A small community of Gujarati spice traders has made Broadway their business hub for the past three decades
Sunil Giridhar was only a boy when his father Morarji Giridhar visited Kochi from Gujarat. His family were textile traders and in their travels, they came upon the vast wholesale spice market in Mattancherry. In the 70s, a community of Gujaratis had grown around the spice trade there as many of them ran retail outlets in the area and others worked as brokers for pepper and ginger. Morarji chose to try his hand at selling spices too and hence relocated to Kochi with his family and cousins.
As competition grew in Mattancherry, a few Gujarati families decided to explore a fresh market and opened shop in Broadway. Thus for three decades now, and across three generations, a line of Gujarati spice shops have lent their enticing aroma to the Broadway air.
One of them is Sunil’s G.M.S Trading Co and another, his cousin Ramesh Kumar’s Masala Centre. “I remember Broadway from when I was a child,” says Sunil who grew up studying in St. Albert’s School and speaks fluent Malayalam. “There were the cycle shops back then and the Ernakulam market and Bharath Coffee House were the main hubs.” Sunil’s shop, like the others, is lined from floor to ceiling with shelves packed tight with glass jars brimming with pepper, cloves, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg and vanilla in various forms - some whole, others ground and still others in ready-to-cook masala mixtures. There are also bottles full of various dry fruits such as apricots, dates and almonds.
“Most of our spices come from Kattappana, Adimali, Wayanad and Munnar. Farmers in those areas have become familiar with us over the years. So when they come to Kochi to sell their wares, we buy from them in bulk. The dry fruits are sourced from Delhi although local brokers provide them here,” explains Kamla, Ramesh’s wife. Beside her sit heaps of spices covered in plastic sheets to guard them from the pouring rain. Kamla’s son Rushi Kumar and his wife Vanita man the older branch of Masala Centre further down the road. Their little daughter runs around Kamla as she oversees the day’s business, with help from Odissi and Malayali staff.
A majority of the spice shops’ clientele are tourists from the North who are looking for a taste of Kerala’s famed spices. “They feel comfortable dealing with us because we too are from the North,” says Kamla. Others include local homemakers who want ground masalas and North Indians settled in Kochi, especially those from the Navy. A. Radha Krishna has been a regular at G.M.S. for five years now. “I come from Hyderabad once every year and take back enough spices for the whole year for my family and our extended relatives. The quality here has not changed over the years and my wife refuses to cook with anything else but these spices,” he says.
Three decades of living in Kochi have integrated the Gujarati spice traders well into the Malayali community. “We cook Malayali food often at home. Our children study in the schools here and all of us speak Malayalam,” says Sunil.
“The people here have been most welcoming to us,” says Vanita who moved here 11 years ago after her marriage to Rushi. As a family, they visit Gujarat close to four times a year, particularly during festivals, the longest break being for Navaratri when they shut shop for 10 days to celebrate in their native towns.
While the years here have accustomed them to local culture, business has changed too over time, observes Sunil. “Because we’ve been here for so long, we have our devoted customers but the supermarkets springing up all around have taken away some of our business. Fewer people buy in bulk and most prefer packeted goods. I often think I should branch out into some other business just to be safe,” he says.
The crowd at the shops’ entrance tells otherwise though. Despite the rain, people mull around the spice mounds searching for that exact combination of condiments that will spice up their day.