Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Indian Spice box: A Commentary on the Masala Dabba

I have yet to walk into an Indian house which is amiss of the "Masala Dabba" (Indian Spice box), and its accompanying infamous waft when one walks into the pantry. The shiny little steel box is our true blue companion and the odd man out sitting on a pantry shelf filled with Post cereal boxes and Bertolli pasta packages. Veggies, meats and legumes come and go but the trusted spice box stays on forever. It is the sole and distinct link to a heritage Indian families abroad have left behind and it is the sole and unwavering promise to jazz up the variety of foods in one's kitchen.

The masala dabba is a round stainless steel box which contains seven stainless steel spice cups which are normally filled with:

1. Cumin seeds
2. Turmeric powder
3. Mustard seeds
4. Garam masala (blend of pepper,cinnamon,cloves,nutmeg,anise,cardamom)
5. Coriander powder
6. Fennel seeds
7. Red chili powder.

Handed to families generation after generation one cannot help but be amazed by this simple box's lofty past. Recall the great spice trades of the 1400s which began with the marketing of black pepper in Europe. The spice trade was possibly the first extensive global trade spanning from Europe, Africa, Middle East to Asia and in the process made numerous countries wealthy while diversifying its culinary palette. I once believed that spices were used as preservatives in the ancient world but soon discovered that salt, an abundant world wide commodity, was used for preservation possibly making the need for other spice preservation techniques negligible or on a smaller scale. The ancient world probably consumed foods faster and in a more fresh manner to avoid spoilage and therefore may not have needed preservation methods as regularly as we do today.

Apart from the culinary merits, spices hold an important link to modern medicine. The crude usage of spices are recorded in many ancient Indian Samhitas (Hindu sacred writings) such as the Atharva Veda written around 1200 B.C.E, the Charaka Samhita written around 400-200 B.C.E. and the Sushruta Samhita written around 100 C.E. All compendiums are authoritative writings on either sacred rituals or Ayurveda and directly refer to the use of herbs and spices as medical remedies. Here then lies the roots of modern day pharmacology which would and lay an important pathway and eventually peak world wide interest.

I pondered on my little spice box again and took in a deep breath upon opening my pantry door. The scents were powerful but almost screamed at me to shun my attachment to the current and commercial ideas of smell. No!  This was certainly not Channel No. 5 nor a bouquet of hyacinths, it was something much more, something solid, unrelenting and permanent. Without the spice box, would my home or pantry even retain that small link to a grand piece of history? The spices in my Masala dabba,  thereby became my seven silent guardians of health per the ayurvedic path. Cumin for its carmative and digestive properties, Turmeric and mustard seeds the anti-inflammatory herbs, fennel seeds and coriander powder my digestive aids, and the stinging red chilli powder, the loyal warrior which aids in fighting infections.

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