The first time I heard about the mystery spice must have been around 1998. I had just started writing about food, when a youthful 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 amidst cinnamon quills and coriander seeds. Kalpasi – for that is what the spice is called in Tamil – looks like a lichen, and had I but known, that is exactly what it turned out to be, but it was a full decade before I found out.
The young chef confessed to spending hours in the library of the University’s Botany department in Chennai to try and discover the English equivalent of the lichen, but without success. To say that I was fascinated would be a gross understatement. I had never set eyes on kalpasi till then, had no idea what it tasted like and was blown away by the concept of an ingredient that had no English equivalent.
Since then, I’ve encountered kalpasi regularly, but I still think of it as the elusive spice. It is only a few people who know about it and use it; show the vast majority of people a sample and they’ll rub their eyes in disbelief. Used in large quantities in Maharashtra, where it is called dagad phool, it is vital to Goda masala, the quintessentially Brahmin spice mix. In UP it is called patthar ka phool and is used by Lucknow’s chefs in the making of potli masala, and say what anyone might, without kalpasi (the Tamil name), there is no Chettinad chicken.
I was visiting an extremely well-known spice factory in Western India and I came across a bag of dagad phool in their 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.
So, exactly what does this spice taste of? 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. Which still doesn’t tell us where exactly it comes from. I’d heard that it is cultivated in a farm in Madurai by the 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 Dr. SK Subramanian of Madurai, who did his doctoral thesis on lichens (known in Tamil as kalpasi).
Through Dr. 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.