Last year I decided to invest in a simple tool found in virtually every home in India. I bought a masala dabba or Indian spice box, a simple yet clever way to organize spices. A round stainless steel tin with a tight-fitting solid or glass lid, a masala dabba typically holds seven or more smaller canisters that house an array of spices that often flavor an Indian meal.
I love my masala dabba. Not only is it simple and practical, it’s also visually stimulating. Shiny and bright, I can’t help but smile each time I look at it and see the vibrant spices it holds. I also love its rich tradition. In India, masala dabbas are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter when the daughter marries and begins a new life in her husband’s home. This is done so that she enters her new home with everything she needs to prepare well-flavored and aromatic meals for her new family. I find the sentiment endearing as it shows you don’t always need expensive equipment to cook wonderful meals for the ones you love.
The spices that are held in a masala dabba vary as it depends on the cook. It’s really a matter of personal taste. In India, if you travel around the country you will notice regional variations in foods, spices held in a masala dabba, and even the number of dabbas found in each home.
I have two masala dabbas. One, pictured above, my “fancy” dabba, has an outer lid of glass and it has individual glass lids for each of the nine canisters inside. Each canister has its own transparent lid to preserve the quality of the spices and also makes it quite easy for me to see the spices it holds. It is slightly different than most traditional dabbas in that it has nine inner canisters and each of those nine canisters has its own lid. I like this as it ensures the scents of the spices don’t affect one another. I also like that I can place a tight lid over my ground ginger, for example, and not worry about it falling into the other spices in the box.
My fancy dabba houses a variety of whole seeds and spices. The following spices are in my dabba photographed above:
My other dabba (pictured below) is not as fancy. It also has a glass outer lid, but its inner canisters don’t each have individual lids. It looks similar to the fancy one above, but it is more traditional in that it only has seven canisters inside. The canisters are a little larger, but each of those canisters do not have their own lid. I prefer to put ground and whole spices in my fancy dabba with individual inner lids and only whole seeds and spices in my more traditional dabba (the one without individual inner lids). At first I tried putting ground spices in the latter and accidentally spilled coriander into my cumin. Lesson learned. So I stick with the whole spices and seeds for that dabba. In it I have whole allspice, whole cloves, dried ginger pieces, cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, all spice, and mustard seeds.
Something else that’s great about a masala dabba is that you can personalize it and make it your own. For instance, it does not have to be used only for Indian spices. You can also use it for any of your favorite herbs or spices used in your daily cooking or for spices used in a specific cuisine. Alternatively, a masala dabba can also be used to hold beads or other collections of small items. What’s in your dabba?