what is a masala dabba?

A dabba is a metal tin. This article is about the tin that sits beside the stove in every Indian kitchen around the world. It is the spice tin and is 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.

Now, a tiffin dabba is something different. 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.

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 here 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 packets they generally come in are 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.

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 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:

bay leaves

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

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.

cardamom – green

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


Cassia is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. This bark is noticeably harder than cinnamon and has a more robust and less sweet flavour.


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

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.

cumin seeds

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

fennel seeds

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

garam masala

Garam masala translates as ‘hot spice’ but a look at the ingredients would suggest something more savoury and subtle.

Kashmiri chilli powder

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


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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