What is round, made of stainless steel and found in virtually every home in India? It’s the masala dabba, a traditional Indian spice box still used for cooking Indian food throughout the country. Packed with only the most often used spices for each household, and varying based on regions of India, this common item holds more than just seeds and powders.
A masala dabba consists of a large outer tin that holds 7 smaller tins and has an outer lid that fits tightly atop the large tin. Some versions include individual lids covering the smaller tins which actually makes it hard to use the spice box. Common sizes range from 7″ to 12″ in diameter made of stainless or sometimes copper. A proper masala dabba or “spice container box”, includes 1 to 7 spoons for measuring about a dash of each spice. Square containers are sometimes found in the markets of India. The nice thing about circular is that there is a lot of natural space between the containers, so it’s easy to lift them in and out.
The spices contained within the dabba are a matter of personal taste. Travel from one part of the country to another and you will notice regional variations not just in the taste of food, but also which spices are held in a masala dabba and even the number each home keeps. One dabba may be used for ground spices like turmeric and red chili powder, and a second one for whole spices like cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon sticks and black peppercorns.
Always within a simple reach of the arm while cooking, the Indian spice box has a long rich history with the Indian culture and individual families. Mothers pass on their masala dabba, acquired from their mother or mother-in-law, to newly married daughters. Cherished boxes made of wood, silver, copper, or steel are marked by years of use. Times spent teaching young kids essential Indian dishes combined with the unique waft one receives each time the masala dabba is opened brings an endless supply of memories to their owners.
How to Set Up a Masala Dabba
1. Find a good quality Masala Dabba is a size that fits your needs. Make sure it’s made of quality stainless steel that won’t easily dent. Pick a size that will allow you to use the spices before they get too old. They range from 7″ to 12″ in diameter. Wash the containers thoroughly and be sure each piece is dry before adding the spices.
2. Fill with fresh spices. Below is a list of the basic items to have on hand:
Black Mustard Seeds
Fenugreek or Coriander Seeds
Red Chili Powder
3. Replace lid snapping tight to ensure freshness. Store in a cool dark place, preferably on a shelf or inside a cupboard.