Indian Kitchens & The Age-old Tradition Of Homemade Spices

Standing on the terrace of my maternal uncle’s home, I see my mom’s elder sister or my maasi, carefully emptying bags of deep red dried chillies under the supple winter sun. She gently up-turns a rugged, brown sack onto a few old bedsheets. She then carefully seperates each individual chilli, so that any moisture that may be present, dries well. According to her, this is an activity best done in the summer as it takes lot less time, but since we visited in winter, we’d have to make do with whatever little sunshine we get.

My maasi has been through this process numerous times, ever since she was a teenager. Always helping my nani or maternal grandmother make chilli powder at home. Those were the times when most ingredients were made at home, as India wasn’t a global player and the brands in the market were limited. Women spent most of their waking hours working at home — cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children and sorting the pantry. All ingredients, right from ketchup to pickles and most spice powders too were prepared at home.

Earlier that morning, my uncle and I drove all the way to the local bazaar or market, to buy a bunch of red chillies and dried turmeric. We were looking to make spice powders and stock them up for the year. Riding through the small lanes of the city of Nagpur on a scooter, we saw numerous vendors selling everything from fresh vegetables to clothes and toys. It was a cold, misty December morning but everyone was already out for business.

Each person, covered in a few extra layers, with a cap or shawl over their head. The air was fresh and the roads, although chaotic, had serenity that reflected the early hours of the day. We reached the bazaar and walked from one end to the other, looking for the best place to buy our spices from. At end of the line was a seller that caught our eye. He had a makeshift shop with a huge plastic cover at the bottom and a few wooden poles and ropes to help hold some shade on top. With over 4 different heaps of dried chillies, he seemed to have the most variety. We spoke to him, inquiring about the various kinds of chillies we could buy.

“All the chillies are different and what you get depends on the kind of chilli powder you are looking to make,” he said. “There is laungi mirchi, the one that is dark red and small, that is spicy. The other one, Bhuvapuri is only for colour. The 334 Andhra too has colour, no spice and the Patna mirchi is the thick one, it is mild in flavour and colour, he further explained.”

Taking his advice into consideration, we chose a mix of laungi and bhuvapuri for both, spice and colour. As he was packing it up into a huge white sack, he turned to us and said, “Always remember to buy dark red and not bright red chillies. They have the most flavour and spice.” A few thank you’s and smiles later, we drove back home but not before picking up two bags of haldi or turmeric, from a stall nearby.

Once home, the chillies had to be dried before being turned into a powder. The chillies dried on the terrace for a day before they were sent in to the chakki or local mill to be ground into a fine powder. Although, the lady at the mill took one look at the chillies and exclaimed that they were not dry enough (a skill that came with years of experience, I’m guessing), and needed atleast two more days before they could be powdered. The turmeric, though, was ground up and powdered on the same day—a less complicated process.

The process of making spice powders at home isn’t a novel concept in India, however making your own spice powders has evolved with time. Indian kitchens swear by a variety of spices and up until a few years ago, spices were often ground up in huge khalbattas or stone mortar and pestle. A traditional Indian mortar is a bowl usually made of stone and the pestle is a blunt-club shaped stone that is pressed into the mortar to crush it’s contents. In the olden days, sourcing, preparing and storing spices powders was a process that encompassed certain rules and tricks in place to make them last long.

Spice powders were stored in huge brass or clay utensils and stocked up in store rooms that were dry. Now, with modern kitchens and readymade mixes, the need for such processes is slowly fading. Pre-packaged powders are the new rage as they save time and effort— two things that have become precious in today’s day and age. The change in the process of this culinary practice can also be attributed to commercialization and a shift in gender norms. More women are in the workforce and have less time to devote to their kitchens— a key reason for the success of readymade products.

Today, the practice of making one’s own spice powders at home is done mostly in smaller towns and villages. This too has seen a drastic drop due to the introduction of commercial stores. It’s the older generation that still holds onto it as these practices hold their culinary identity within them. Sadly, the knowledge of these age-old practices has gone from being familial knowledge to being commercial. With the younger generation making an effort to go back to their roots, we can only hope that this distinct part of our culinary heritage is embraced and passed on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s