What's in my masala dabba

Indian cooks keep a masala dabba in the kitchen. It is a round, stainless steel, tightly closed container that holds seven little bowls of spices and a small spoon or two for dispensing them.

The spices vary with the cook and are supposed to be those she uses most often. Traditional Indian cooks include salt, turmeric, mustard seeds, garam masala, coriander, cumin, and cayenne or chili powder to make virtually any native meal.

Our equivalent is a rack or carousel holding jars from which spices are shaken or poured. Not denying shaking’s efficiency, I nevertheless wanted to imitate the Indian model in order to reuse a two-shelf, wooden Ceimg_20190910_101250742_burst000_coverlestial Seasonings tea box and eight plastic containers with red, white, yellow, and brown lids. The box filled with the colorful containers would look good on my countertop, and could the Celestial Seasonings logo blazoned across the top be more appropriate? (Since decor and not food preparation prompted the plan, feel free to judge how serious a chef I am. Serious cooks also store spices in the dark, not on a countertop, and prefer glass or metal containers.)

This project must have been in the back of my mind for a long time, since I’ve been saving the tiny plastic spoons Trader Joe’s gives with samples. I found eight spoons in the silverware drawer — perfect, one for each little box.

But what to put into the eight little boxes? What are my eight essential seasonings? Would basil or oregano, two similar herbs, be a better choice? Should salt and pepper, the ones used most, be in the Celestial Seasonings box or in larger shakers so they don’t need refilling frequently?

Following are what made the final cut. You’ll see a few blends, which “real” cooks supposedly don’t buy. Again, my cooking bona fides are debatable. Blends save time and the need to stock individual spices and herbs in limited shelf space.

BASIL  I use basil more than oregano, maybe out of habit, maybe because basil makes me dream of pesto (although that’s generally made with fresh basil). I used to put both basil and oregano into tomato sauces until I started buying Italian seasoning (see below). Basil stays on the list for its capacity to enhance almost anything, including homemade vinaigrette dressing.

CHILI POWDER  The blend of chili peppers and other spices is indispensable in Mexican dishes like chili and black beans and rice.

CHINESE SEASONING MIX  Stir-fries are my most frequent dinner. The vegetables vary with what’s available, but they all get seasoned with this store-bought spice mix (usually Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, Chinese cinnamon, and star anise) and soy sauce.

CRUSHED RED PEPPER  Crushed red pepper flakes (dried and crushed red chili peppers) add heat to pasta sauces and stir-fries.

CURRY POWDER  Curry powder is a blend of some of the spices traditional Indian cooks have in their masala dabbas. Already-mixed curry powder and salt are all I need to season frequent curry dinners. I’ve also been intending to make curry-roasted chickpeas as a snack.

ITALIAN SEASONING  This blend of dried herbs (usually oregano, basil, thyme, sage, marjoram, and rosemary) flavors anything made with tomatoes. It’s also nice on cooked vegetables and in soups.

DRY MUSTARD  A dollop of dry mustard is an essential in my homemade vinaigrette dressing.

GARLIC POWDER  This may be the mix real cooks really scoff at, but I find it a useful substitute if I’ve run out of fresh garlic or don’t feel like chopping.

That’s the A team. My second string includes paprika, thyme, onion powder, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, cayenne, bay leaf, and parsley flakes. You’ll see a few jars of other things on my spice shelf, but they’re so seldom used they are probably out of date.

On the subject of out of date, most of the jars in my cupboard aren’t dated. My bad that I don’t note the dates when transferring spices and dried herbs from Whole Foods baggies to jars. Ground spices and dried herbs supposedly last up to three years. Although I’m sure that many have been in my kitchen longer, I did a taste and smell test and decided not to discard some. If they’ve lost potency, I could use more than a recipe calls for, tasting and adjusting as needed. That’s what serious cooks do, right?

If you care to share what would be in your equivalent of a masala dabba, I’d like to hear from you.



“I pity the satirists and comedians who try to make fun of him, because he does such a good job of it himself.”
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson

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