Ah the ‘Masala dabba’ – a mandatory piece of kit in any Indian person’s home. It literally translates to spice (masala) tin (dabba) and contains all the essential Indian spices.
With this tin in hand you can pretty much cook any Indian dish. Now, there are a host of different dishes and cultures within India, and my experience lies with Gujurati dishes. This is what I know and what I’ve been taught from my mama (if you have any issues – please take these up with her directly :-)), so this is what you’ll be getting today.
I must say this post is proving a joy to write. It’s funny how you can ‘know’ something in a certain language, but when it comes to the English translation it throws you a little. You see, I’ve been taught the names of these spices in Gujurati, so the English translation, whilst I know it, takes just that little bit more effort to recall (*cue various WhatsApp message to the mother and Googling*). There’s also the added pressure of actually being Indian, so there’s not a lot of room for error.
The Indianos are also big believers in the healing power of foods, so I’ll give as much information as I can on the health benefits of these spices.
I digress. Get these spices, and the dabba and you’ll be good to go forth and conquer the curry. I say curry, but that’s not what we refer to our dishes as – there’s a lot more to it than that. Not having a moan #JustSaying
Easy peasy. A globally used and accepted site.
2. Black mustard seeds (Rai)
Used mostly in Gujurati cooking, mustard seeds, er taste of mustard, and give a tangy flavour to dishes. These go especially well with lentil dishes.
3. Cumin seeds (Jeeru)
Famous for its warm, earthy flavour, heating these seeds brings out the oils from within, adding to the flavour of the dish. This is why at the beginning of every Indian dish (apart from chicken curry – it’s optional) cumin seeds are heated in oil as the very first step (along with mustard seeds).
4. Cloves (Laving)
These are used whole and ground to make up part of the garam masala mix. Be careful when you are eating your dish – biting into a whole clove can be quite bitter!
Good for: Anti-inflammtory, antioxidant, circulation and digestive health
5. Cinnamon sticks (Tuj)
Sticks are preferred over the rolled variety as they give a sweeter aroma. Broken bits are used in the beginning when the oil is heats up, flavouring the oil which gives additional flavour to the food being cooked. Cinnamon is also a key ingredient in garam masala. I’m a big fan of cinnamon in general and this goes especially well in lentil (dhal) dishes.
Good for: insulin sensitivity, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant
The name gives it away. The more you add, the hotter your dish will be. Even if you’re not a massive fan of hot foods, add a pinch – it will add some flavour without too much heat.
7. Turmeric (haldi/haldher)
This deep, richly coloured yellow spice is used in most dishes and what gives it its characteristic colour. It’s also what makes your food smell amazing (good for eating, not so much if you’re heading out to a party straight after). Use with caution – your rarely need more than a 1/4 tsp – any more and your risk your dish looking like it has jaundice.
Good for: Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and boosts the immune system (any Indian kid will tell you that at the first sign of a cough or cold your mum will be making haldher dudha – turmeric in warmed milk with a host of other spices like cloves and cinnamon). It works a treat!
8. Dhana Jiru (ground coriander and cumin mix)
Literally just that. Great with vegetables.
9. Garam masala
A mix of ground cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom, this spice blend gives a heat to dishes (not in the spicy vindaloo way – for lack of a better expression) but in a more warming and flavourful way. You make make up your own mix or buy the ready mix in packets (these are generally less potent so you can afford to be a bit heavy handed).
10. Asofoetida (hing)
A member of the fennel family this powder is pungent and comes in a funny bottle. Used especially in dhal dishes to aid digestion (or prevent gas as my mum so eloquently puts it) as lentils are said to be quite acidic.
The tins and spices are best bought from an Indian shop (especially the spices which just seem that much more potent). Our (and by this I mean my mum’s) go to staple is Ealing Road in Wembley, although you can also them online via Amazon.