As someone who makes my own curry powder, I can appreciate the time and care it takes to convert raw spices into a complex, multi-dimensional flavor enhancer capable of transforming meats and vegetables into a sublime dish. Though these ‘spices’ are essentially nothing more than the fruits, seeds, roots, and bark of various trees, bushes, and plants, they are valued as much for their innate properties as for their flavor, especially in India and Sri Lanka, where spices have practical applications in the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine. In Ayurveda, food may be viewed as medicine, or a means to promote good health.
I was not aware of this fact before I started getting interested in making rice and curry, but it becomes quickly apparent when you learn about the spices from which a curry is made. Turmeric, for example, is anti-bacterial, while black mustard seed aids in digestion. Goraka (gamboge), a dried fruit that lends its signature tart taste to such dishes as fish ambul thiyal, turns out to be an excellent preservative. In addition to the health benefits of the individual spices, I also became interested in where these spices were sourced, and how they were processed. Grinding mills, where people can purchase raw spices and have them ground and blended, are common all over Sri Lanka, but I wanted to visit a proper spice factory. Going by the brands popular on store shelves, I chose McCurrie Spice, manufactured by Lanka Spice Limited, which runs a processing plant about an hour outside Colombo in the town of Kottava.
McCurrie Spice, founded in 1985, presently constitutes a large share of the market for prepared spices in Sri Lanka. They export as well to Canada, Australia, and the UK. Their line has also grown to include a full range of chutneys, pickles, pastes, sambols, and sauces, which save a lot of time and trouble. Now it is possible, for example, to buy a jar of seeni sambol or lime pickle (additive and preservative free) without having to make it yourself.
Before visiting the factory, I had no idea of the various steps involved in actually processing spices and making them ready for the market. Fumigation, for example, is the first step in order to kill bacteria and remove any microscopic eggs from pests like the weevil. The spices are then sorted, washed and dried. In Sri Lanka, they use both roasted and unroasted spices depending on the dish. Unroasted spices are usually used to prepare vegetable curries, while meat and fish curries use a roasted preparation. Roasting helps to release the essential oils stored within the spices as well as giving them a smoky, more complex flavor. After individual spices are roasted they are then ground to a fine powder, and blended according to precise recipes. The final step in production is packaging. All facets of production are handled at this one factory though McCurrie also maintains another facility in Dambulla, which is responsible more for ready-made, bottled goods.
For someone who loves spices as much as I do, to see each step along the ‘assembly line’ was a very gratifying and illuminating experience. While much of this process is mechanized and involves heavy machinery, I was surprised to find out just how much was done by hand as well. I was also surprised to learn that while most of the spices McCurrie processes are found in Sri Lanka, there is not enough grown domestically to meet the demand–with the growing season also varying from spice to spice. In order to maintain steady production, the company must then import much of its raw materials from India.
In Colombo you may purchase McCurrie spices at any supermarket or at their retail outlet:
93 Maya Avenue
Open 10:30 am – 6 pm weekdays
9 am – 1 pm Saturdays
Tel. 5556731, fax 5505051