In an Indian household, the two most important rooms are usually, the puja or prayer room and the kitchen. While, the puja room has never quite been an interest of mine, the kitchen has been my haven for as long as I can remember. As a young girl, I would often sit on the grey granite counter top in our kitchen as my aunt or mum cooked a meal. My interest and eyesight, wandering away from the dish being made, would always momentarily gaze upon this circular stainless-steel box that was ritualistically a part of daily cooking.
When opened, this ordinary box displayed even smaller steel bowls or katoris, around seven of them, filled to the brim with colourful spice powders and a mini steel spoon used to scoop them up. No other kitchen appliance or utensil brought upon them, the curiosity that this little unassuming box did. Every day, I would sit and watch different coloured spices added to my favourite dishes from this magic box, which would soon disappear into the shelf above. As a child, close contact with it was usually off limits, lest I make a mess or worse, get some haldi or turmeric powder in my eye. So, it was only after a little growing up, did I figure out the secrets this box held.
This spice box, also known as the masala dabba, has been a permanent resident of the Indian kitchen for years. Its purpose is to store commonly used spice powders in the local cuisine like turmeric, red chilli, coriander and garam masala; a blend of certain spices, usually unique to each home. Some houses have added ingredients like cumin seeds, mustard seeds, dried fenugreek and even asafetida, commonly known as hing. The masala dabba is the desi kitchen’s handyman, storing and supplying spice powders with utmost convenience. Every dish made to perfection can thank this humble little box for helping it attain the perfect balance of flavours and spice.
Almost every Indian household, within or outside the country, has a masala dabba that stores the most commonly used spices within it. The combination of spices stored depends on what the family consumes most and is often handled by the mother of the house. Every day while cooking, this tiny box is taken out from a cabinet in the kitchen and is used to throw together a combination of spices for a number of delicacies. In most cases the spices being eyeballed and not measured.
This dabba, however cannot be reduced to just being a handyman. It is an unrecognized age-old tradition that has been passed on for generations within the Indian family system. Integral food knowledge, passed on to the next generation by word of mouth. When a young adult moves out of the house, one of the first items of purchase in the shopping list is often the masala dabba, along with all the spices that go into it. The act of getting one’s own masala dabba, although not that grand, is an important passageway to adulthood and signifies that one is now responsible enough to take on domestic responsibility.
It doesn’t matter if you move to a different city or a continent, having this dabba is like having a piece of home with you. It is part of the quintessential Indian identity that often goes unnoticed. It finds its place in your new kitchen and goes through all the different trials and tribulations of learning to cook and surviving on your own. It listens in on every conversation with mom, asking about the quantity of spices in each dish and witnesses the first dish that is made to perfection. From the beginning of your cooking journey, to the very end, the masala dabba is the unsung warrior of every Indian kitchen. And irrespective of what anyone says, no fancy spice rack can ever replace the warmth of the masala dabba.