Spice Box Masala Dabba
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Mise en Place in a Box

When it comes to cooking, there’s one thing I am eccentric about – Mise en Place…i.e, everything in its place or in culinary terms, a practical arrangement of ingredients and implements before cooking a dish; for me it’s one of the crucial components of cooking. It helps me visualise the dish right away.

Setting up my counter during a demo one day, it struck me how this concept is already deeply rooted in our cuisine. Via the Masala dabba or Masale Dani.
Typically of 7 or 5 compartments, it’s a must, must-have part of any and every Indian kitchen.

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For Indian cooking, timing is crucial. With a cuisine as diverse as ours and with complex cooking methodologies, not just the ingredients but the order of adding them is equally important.

Especially at the tempering stage, it’s critical to roast/fry the spices just right to get the right flavours.
That makes having spices on hand extremely important. And what better than a spice box to hold them in place for easy access.

At a time when spices were a trading commodity and worth their weight in gold, there was a need to store them securely. That need gave birth to the concept of a spice box. Today while we have fancy, hierloom or antique finish Masala Dabbas, there’s recorded evidence of bronze, earthen and wooden boxes having been used too.

Wooden ones, though in their much evolved appearance, are still popular and I see them in many an avid chef’s kitchen.

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The contents of the spice boxes is another interesting subject. In every kitchen that I have visited during my travels across the country, the masala dabba has always been an intriguing case study for me!
Nearly no 2 kitchens store the same ingredients in them, for obvious reasons!

While a typical North Indian spice box would have cumin seeds, coriander seeds (or their powder forms), turmeric powder, chili powder and the likes, a Bengali kitchen wouldn’t be complete without the Panch Phoron, Raidhuni or the Shukno Lanka.
Many a South Indian spice box would even have Black gram and Bengal gram along with the spices, the lentils being a key tempering ingredient for some of their dishes. A Kashmiri spice box on the other hand would typically house turmeric powder, fennel powder, dry ginger powder, kewra, that help keep the body warm while adding that unique signature to the dishes.

So what’s in your Masala dabba?

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