If you’ve stepped afoot an Indian kitchen, chances are, you have already encountered the ubiquitous masala dabba; a box that has in its belly a medley of spices that hold the key to your Indian culinary odyssey. Masala Dabba, is also the newly launched cookbook by Chef Michael Swamy which gets readers versed with a bevy of spices and spice blends used across India. Swamy, alumnus of the reputed Le Cordon Bleu, London, brings to the supper table immaculately crafted recipes that would make one look at the same spices in a new light. Besides his chef’s whites, Swamy adorns the hat of a food photographer, stylist, and consultant. Author of the bestseller, The East Indian Kitchen, the chef who has assisted many Michelin-starred chefs during his London stint.
There is a nip in the air and nothing can be more comforting than settling on the couch with a tall mug of cinnamon-spiced hot cocoa, and treating yourself to a perfectly peppered read.
The masala dabba, or the Indian spice box, is a regular fixture in most homes across India. What drew you to this ubiquitous spice box to plan and execute a book around it?
Old wooden spice boxes have always intrigued me. The masala dabbas of the royal khansamas held the secrets to their cooking, the recipes for which were zealously guarded. The flourish with which their hands reached out for these spice boxes, and the dexterity with which they selected spices was fascinating.
My travels across India over nearly three decades revealed how foods that taste same or similar, acquire different names in different parts of the country. During these journeys, I realized the food which we call Indian food, has not yet been documented. With Masala Dabba, we aimed to explore how a common set of spices and spice blends used across the country can be innovatively used to create new recipes. While researching for the book, we visited various spice farms in Goa, Munnar, and Cochin, to understand spices better.
South India considers pepper as black gold. Kashmir loves dried ginger, Bengal loves mustard seeds, and Maharashtra loves kokum. What spice does Michael Swamy love most?
Cardamom and cinnamon have been my favourites all along, followed by star anise. The flavours these intensely aromatic spices deliver are singular as opposed to some spice blends that may overwhelm your palate. Sometimes, just one spice is enough to infuse magical flavours into a dish.
Why did you choose not to include the prized East Indian Bottle Masala from your community?
The East Indian Bottle Masala is a unique spice blend which is concocted using 32 ingredients and it also one of my favourites. For this book, however, we chose to stay away from rare spice blends that are not easily accessible by a larger audience. It wouldn’t be fair to have a recipe out there if the readers or chefs don’t have direct access to all ingredients required to prepare it. For those who want to taste the Bottle Masala and include it in their cooking, it is available for orders via online marketplaces such as Amazon.
Which spice blend takes you back to your childhood?
Spice blends from my childhood which I strongly identify with, will have to be the famous xacuti masala from Goa with poppy seeds, grated coconut, and red chillies lending it the characteristic flavour. There is also the coastal green curry masala , and the fiery vindaloo masala used in many Goan meat preparations, which I particularly enjoy.
Besides, simple spices like cinnamon and cloves in homemade khichdi and the tadka used to spruce up the humble yellow dal, are the spices that bring alive memories and flavours from my youth.
There is heated debate about the usage of the word ‘Curry’ in Indian cuisine, though it finds its origin from the Tamil word ‘Kari’. Most Indian spice shelves mark an absence of Curry Powder, what is your opinion on the matter?
Some words have become ingrained into our culture. The British word Curry has transcended languages and borders, and has managed to stay. I’d like to believe when a chef or a food connoisseur starts using the word Kari at their restaurant, or turns the word into a brand, people will relate to it better.
The book speaks about Christopher Columbus’s sojourn to the Land of Spices,and the Portuguese introduction of the Chilli to India. Which indigenous and foreign spices are now quintessential to kitchens across India?
The Indian masala dabba is blessed with a multitude of spices, but I feel cinnamon and cloves top the charts in Indian kitchens across regions. When speaking about spices, one cannot forget the way the arrival of the chilli impacted Indian regional cuisines in an unprecedented manner. A few centuries ago, the arrival of cumin introduced new flavours to Indian food.
Modern Indian cooking is being influenced by spices such as paprika and merken, a Chilean seasoning. The art of smoking chillies and adding them to Indian food adds a new dimension to Indian cooking.
With your expertise in food styling and your penchant for food photography, what was the process for Masala Dabba like?
I love capturing images whenever I travel. Travel images also make great content for a book and sometimes, randomly shot images of food and ingredients make great fillers and stories where words fall short. However, the key images that one sees in the book were shot during the food trials when the dishes were finalized.
We round up our conversation with Chef Swamy, but not without a round of the signature DSSC Rapid Fire :
Three spices that your Masala Dabba never runs out of?
Cinnamon, vanilla, and pink pepper.
The most underrated spice in India?
Jakia from Uttarakhand and lichen (stone flower).
And the most overused one?
Pick one — Indian cooking andaz se or measuring cups?
Three recipes from Masala Dabba that you recommend?
Chilli Smoked Pepper Soup, Peach Malpuas, and Masala Rawas.
A spice that transcends regional boundaries?
Saffron and pepper.
One spice that you wish was easily available in India?
Sumac from the middle-east and lavender from Europe.
Masala Dabba published by Om Books International is available at leading bookstores and portals at INR 995