what is a masala dabba?

A dabba is a metal tin.

Now, a tiffin dabba is something special. It is used to transport hot food, either from home or from a restaurant, to a person’s place of work. The process of how this meal gets to the right person at the right time is a remarkable tale, and one I will tell in another post.

This article is about the tin that sits beside the stove in every Indian kitchen around the world. It is the spice tin, and called the masala dabba.

The masala dabba has the most used spices, and is kept to hand whilst cooking so that you can readily add spices and adjust their balance during cooking.

The first thing you will notice when you look at the picture below is that it is a set of small tins within a bigger tin. You should look at how small the individual tins are. A dabba is not meant to store spices, it is meant to keep fresh spices at hand, ready for cooking. The key word is “fresh”. By keeping the spice tins small, you will need to replenish them quite often. I find that I do this about every two weeks. Replenishing often means that you tend then to cook with fresher spices, and that will make a world of difference to your results.

I tend to not top-up the individual spices after cooking. I wait until they are empty before refilling them. I find that the packets I get from my spice merchant will give a single fill of the tin, and that means I usually have fresh spices to cook with. Be cautious about buying spices  from Indian grocers, because whilst the spice itself might be very good, the sizes they generally come in is huge. Unless you use them a lot, you will find that by the time you get to the bottom of the pack, the spice will probably be stale. I find this particularly true of ground spices, such as turmeric and chilli powder, but less so with whole spices like cumin or mustard seeds. Which should not be interpreted as saying they last indefinitely, because they don’t.

I bought my masala dabba from the Three Sisters in the UK.

The Three Sisters' masala dabba
Three Sisters’ masala dabba

It was actually a great online shopping experience. At that time they did not normally ship to Australia, but a short email conversation changed that. Within 10 days of agreeing to buy the dabba arrived. No fuss.

I would recommend one thing , and this a piece of advice a friend ignored, sadly. Do not order it with the spices. Australian Customs take a dislike to people attempting to bring seeds, or any food for that matter,  into the country. Her dabba is still sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Australia, awaiting a ruling on whether the spices can be disposed of, and just the tin released.

I keep my dabba beside the stove whilst I cook. Here is what is in mine, yours may well be different:

a small stack of bay leaves

bay leaves

Fresh or dried bay leaves are used in slow cooking for their distinctive bitter flavour and fragrance.

a small pile of green cardamom pods and seeds

cardamom – green

Cardamom has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance.

a heap of Kashmiri chilli powder

Kashmiri chilli powder

Kashmiri chilli powder is mildly hot, has a distinct flavour, and it adds a bright red colour to food.

a small pile of cinnamon quills

cinnamon

The flavour of cinnamon is quite delicate and aromatic. It is a fundamental ingredient to most north Indian dishes.

a small mound of cloves

cloves

Cloves have a sweetly pungent, astringent and strongly aromatic. They are used in sweet and savoury dishes.

a small mound of coriander seeds

coriander seeds

The coriander seed has a warm and subtle flavour with a slight citrus hint. It has an aromatic scent that is soothingly warm, nutty, slightly fruity, and complex.

a heap of cumin seeds

cumin seeds

Cumin seeds, used either whole, or roasted and ground, add an earthy and warming feeling to cooking.

a small mound of fennel seeds

fennel seeds

Fennel seeds are highly aromatic, are pale greenish in colour and have a faintly sweet and refreshing flavour.

a heap of garam masala

garam masala

Of all the masala mixes that exist in Indian cookery garam masala is the best known. It is usually added to a dish towards the end of the cooking process.

a snalll mound of black mustard seeds

black mustard seeds

Black mustard seeds are usually fried quickly in oil to give a hot and spicy flavour once the seeds have popped. When fried, the taste is nutty rather than fiery.

a small mound of ground turmeric, with some whole rhizomes at the side

turmeric

Turmeric powder is a bright yellow spice powder made from dried turmeric rhizomes. It has has a warm, earthy and musky flavour. The whole fresh rhizome can be used, too.

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