ingredients in the ‘Havan Samagri’ – the naturally-scented herbs that are used to fuel the holy fire of a puja. I would have never ever guessed that one.
So, where does Kalpasi come from?
Kalpasi is a kind of lichen that grows on stones and trees. Not all lichens are edible. Lichens also won’t grow everywhere easily, they need specific habitats for growing – generally, a pollution-free atmosphere, an altitude of at least 4,000 FASL, cool and pleasant environment, and considerably humidity in the air. Kalpasi – Parmotrema perlatum is usually flat, leaf-like, and lobed. But on its own fresh off its growing spot, you can’t have Kalpasi. You can’t just scrape it off the tree bark and toss it onto your chicken. By itself, freshly plucked Kalpasi is high in acid content which has to be neutralized before being fit for consumption. It has to be soaked in a diluted sodium or potassium solution before being dried.
In India, Kalpasi can be found growing in the forests of Ooty, Yercaud, and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, Thekkady in Kerala, and Western Ghats in Maharashtra. Locally grown produce always has an influence on local cuisine, and it is evident here too. It is definitely growing in other places as well, but considering how little the spice is known about, it is probably going unnoticed and dwelling in peace.
How does Kalpasi affect the food it is added to?
Kalpasi adds a deep, not a very easy-to-define flavor to the food. But the key is in the volume added to the dish. If you add too much of it, you’ll end up with a very unpleasant, bitter dish that wouldn’t exactly be enjoyable anymore. Kalpasi has warming properties and it tends to release its aroma slowly, so it is important to closely monitor how much you’re adding to the dish. It can, of course, turn your dish black, which is generally not considered a color one likes to see in their food, so, again, moderation is the key. This is one main reason why Kalpasi is mixed with roasted, powdered chana dal or split chickpea; and then see the sorcery it does to your shorbas, curries, and niharis.
What dishes is Kalpasi used in?
The Chettinad Chicken
The most ‘famous’ use of Kalpasi would be Chettinad Chicken. The beauty of Chettinad cuisine – the traditional cuisine of the Chettiar community is that it is a masterful amalgamation of Tamil culinary traditions, with a range of colorful and flavorful influences from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and a bit more of the South East Asia. A major trading community, the menfolk would often travel to these regions for work, something they did for centuries, bringing back ingredients, dishes, traditions, which made their way to the traditional cuisine. Sadly, as it often happens, a large horde of restaurants claiming to serve Chettinad cuisine today just load a dish with a ton of chili pepper and send it over to the pass. However, true aficionados will tell you that if there was one ingredient that gave the famous Chettinad cuisine its characteristic dark taste, it would be, wait for it, Kalpasi. But again, as it often happens, there are many who would deny or contradict this well. That’s the beauty of culinary traditions I think – nothing is ever a 100% true.
The Hyderabadi Chakna
Moving a little bit northward, Kalpasi is also an important ingredient in Hyderabadi cuisine. Kalpasi is an essential part of the Hyderabadi chakna – a specialty of the Hyderabadi Muslims made using animal entrails. Commonly considered to be a poor man’s treat, this one is a popular serving with arrack sellers in the city. In fact, it is usually made on the spicier side so the customers would drink more arrack to wash it down. Arrack is the local country liquor, btw. Now, isn’t this one of the oldest sales trick in the book? Kalpasi cancels out the sharp flavors of the organ meat that goes into the dish, and forms one of the sharpest top notes in the dish.
The Maharashtrian Goda Masala
This one is a Maharashtrian Brahmin specialty. Commonly used to make Amtis (Dal) and gravies, the Goda masala is a kitchen staple ground and readied before the onset of the monsoon, stored away for use through the rest of the year. Usual ingredients in the Goda masala include grated coconut, sesame seeds, bay leaves, red chilies, dagad phool, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon, nagkesar, and peppercorns – all lightly roasted and pounded together. Needless to say a stone ground masala will always taste better than machine ground or mass produced masalas, but well, to each their own. The Goda masala is one spice mix that actually acknowledges the presence of the Dagad phool in it, which is a huge thing, I feel, in a country where so few know about this spice.
The Lucknowi Potli Masala
Considered to be one of India’s most complex spice blends, the Lucknowi Potli Masala does not acknowledge the presence of Kalpasi as openly as the Maharashtrian Goda Masala. Every household, every chef, usually has their own recipe for the Potli masala so there is no fixed recipe. However, the common ingredients known to go into the Polti mix are nausadar, pan ki jadh, khus ki jadh, kebab chini, sandalwood powder, rose petals, star khatai, jarakus, hadh, cloves, black cardamom, green cardamom, peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel, dry ginger, black cumin seeds, stone flower (ah, the dagad phool), cinnamon, fenugreek, sweet attar, dried coconut, bay leaves, and saffron.
The next time you are driving through a forest or the hills, look for trees and stones where this one grows. Click pictures and tag me in them, maybe?
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