My early memories of masala dabba are from when I first started to learn cooking. The carefree, impatient me would often be chastised by my mother for tilting the box and causing a mishap of mixed spices in the box. It was a pretty serious kitchen offence and my mother did not take kindly to it.
Masala dabba was something I saw every single day, saw in every household around me but gave it little or no thought. I did not understand why my mother was so finicky about the way I handled it. It was my naivety that I hadn’t understood the genius of a design that the dabba is.
Simple, unassuming, 7 circular containers arranged like a flower and set inside a circular box. Each containing various everyday spices. We had two in our kitchen - one had chilli powders of two kinds, turmeric powder, cumin and mustard seeds and coriander powder. The other had whole spices used a little less frequently but nevertheless important to have handy. Each one of us has witnessed the madness that is an Indian kitchen. Our mothers and grandmothers have expertly dished out hot meals thrice a day with the efficiency of an assembly line. The masala dabba is one of the biggest enablers of this.
The masala dabba quickly allows you to cook everyday basic meals which need the same set of spices in a jiffy. Different proportions of the same spices create magic each time. The same spoon used everyday becomes an extension of our hand - the measurements are now muscle memory. Even today, buying whole spices, grinding them and then storing them away for the entire year ahead is a tradition followed in many households across India. The ubiquitous masala dabba allows one to store smaller quantities for everyday use without compromising the flavour, potency and aroma of the entire batch. In Indian cooking, it is not only important that you add spices but also follow a certain order in which you add these spices. Having all your preferred masalas laid out helps with that. It allows you to improvise on the go or benefits a novice who is struggling to keep up with the recipe to find that cumin before the oil heats up more than it needs to.
The importance of a masala dabba is evident from the TLC it receives from the cook. The way the contents of the dabba are customised, offer a glimpse of the many flavour profiles of the cuisines and states. The respect offered to it is a reminder of how all aspects of our food are precious and need to be nurtured. The base material of the dabba has changed over generations - wooden to brass to copper to stainless steel, the masala dabba has seen many textures but all sturdy and beautiful. It has also crossed over multiple kitchen designs - from our grannies sitting down on the floor to cook in the coal chulhas to modular kitchens, the masala dabbas has continued to find space due to its high utility and minimalistic design.
Masala dabba is an emotion. It’s a connection to our food culture and heritage and is also something which has been passed down generations like a precious piece of family jewellery. I have mine engraved with my name, given by my mother when I was getting married. I would love the subtle associations of gender bias and expectations of being the only responsibility taker of daily health to be neutralized over a period of time. But, it remains my most priced possession given by my mother. We have seen masala dabbas being carried to all parts of the world by our family and friends. It’s a small reminder of and connection to their home.
Masala dabba is a legacy and carries inside it, not just masalas but memories, emotions, love and stories.
P.S - This image is of a vintage, wooden, hand carved masala dabba that I came across during my RnD phase. Beautiful, isn't it?