When I lived in Mumbai and Hyderabad, I would watch with delight and curiosity as my friends would craft beautiful curries with a deep wisdom, and some amount of magic, infusing the room with fragrant smells that I would come to know as home.
My belligerent home cooking method up to this point, “the chop-and-dump,” used little spice (generally salt and pepper) and felt sterile and naïve compared to what I witnessed over those months. As I continued to learn, I realized that there was an actual method to what appeared to me mystic alchemy, that these meals had a simplicity at their core.
To make these blends, each kitchen holds a tool so simple and understated you might not even notice it. I certainly didn’t the first few dinners I attended. But over time you notice the quick, deft movements of any home-kitchen cook reaching for the round steel tin, opening the lid to more steel tins - each an exact replica of the larger tin, filled with one singular, beautiful spice. This familiar household staple is the masala dabba.
Masala is the Hindi word for “a mixture of many spices” and dabba is the Hindi word to describe a box, and more specifically, a small box. The masala dabba is, quite literally, a spice box.
“Essentials” are defined by each family based on their home-cooking desires. Though there are many spices that seem to be hallmarks of the masala dabba such as turmeric that gives curry its rich golden hue, the boxes are miniature reflections of the history and cultures of each family.
A masala dabba may be gifted from a mother to her daughter, a sweet gesture to carry forward the nurturance of youth into the creation of a new home. For some, the masala dabba is purely utilitarian, an easy tool to spice daily fare. Some echo regional heritage.
Families hailing from Jammu and Kashmir, a major producer of saffron, may consider this coveted yellow spice an essential for their tin. In southern states that grow the vast majority of cinnamon and cassia, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, families opt for this warming, sweet spice in daily dishes. Other tins speak to individuality—a certain spice favored in the tin as a sort of calling card—a palatable signature of the cook.
So, what to put in your tin? Below I have listed one array that is the base of many northern and southern curries, as well as dishes commonly made in the U.S.
The Masala Dabba Seven:
1. Turmeric powder
2. Cumin powder (or seeds)
3. Coriander powder (or seeds)
4. Black mustard seeds
5. Asafoetida (Want to opt for a sulfurous spice already in your kitchen? Substitute for onion powder or garlic powder.)
6. Red chili powder (Enjoy milder spice? Substitute for black pepper.)
7. Himalayan Sea Salt
Collectively these spices are wonderful for balancing digestive health. Research has found that many of these spices cause the body to release enzymes to digest protein and carbohydrates. This makes these nutrients smaller and easier for the body to absorb and use for their many important roles, such as for a source of energy, building muscle, or creating new hormones.
Health benefits aside, the masala dabba is as rich in story, family and community as it is in flavor. If the tin is like a book, then the spices are the story within; a story of family, of place, of the specific people and memories we love, and a story that reminds us of the only thing that we really want to know–that we are home.
About the Author
Andrea Rossi, CNTP
Andrea is a food justice activist, feminist, alternative health media producer, community organizer, certified nutrition therapy practitioner, and “moments embosser” (those who make regular moments pop). She was homeschooled until highschool, of which she attributes her insatiable curiosity, out-of-the-box-approach, and general poor taste in clothes. She loves meeting new people, especially the unapologetic beautiful weirdos, and has decided that her next professional calling is to write a sexual health rock opera, coming to a stage near you. Andrea currently works too many jobs, but they share one common mission: bringing people she knows, and those she still has yet to meet, dignity, joy, and love through food and community.