Also in this Issue:

Lost in the Waterways

Home is Where the Hooch Is

Riding a Rising Tide in Pine Plains

Gone to the Dogs

Elizabeth Lesser: Author/Speaker/Omega Institute Co-Founder

Art House in the Middle of a Field

Jesse Post and Maggie Paquet: Bookseller, Publishing Consultant & Florist

Global Palate

Split Life: Revealing a Secret Hamlet

Winter Wonderland

Global Palate

Upstater Magazine   |  By

Nirmala Narine knows how to wield a machete. It’s just one of the many tools mastered by the South American-born founder of Nirmala’s Kitchen—a company dedicated to the art of “fusing cultures through food.” For the past 13 years, Narine has trekked to the furthest reaches of the planet—climbed the highest trees, hacked through the densest forests, and sailed to the remotest islands—in her quest to bring the world’s vast array of spices to foodies everywhere. With her TV show Nirmala’s Spice World and her many travelogue-cookbooks, Narine explains exactly what to do with those spices: how to store them (in tins, never plastic or glass) and how a particular spice can be used for skin care or healing. She shows how adding a bit of the exotic—Indonesian white pepper or Australian wattleseed, for instance—to seasonal produce gleaned from the farmers’ market, or even one’s own backyard, can transform local ingredients into dishes that are truly out of this world.

Narine does all of this from her 15-acre farm and agroecology center in Highland. The property, once the grounds of the Wishing Well Ranch, includes fields and gardens, a 12,000-square-foot Dutch barn with horse stables, a 5,000-square-foot farmhouse and many outbuildings; all creatively “reincarnated” into the base of operations for a multipronged, thriving local business with global flair. Although her company now reaches around the world, connecting small farmers to diplomats and ancient traditions to modern kitchens, its roots go deep, and are much more humble.

Cloves and Chili Peppers

“All my life I feel I’ve been transported by spices,” Narine says. Her farmhouse kitchen—the heart of her operation—is pristine (in fact, the name Nirmala means “pure”) and very well equipped. There are two sinks, two cooktops, a double-wide refrigerator with French doors, abundant white marble countertops, and seemingly every cooking utensil that’s ever been invented, from the primitive to the cutting edge. Narine’s culinary skills and Ayurvedic training, however, began much more simply.

“Growing up in Guyana, cooking was all about survival,” she says. With no running water or electricity, she learned to read and write, and cook, by oil lamp. Narine helped her mother, a rice farmer, prepare meals over an open fire using their hands and the one, very versatile, utensil they did have: a machete. “My father was a sugar cane cutter and all his old machetes became our kitchen tools—we killed chickens with them, we cut wood with them, we cut papayas and cleaned fish—that was the tool for us,” she says. “That’s why I’m on TV with a machete all the time.”

Narine’s family, who are of Indian descent, lived in a small village at the edge of the Amazon. Her grandfather, a Hindu pundit and scholar who always kept cloves in his front pocket, lived with them. From a very young age, Narine watched and listened as her grandfather utilized his traditional Ayurvedic training to create healing poultices and remedies out of ingredients culled from the surrounding jungle. Villagers came from all over the region to be treated for a wide range of health issues. Narine was his assistant, grinding spices and blending them exactly as he instructed, always tasting what she mixed. “As a kid I put everything in my mouth—I tried everything from ancient Indian spices to the barks and leaves brought to us by the neighboring Arawaks,” says Narine, referring to the indigenous people of Guyana.

Her business acumen, and her tendency to roam, were also evident at an early age. In her community, seeds were saved and harvested from one year to the next. “There was nothing like Lowe’s or Home Depot,” she explains. The desire to help buy shoes for her younger brother pushed Narine into entrepreneurship. She cultivated a patch of habanero peppers for seed, dried her harvest, and then packaged the seeds in lotus leaves, tied with banana sucker strings. “I was determined to sell,” she remembers. Narine turned traveling salesgirl and began selling the packets to her neighbors and then the neighboring villages, and then the villages beyond that. Even though they would take years to emerge, the seeds of a savvy entrepreneur with a thriving global business were sown.

A Global, Local Farm

When she was 10, Narine’s family moved to New York City. A career in marketing sent her on business trips all over the world, but the farther she went, the closer she came to her roots. Wherever Narine traveled she was drawn to local farms and spice plantations, learning new cultivation techniques and tasting flavors unique to the regions she visited. One day, she visited a clove plantation. She climbed a tree and was chewing cloves when the scent reminded her of her grandfather and his front pocket. “The aroma opened up a whole new chapter in my life,” she explains. She realized there was a bigger calling for her.

Narine returned to some of the local farmers she’d befriended and began buying their spices and then packaging them for small markets and cultural events. Nirmala’s Kitchen grew from those first sales through specialty food stores and spread into markets on six continents. With that success came two books and her television show for the Z Living Network, Nirmala’s Spice World, now in its fifth season. Along the way she’s traveled to 167 countries, been bitten by a cottonmouth snake (“a lifetime of yogic breathing saved me,” she says), tasted monkey (no, it didn’t taste like chicken, more like lean pork), and collected stories, recipes, and culinary traditions from almost everyone she’s met along the way.

She purchased the farm in Highland eight years ago. Narine had been living in New York City but she missed farm life. She wanted a more permanent base for her network of “global, local farmers.” Narine was attracted to the abundance of local produce in the Hudson Valley—the apples, peaches, and Malabar spinach, among other things—and loved its scenic beauty. It was the first—and only—property she looked at in the area. The original farmhouse had been renovated by its former owners to include a two-story living room and kitchen. Large windows overlooked the surrounding pasture and four bedrooms provided ample space. She knew she had found the center for her global operation.

The Soul of Cuisine

Over the ensuing years, the farm has evolved to accommodate Narine’s growing vision. Its grounds now produce some of the local ingredients—honey, lavender, and blueberries—that go into Narine’s beauty products, chutneys, and jams. Goats roam the former horse paddocks (she makes soap from their milk) and she grows lotus flowers in the pond. The former tack house has recently been transformed into her newest venture: a spice shop, designed to provide local access to her international, holistic products.

The farm supplies the ingredients for her operation, but her kitchen still provides the spice. It’s where she tinkers with new recipes and leads classes for Nirmala’s Kitchen Cooking School. It’s also where she prepares her Spice Suppers—intimate tasting feasts served to international diplomats and local dignitaries. There is no set menu; the meals she prepares are created from the spices of her guest’s homeland and seasonal, local produce. Regardless of the ingredients, the suppers always have the same result: “When you bring people together around a dinner table they talk about food, they talk about culture, there’s nothing to fight about,” Narine says. “Spices are the soul of every cuisine.”