As an eight-year-old, I spent many evenings in our blue-tiled kitchen watching Mum cook dinner.
I’d sit on the rickety wooden chair my grandfather had inherited, revising general knowledge facts from the popular Bournvita Quiz Contest book. Meanwhile, Mum would have at least three pots going on the stovetop. Her back turned to me, she would chop a bunch of vegetables while stirring fresh coriander into a simmering pot of curry and simultaneously spluttering mustard seeds in hot ghee.
Mum’s most treasured item in that kitchen was her masala dabba. A round steel box containing seven bowls for the seven spices of your choice, the masala dabba is to the Indian kitchen what a microwave is to the western kitchen: a necessity.
Her box still had the stained Mohan Steel sticker on one side. And, if you ran your hand over the lid, you would find the top edge where her name was engraved along with the year she got married. That box had come with her as part of her wedding trousseau. It had a glass lid so you could peek at the spices inside and seven steel cups that she religiously topped up every weekend. In our house, mum’s masala dabba had turmeric, red chilli, cumin-coriander, garam masala, mustard seeds, dhansak masala and cumin seeds. The first four spices went into practically everything Mum cooked, the mustard and cumin seeds were reserved for her dals, and the dhansak masala was for Sunday’s mutton dhansak and kebabs.
When we moved to New Zealand in 2002, Mum would lovingly reminisce about her dabba that never made it across the ocean with us. Every time she mentioned the box, I would roll my eyes. I couldn’t quite understand the fascination behind a steel box. When it was time to prepare for my wedding trousseau, Mum wanted to gift me an engraved masala dabba. I had more “modern” ideas and asked her to buy me the fancy Briscoes rotating herb rack instead.
Wedding over, I unpacked my herb rack and, to my mother-in-law’s chagrin, kept my herbs on display near the stovetop while the everyday spices stayed hidden in their jars inside the pantry.
I learned quickly that it was a bad idea. Most of the recipes Mum suggested I try started by heating fat – oil or ghee – then adding small amounts of spices quickly, so the mustard seeds pop, cumin seeds toast, and the turmeric powder loses its raw edge without burning. All of this was very hard to achieve while trying to open six different jars!
Our cook Chaya – who had the temperament of a Michelin-starred head chef – humoured me for about 10 days before insisting that I buy a masala dabba. My biggest issue with the box was the tiny bowls you had to keep topping up every few days. It was Chaya who taught me that those bowls were small by design. In the humid heat of India, spices lose their flavour and aroma rather quickly, especially ground spices. This practice of refilling a small amount at a time kept the spices fresh.
Once I became a masala dabba convert, there was no going back. I’d go to my friend’s houses and peek inside their spice boxes – an effective way of judging whether we should be friends or not. My Punjabi friend stored fenugreek leaves, black cardamom and cloves inside her box to add smoky heat to her chole and dhaba curries. In contrast, my South Indian colleague had fennel seeds, nutmeg and green cardamom in her box, while my business partner from Kolkata had panch phoron (a Bengali five-spice mix) in hers. My favourite memory is cooking inside the Marriott kitchen, where the head chef had a 16-compartment masala box! I learned later that he was a strict vegetarian and cooked all his meat curries almost entirely using his nose.
As I became more confident cooking Indian flavours, I realised that one masala dabba wouldn’t do. So today, in my pantry, I have three – a fact that makes my mum laugh a lot. My first box stores all the essential blends I need for my everyday cooking. My second box I use for all my “phodni” or tempering spices like urad dal, whole chillies and dried curry leaves. The third box is for the regional spices I use once in a while. My three-year-old regularly runs away with that box to his play kitchen to make weird wooden vegetable “curries” I’m forced to eat. I’m happy he’s adding spices to them, though, and not sticking to oregano and rosemary like his mum once did.