What’s round, made of stainless steel, contains seven smaller tins and spoons and has two stainless steel lids? If, like me, you’re Indian, you’ll immediately identify this item as a masala dabba. It’s so ubiquitous in Indian homes that it feels like another family member family at times. Small amounts of fragrant, colourful spices, some whole and some ground, fill these tiny tins, ready to transform any ingredient they touch in different ways. To retain their potency, the main supplies are kept in airtight containers, patiently waiting to be prepared.
Masala dabba memories
A masala dabba represents much more than the sum of its parts. Seeing one takes me back to setting the world to rights in the kitchen with my mum, half listening to her animated conversation while eagerly awaiting the first generous spoonful of her delicious dish of the day. Many friends have shared similar memories with me on social media: being gifted their own pristine dabba before starting university by a parent or a sibling and attempting to recreate the flavours of home; learning valuable life lessons with their mothers and grandmothers over the stove; lively comparisons about contents; deliberately mixing the spices to annoy their mums; and finding out the hard way why rubbing chilli powder in your eyes is a bad move.
What do masala dabbas contain?
The contents of masala dabbas vary from one family to the next due to their personal preferences. For example, my mother-in-law doesn’t use garam masala whereas my mother wouldn’t cook without it. That said, most will feature a variation of the following..
10 items that anyone who loves Indian Food should keep in their pantry:
1. Cardamom pods
As a child, I referred to these green pods as ‘flavour bombs’: if you eat one by mistake, its pungent flavour explodes in your mouth, overpowering all else. Usually, they’re discarded during the meal after they’ve imparted their sweetness, with hints of lemon and mint, into savoury dishes. When used in desserts, the pods tend to be toasted to intensify their flavour before grinding the seeds. Cardamom, the third-most expensive spice in the world, is available in black and white varieties: the former is smoky and therefore better suited to savoury applications, whereas the latter are the bleached version of the green pods and more subtle.
2. Cassia bark/cinnamon sticks
Cassia bark and cinnamon sticks aren’t the same thing: the former is dark brown, flat, has an intense flavour and can withstand heat well, whereas the latter are the colour of rust, curled and slightly sweet. As such, cassia bark is better suited for cooking while cinnamon sticks are preferred for sweet dishes. That said, if you can’t get your hands on any bark, it’s fine to substitute them with sticks; there’s no such thing as the spice police.
3. Chilli powder
Depending on the type of red chillies you use, the resulting powder can be mild, medium or hot. For example, Kashmiri red chillies, which are long and wrinkly, are very mild and have a vibrant colour, so are ideal for recipes requiring a brighter shade of red without the heat. Long red chillies are semi-spicy and typically used for seasoning, while the round red ones are fiery. You could make your own chilli powder by drying out your chosen chillies in the sun until they’re brittle and snap easily, break off the stalks and grind them. A mask is a must to avoid constant sneezing. Alternatively, this is one spice you’d be forgiven for buying, or just add whole while cooking to infuse curries with a delicate background heat.
Used whole in Indian dishes when added separately, these dried flower buds from the clove tree infuse sweet and savoury dishes with its unique flavour and subtle warmth. After infusing the food, cloves are removed prior to serving or while eating. You could try biting into them, but their tough, woody texture won’t make for a pleasant chewing experience. Ground cloves are one of the main components of garam masala.
5. Ground coriander
You’ll be familiar with the bright green herb garnishing curries and snacks, but the ground seed, i.e. the dried fruit of the coriander plant, is also frequently used in Indian cuisine. Like all ground spices, this spicy, citrusy one has a tendency of burning easily during cooking, so you can add a splash of water to prevent scorching. It only needs 40-odd seconds in a pan on a low heat or about two minutes if adding water.
6. Cumin seeds
Cumin is a versatile spice that can be fried whole, toasted or ground. When frying in oil, the seeds only need about five seconds to release a nutty aroma and darken by a few shades. Lightly toasting them in a dry pan over a medium heat brings out their earthiness, sweetness and bitterness. If you’re making a powder, take the cooled toasted seeds and grind them with a mortar and pestle (spice grinders are also allowed). As with all whole spices, if you over-roast them, you’ll need to start over to avoid having the burnt flavour ruining the dish.
7. Garam masala
The powerful aroma of freshly toasted whole spices being ground by my grandmother with the help of a manual metal grinder screwed to a wooden chair is one of the scents of my childhood. Garam means ‘heat’ and this unique blend of spices, the recipe for which varies between regions and families, is understood to increase our body temperature. Commonly featuring cloves, cassia bark, green (and occasionally black) cardamom, black peppercorns, Indian bay leaves and nutmeg, with variations including fenugreek seeds, cumin and fennel seeds, ground garam masala is usually added at the end of cooking to season a dish. However, the whole spices can also be fried in hot oil for certain dishes.
8. Indian bay leaves
This one is not to be confused with the leaf of the European Bay Laurel tree. The Indian bay leaf is a darker shade of green and larger than its Mediterranean counterpart. They also differ in taste, with the Indian version offering a stronger, cinnamon flavour during cooking, while the European leaves release flavours more associated with Mediterranean cuisine, such as lemon and pine nuts.
9. Mustard seeds
There’s no mistaking the sound of mustard seeds hitting hot oil: an ear-pleasing pop which instantly triggers your salivary glands. Available in black, brown or yellow, they have a delicate spicy smell, like curry leaves. Along with other whole spices, mustard seeds are added to hot oil to release their unique aromas before the flavoured oil or tadka is poured onto the likes of dhal and dhokla.
Long before turmeric lattes became popular in coffee shops and on Instagram, Indians were using turmeric in its golden yellow powdered form to add colour and flavour to curries. Fresh turmeric, which resembles ginger, can be used to make pickles. In addition to giving a warm, slightly bitter taste and an earthy aroma to dishes, turmeric is valued for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Just be careful not to get any on your clothes as it’ll stain.
What do you think?
This is by no means an exhaustive list and description of the spices found in masala dabbas. Interested in improving your Indian cooking skills? The best thing to do is to buy small amounts of various whole spices. Start by grinding them yourself and experimenting with the flavours. This will help you determine which ones you enjoy the most. Invest in your own masala dabba to simplify the process and create magical memories at mealtimes!