History Bites: The Masala Dabba


Anna and I can get pretty defensive of our recipes with each other. Each of us is always trying to outdo the other person. It’s a really healthy and competitive way of always making sure that our quality is top notch. So let me get this out right now: Anna’s Indian food is better than mine. There, I said it. It’s out there. Every single recipe this week is hers, and we’re all better for it. 

In trying to figure out what to write about this week, Anna had mentioned I should take a look at an Indian spice box or masala dabba (which at the time I thought was just a container that holds spices in a traditional Indian kitchen, which is sort of correct). So that’s what I did. I went to work trying to dig up as much history on spice boxes as I could, and truth be told I couldn’t find much. I did the usual Google and Wikipedia troll, which turned up concrete. Then I headed over to the databases for scholarly articles I occasionally find gems in, and still nothing. 

Although my results didn’t dig up a tonne of facts, they did shine a light on something much more interesting. The history of the masala box (Masala Dabba, or Anjarai Petti) is much more fluid, contextual, and vivid than a series of dates and facts. 

Masala Dabba

For those who are unaware (much like myself at the start of this) the masala dabba is one of the most treasured possessions in a typical Indian household. It is typically a round steel container containing smaller containers of various spices which vary depending on regional influences and familial tastes and recipes. The most commonly shared spices are cumin seeds, turmeric powder, mustard seeds, garam masala (a blend of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, anise, and cardamom), coriander powder, fennel seeds, and red chili powder. Some families have more than one, some are larger or smaller, made of wood, ceramic, plastic, glass, copper, or even bronze. Regardless of the size or shape, all masala dabbas hold two things in common. One, they have a tight fitting lid to keep everything secure, and two, they are deceptive in what they hold. This is because they don’t just hold spices—they hold memories and stories.

 

Everyone has a cherished memory of a loved one in the kitchen. I can think of so many. For me it isn’t just my mom at the stove, or my dad making pancakes. I’ve cooked with pretty well everyone I’m close to, and there is a memory associated with each one of them in a kitchen somewhere. There’s something about a kitchen that brings people together. It’s the heart of a home, it’s a place of nourishment for the body and soul. That’s what the masala dabba represents to so many families. Memories, nourishment, and togetherness. 

The beauty of the masala dabba is it’s almost never completely clean. Turmeric will spill into the bottom, and over into the chili. Mustard seeds somehow wind up mixed in with the masala. There’s corners of paper with scribbles of shopping lists. Recipes, change, safety pins, you name it. From what I've gathered by reading many odes to the masala dabba, this is par for the course. But it’s in this overlapping chaos we find its symbolism.

Cooking is just like life. It’s chaotic and busy, things overflow into each other, things get dirty, things get fun, and there’s a magical quality when it’s done right. It’s that magical quality that is the unseen factor in the masala dabba. A knowing pinch of a mother's fingers dipping into the turmeric, knocking some over the side, putting just the right amount into the pot. Not a single measured quantity, yielding just the right final product every time. It’s a constant. The unconditional love of a parent expressed through food. 

That’s why masala dabbas are carried on voyages halfway around the world, and passed on through generations in a family. They’re so much more than just containers for spices. It’s a memory box linked to one of the oldest areas of the brain, our sense of smell. It’s a visceral connection to our childhood, and loved ones lost. 

I don’t think I'll ever be able to eat curry in the same way again. Knowing what a powerful connection these boxes have to the people who hold them has changed the way I look at Indian food.

Until next time,
Stay hungry,

-Mike

Check out our Indian Box this week

Image courtesy of Petit World Citizen


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