Usually holding about 7 spices or spice blends (masala), the masala dabba is buried in every Indian cook’s drawer space near the stovetop. It is a plate-sized stainless steel lidded container with a circle of small tins adjacently seated, surrounding one tin in the middle, much like members of a circular audience watching a central stage. Not kept airtight as you would suspect spices should be, the dabba is a place to store a few week’s worth spices nearby, therefore avoiding having to do any kind of mise en place prepping for the cooking process. Why mise when masala’s right under your nose?
Each Indian cook’s masala dabba has her own carefully chosen spices for the region of Indian cooking she primarily is familiar with. The universal spices included would be tins of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, chili powder, some ratio of a blend of ground coriander and cumin, and of course brightly hued mustard-colored turmeric.
In addition to that some cooks, like those that cook North Indian/Punjabi dishes, may include garam masala. South Indian cooks, like those from Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, may include urad dal or fenugreek seeds. East Indian cooks, like those from West Bengal, might include their well-known masala blend of panch phoran. Some, like myself, may include whole spices loosely arranged on an additional disc-shaped lid that fits on top of all the tins. I even have a tiny little stainless steel jar that holds about a half ounce of spice, specifically for asafetida, the spice that everyone always asks about in my classes!
If you have a masala dabba, what spices do you have in yours?