The Flavors of My Indian Home

My kitchen would be incomplete without its spice box, used for every meal.

masala dabba (indian spice container)

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Lying on the scrubbed clean granite kitchen countertop in every home I’ve lived in so far has been a stainless steel masala dabba, or spice box. The lid was always flecked with powdered spices, depending on what we had eaten for the meal before. Mostly it was fine grains of salt, red chili powder, and turmeric. But other times, remnants of different fragrant spices clung to the chrome surface until someone wiped it clean with a gamcha, or duster.

Every Indian home has its version of a masala dabba. Our spice box of yore was a round steel container with tiny cylindrical jars, each with a wee spoon, which over time disappeared into thin air. The container wasn’t enough to hold all the herbs that we consumed through the week. Accompanying the box was an assortment of oddly shaped repurposed jam jars and other vessels jostling on the shelf to complete the repertoire of flavor. (You can buy a similar spice box made of brass along with ethically sourced spices at Diaspora.)

My grandmother and mother ever so often would visit the spice seller in the bustling heart of Mumbai. He would measure out the freshest spices sourced from across the country and further beyond, some finely ground, others akkha, or whole. They brought back kilograms of fragrant seeds and freshly ground powders, some to be sent across the country to my aunt and others to be bottled to last through the year, a tradition that has continued for over half a century.

While our lovely spice box has made way for numerous small containers, the tradition of eating copious amounts of spices continues. Ahead, what goes in our food:


Iodized table salt or sodium chloride has been a mainstay of our spice box and is added to every item of food. A favorite indulgence is Himalayan pink salt, which I crush in a tiny stone mortar and pestle and sprinkle over salads, pastas, and chocolate ice cream on occasion. We use black salt liberally in snacks and other savory goodies.

Red Chili

We love our spices, but more so the red chili, or Capsicum annuum, for its rich piquant taste that hijacks your tongue. Our red chili of choice is the fragrant powder from Kashmir, which adds a lovely deep shade of red to the food, without making it too spicy. Another jar holds whole dried red chilis, which are sizzled for punch in dishes such as sambars and sautéed potatoes.


Rich in nutrients, I’ve been eating and slathering on turmeric, or Curcuma longa, since I was a child. Turmeric powder is added to nearly every dish that floats out of our kitchen, whether it is a vegetable or a daal. And before bedtime, I’ve added grated raw turmeric with a spoonful of honey to my nightcap.


Love it or hate it, the seed of the cilantro, coriander, from the Coriandrum sativum plant, is one of my favorite spices. Thanks to its healthful properties, coriander finds its way into most of our food. While the crushed powder form is sprinkled on all our vegetable preparations, the whole seed is saved for more special uses, such as being dunked into a slurry made of yogurt, with other spices, to make Punjabi kadhi.  (You can learn how to grow it and brew it as tea here.)


Black cumin, or Nigella sativa, has traditionally been used for a number of health issues. This warm savory powdered condiment is sprinkled on to select dishes, but we also use whole black cumin liberally in our rice dishes, especially pulao, a rice dish simmered in spices and cooked with vegetables.


Tongue-twisting and a tad bitter Trigonella foenum graecum is an integral part of my natural haircare routine. Finding its way into masalas and pickles, this seed is also an integral part of paanch phoran, a mix of five spices (which also includes cumin and coriander seed) that can be added to preparations after dry-roasting or frying the blend.

There are several other spices that make up our larder, and none hold less importance. This includes the highly pungent asafoetida that rightly occupies a tiny odorous corner of its own. Others include black and white pepper, cloves, cinnamon, fennel, black cardamom, nutmeg, mace, and caraway, amongst other edible marvels, a few of which are used to make my grandmother’s special garam masala, which when simmered or roasted, bring the flavors of food alive. 

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