The Masala Box: Spices for healthy Indian Vegetarian Cooking

Understanding how spices are used in Indian cooking.
Indian cooking is famed for being hot and spicy. Unfortunately most people who first try their hand at Indian cooking add far too many spices and chillies. Indian cooking is a science and an art. To cook a healthy and nourishing Indian meal requires understanding of how spices work together.

Indian Cooking and Art

Traditional Indian cooking is still handed down from mother to daughter. When learning cooking, the women do not generally learn to add 200 g of flour and 300 ml water. The standard method of measuring quantities in most traditional families and traditional cooks known as "maharaj" often of the Brahmin community is still the ancient system of "chapti" and "muthi".

  • Chapti is a pinch with thumb and index finger. This approximately equals 1/4 tea spoon.
  • Moti Chapti is a pinch with thumb and first two fingers. This approximately equals 1/2 teaspoon.
  • Muthi is one closed fist. One handful rice, for instance, would be sufficient for a person.

Unlike in western recipes where you are instructed to add one teaspoon of sugar and five cinnamon sticks, Indian cooking leaves room for individual expression and thus every time you make the "same" dish, it will same different.  
This method of measurement also helps the cook to develop a fine sense for proportions in cooking and avoids waste.

Variety is the spice of life

Most Indian kitchens are small and often have little in terms of utensils, yet it is amazing how many delicious masterpieces emerge from these kitchens. You do not need much for Indian cooking but what you definitely need for authentic and well balanced Indian cooking are the spices.

  • Spices must be stored in dry and cool conditions.
  • Spices are often sold in small bottles with a dispenser or in large packets. If you have a large Indian joint family it does make sense to buy the spices in bulk quantities, but for the rest of us it is better to buy the small packets or bottles, so that you always use really fresh spices in your cooking.
  • Use organically produced spices, if possible.
  • Spices are added when the oil or food is hot and water vapours that raise up from the steaming food may enter the spice bottle. Wet spices lose their flavours and form lumps.  To avoid this, use a spoon or buy a Masala Box.

India's greatest contribution to the world after the Zero!

Every Indian kitchen has a Masala box. This stainless steel box contains the spices that are regularly used in the cooking. The box has seven to eleven little containers within that hold the spices.

There are a number of advantages of a Masala Box:

  • The Masala Box is based on every scientific principles.
  • It is useful to store a greater number of spices.
  • In the modern system of cooking spices are generally stored in a cupboard above the stove. Here the spices are exposed to greater heat and moisture. The Masala Box can be kept close to the stove while cooking and later stored in a cool, dark place.
  • The double cover makes it airtight and keeps spices dry and cool.
  • It is really handy and practical.
  • You can use both the traditional Indian method of "chupti" as well as a spoon to add the spices while cooking.

Composition of the Masala Box

The Masala Box must contain the following spices. These are all mild and beneficial to the digestive process.

  • Asafoetida
  • Mustard seeds: These are used in "baghar".
  • Cumin seeds: These are used as powder as well and is an excellent digestive.
  • Coriander powder: Coriander is generally used in its powdered form in indian cooking. This is not to be confused with fresh coriander leaves.
  • Turmeric: This is one of the most important spices used in Indian cooking. Known for its antiseptic qualities turmeric adds more than just flavour to the food. It also gives more Indian dishes its rich yellow colour.
  • Fenugreek: These are bitter and not used often. Fenugreek has many medicinal properties.
  • Red Chilli Powder

Other Spices

Some of the other spices that are used in Indian cooking are:

  • Asafoetida
  • Cardomon
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Garam Masala
  • Red Chilli powder

Salt is not a part of the Masala box, yet it is the most important ingredient in indian cooking. Most Indian dishes are well salted to compensate for the loss of salt due to the tropical heat. Sea Salt or Himalayan Pink Salt as well as other unrefined salts contained over 80 different minerals and elements that are essential to the body. Pure table salt is refined to remove all other minerals and elements. 
While it is a luxury to have salt that does not form lumps and does not get wet and soggy in humid climates, this is achieved only by additives that do not belong in salt. A few grains of rice in the salt shaker will soak up the humidity and leave the salt dry. 
Some salts that you could add to your cooking are:

  • Unrefined Sea Salt
  • Himalayan Pink Salt
  • Kala Namak or Sanchar, an unrefined Indian salt used in Indian cooking

Comments:

Mary Wong from Florida, USA:
Dear Radikaji, I first saw a masala box when I visited an Indian friend. I was a kid then and found it kind of weird, but now that I am vegan I am looking at different cuisines and find that Indian meals are really perfect for vegans.

I am going to put together a masala box for myself. Just ordered one from the net and also all the spices you mentioned. Thank you for the information and the great website.

Regards, Mary

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